Sheldon Simeon Defines Hawaii Food on His Own Terms
The 'Top Chef' alumnus discusses what distinguishes Hawaii or local cuisine from Hawaiian food and shares a recipe for chicken hekka.
Hawaiian food and Hawaii food are not the same thing. Sheldon Simeon, an alumnus of Top Chef and the chef and owner of Tin Roof in Maui, makes this very clear in his upcoming cookbook, Cook Real Hawai'i.
“Luckily for us we have a host indegenous culture that is amazing. That’s Hawaiian food—that’s the kanaka,” he explains. Hawaii food, or what Simeon frequently refers to as local food, is different. It’s the result of immigration and the blending of cultures living harmoniously on the Hawaiian islands. It’s the influences of Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and other migrants who have made a home in paradise. It’s a cuisine of adaptation that relies on ingredients that flourish on the tropical islands.
“When [immigrants] traveled to Hawaii, they had to bring with them whatever smidget of culture they had. When they started to cook these recipes from where they traveled from, they didn’t have Google. They couldn’t call their mom,” Simeon chuckles. “They had to go purely based on memory and utilize what was available.”
This is the same for Simeon’s own family. As a third-generation Filipino-American who was born and raised in Hilo, Hawaii, darker and saltier Filipino soy sauce often had to be swapped for more readily available and thinner Japanese soy sauce, while apple cider vinegar was used in recipes instead of typical white vinegar. “You see this mix match of things and it ultimately becomes its own cuisine,” Simeon explains. “It’s kind of how our language is. We have our own pidgin language in Hawaii and it kind of all mixes together and becomes its own entity.”
When creating his cookbook, Simeon drew upon his community and heritage for recipes. The main driving force behind the cookbook’s inception, however, is his wife. “Straight up, she’s been my biggest encouragement,” he says. “As I traveled in all of these kitchens around the world, the narrative of Hawaii cuisine was not focused. People have their own idea of what Hawaii cuisine is based on what they’ve seen in the media or through stories or glimpses of it. But when you start to peel back the layers and go through the chapters of the history of Hawaii, there’s so much depth.”
Despite the rich history and the melding of different cuisines, Simeon wants readers of his cookbook to not be intimidated by Hawaii food. “I really wanted to make a book that you can cook out of,” he explains. “A lot of the recipes are about making do—so a lot of it is really simple.” Instead of complex ingredients and tricky techniques, the recipes in his book focus on nourishment and getting family seated around the table as fast as possible.
One such recipe he’s included is for chicken hekka, a Japanese-influenced dish that Simeon describes as the ultimate potluck food. “It’s a dish that I remember vividly as a kid walking into a party and being able to put it down on the table was an honor.” Though the history of chicken hekka can’t be precisely traced back to any one place, it’s believed that hekka derives from the old Hiroshima word heka—with one k—which is the word for sukiyaki. Chicken hekka is simmered slowly with a sweet sauce that is similar to sukiyaki, making for a strong theory. “It’s cool—that’s why I wanted to put it in the book. Yes, it’s Japanese, but it’s a dish you’ll only find here in Hawaii.”
To Simeon, cooking real Hawaii isn’t about technique or specific ingredients. Instead, it is a feeling and an instinct. “It’s based in ohana and it’s based in community,” he says. “Food is a part of our life and sharing with our families and gathering with our friends—that, to me, is cooking real Hawaii.”
For people picking up Simeon’s cookbook for the first time, he hopes the sense of aloha and ohana flows through the pages. “You might never visit Hawaii, but hopefully I give you a snapshot of how amazing Hawaii is. It’s true paradise.”
- ¾ cup packed light brown sugar
- ¾ cup shoyu (soy sauce)
- ¾ cup mirin
- 6 dried shiitake mushrooms
- 6 ounces dried cellophane or glass noodles, or rice vermicelli
- 2 ½ tablespoons toasted sesame oil
- 2 pounds boneless, skin-on chicken thighs, sliced into 1-inch-wide strips
- 2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger (from a 2-inch piece)
- 2 tablespoons minced garlic (about 6 cloves)
- 1 cup diagonal-cut carrot slices
- 1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
- 1 (14-ounce) can baby corn, halved lengthwise on the diagonal
- 1 cup canned sliced bamboo shoots
- 4 cups chicken broth
- 2 cups fresh watercress, cut into 3-inch pieces
- 2 small baby bok choy, trimmed and cut into
- 2-inch pieces
- 4 ounces abura age (deep-fried tofu), sliced into 1/2-inch-wide strips, or 8 ounces
- extra-firm tofu, cubed
- 6 scallions, cut into 2-inch pieces
- Cooked rice, for serving (optional)
2. In a large wok or Dutch oven, heat the sesame oil over medium-high heat. Add the chicken, increase the heat to high, and sauté until the meat is mostly cooked, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the ginger and garlic and sauté until fragrant. Add the carrots, onion, baby corn, bamboo shoots, shoyu mixture, and chicken broth. Reserving the soaking liquid, drain the mushrooms, cut off and discard any stems, and slice the caps. Add them and the soaking liquid to the pan. Bring all of this to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
3. Drain the cellophane noodles (they should be softened at this point) and cut into 3-inch lengths. Add them to the pan along with the watercress, baby bok choy, abura age, and scallions and simmer until the greens are blanched but firm, 2 to 3 minutes longer. Serve with cooked rice, if desired.
Reprinted with permission from Cook Real Hawai’i by Sheldon Simeon and Garrett Snyder, copyright © 2021. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Photography copyright: Kevin J. Miyazaki © 2021