After the holidays it’s hard to think about food–or maybe for many wanting to eat healthier and lose a few pounds, it’s hard not to. Moving away from books for a moment, I recently wrote about the art of the pupu for Aloha Airlines’ in-flight magazine. Although I didn’t mention it in the article, perhaps the pupu is also the perfect post-holiday, small-portion delight that doesn’t overload you but doesn’t deny delicious taste.

See the article below, or as it appeared in Spirit of Aloha, here.

The Art of the Pupu
By Christine Thomas
Spirit of Aloha January/February 2008

“Why am I going to the drugstore tomorrow morning?” repeated my friend’s vibrant, 90-year-old grandfather, nodding at the two powder blue bottles of Bombay Sapphire gin before him. “I’ve gotta get pupu for my drinks.”

It was Christmas Eve. His daughter and granddaughter had both gifted him with his favorite spirit. He had unwrapped the bottles while we relaxed on the lanai after dinner.

“Pupu?” we asked, incredulous. I’d assumed his trip was for a critical purpose like obtaining a prescription medicine, an electronic device, perhaps, or even a roll of toilet paper. When instead he announced his intention to acquire a bounty of briny appetizers—cuttlefish and cocktail peanuts—I almost spit out the last of my dark berry cabernet.

Still, I could imagine the textures of salt and nuts combining on my tongue with the pinch of juniper, lime and soda—a good way to drink gin, if you don’t already know his—and I laughed at his determination to obtain both specific pupu and the additional provisions to complement his beverage. On Christmas morning, I considered, he would get out of bed and think not about opening presents or savoring a soft cinnamon pastry, but about The Pupu. If this doesn’t make clear just how seriously this Hawaiian culinary delectable can be taken, let me do my best to convince you.

In Hawai`i, the pupu is not just a traditional appetizer. It is never envisioned as merely a petite nibble eaten before a meal, supposedly to tease and rouse the appetite. In essence, it reflects more imagination and creativity than any entrée. It might burst forth with an enticing palette of flavors, rich and creamy, such as a crispy calamari steak reclining in a lemon buerre blanc and stimulated by sweet chili sauce; or it might rouse the senses with a head-spinning eruption of wasabi roe and sunflower sprouts atop a tower of cubed sashimi-grade `ahi nestled on a pedestal of avocado and furikake-dusted rice.

The quality of pupu offered at bars, restaurants, catered events and private parties can make or break culinary reputations. Conversely, even if a restaurant’s entrées are dreadful, a quality pupu selection can keep guests coming back for more. That’s why in Hawai`i, you never merely order an appetizer, you enter into another world: The Art of the Pupu.

Later that week, sitting on the lanai of Buzz’s Steak House in Lanikai in the late afternoon, with canal water reflecting firelight from the setting sun and matching in gleam and intensity the thin slices of pink sashimi set before me, I realize I am no different than Grandpa in my reverence for my favorite pupu. Next to me an icy ale is perched, ready to complement the smooth surface of the fish—a light local beer (preferably Kona Golden Ale) guaranteed not to overpower the `ahi or compete with its wasabi and shoyu bath. I must drink beer with sashimi. I must also drink beer with poke, Hawaii’s way of eating seasoned bites of raw fish in may styles and flavors. The two must always be twain. And like Grandpa’s preference for cuttlefish and peanuts, pupu isn’t just a starter soon to be forgotten.

Ordering and eating it is an event!

In Hawai`i, every restaurant and private party now boasts a diverse selection of pupu—raw or singed sashimi, poke, sushi, calamari, and shrimp. All have certain delectable standards, but none are identical, and the tendency is to vary the dishes from island to island. Local palates and the Islands’ taste for fresh seafood often determine the mix, but this has only inspired local cuisine to a form of artistry, re-imagining regional comfort food, adding visual delight and unusual taste combinations. The trick is to find the place that prepares its pupu in a manner that enhances your desire, or continually reinvents and fans the fire of your culinary love.

Many premier Island chefs specialize in pupu. They apply as much vision to the pupu’s appearance and taste as to their entrées. During a recent visit to the new Roy’s in Waikiki, I sampled a sticky kalbi shrimp, moist but firm, surging with citrus from the soft lemon risotto upon which it was elegantly balanced. In this instance, Roy and his corporate executive chef Jacqueline Lau, took the local favorite kalbi ribs, elevated them to the gourmet level and produced a mini entrée in and of itself.

Pupu by the celebrated chef Alan Wong have long been rave worthy. When I dined at Alan Wong’s on King Street a few months ago, I sampled the grand creation called “Da Bag.” This appears as a steaming foil purse that, when opened, lets forth a pungent steam of clams, kalua Pig with a hint of imu taste, shiitake mushroom and brilliant spinach, a pupu art form that makes diners’ heads turn and even my vegetarian mouth water. Accompany it with a side of rice and you have an irresistible, sense-seducing meal, main courses be damned.

With a clever wave of options coursing through distinctive pupu menus, Hawai`i chefs usually offer their customers an opportunity to experience the depth of an entrée without the deep plunge of commitment. Instead of that one big thing, you indulge in a sweeping array of aromatic and extravagant concoctions: think the entrée-turned-pupu `ahi katsu roll, a combination of melt-in-your-mouth-quality fish, a deep and crunchy exterior, and a selection of sauces from spicy or fruity to savory or sweet. Why choose one large plate, with a simple combination of starch, protein and vegetable, when you can order a mass of pupu and celebrate?

Lucy’s in Kailua is one place I often visit, but where I almost never order an entrée. Instead of the generous portions of mashed, garlicked Okinawan and russet potato that accompanies most main courses, I opt for the fish taco pupu: three folds of tender, fresh local catch with a virtual garden of toppings, including papaya salsa and buttery local avocado, all punctuated by heavenly hoisin.

Then I move to the picket salad: each crisp romaine leaf served individually and tickled with crumbled blue cheese, tart walnuts and mouth-puckering red wine vinaigrette. I always leave full and satisfied, my mouth sparkling with a kaleidoscope of flavors.

At home, you can be your own pupu boss in grand style. Immerse yourself in bliss. Remember, Grandpa preferred a simple pupu with his gin (I would have opted for a sushi platter or firm edamame pods laced with honey and Hawaiian salt). And he should know. As a young man, he would walk the halls and lanais of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel for 10-cent tips, with a fiery hibachi hanging from a strap around his neck, serving the Hotel’s famed first pupu—pigs in blankets.

Back at Buzz’s, eating the last morsel of sashimi, I drink a toast to my friend’s Grandfather, for whom pupu live on.