The Language of Food: A Linguistic Study of Hawaii’s Multicultural Food Culture Through the Medium of the Manapua

The artifact: manapua was difficult to research because there hasn’t been much literature written about it. Manapua is a culinary creation from Hawaii that draws its roots from China. However, for a long time, Hawaiian history had been an oral history and knowledge was transferred to future generations through teaching and learning embodied knowledge rather than from written histories. This research journey has been one of searching for the archive in a place where it wouldn’t be found. Throughout my college career, I have read countless texts containing knowledge, and this is the kind of archive that is accepted in the Western world. However in Hawaii, it is another story. Oral storytelling is privileged, and there is even a Center for Oral History at the University of Hawaii. To remedy this disconnect between Hawaii archives and those of the Western world, I have attempted to do a bit of oral history recording myself. I called my dad (who is a local Hawaiian resident, and has been for his entire 58 years of life) and asked about his experiences in regards to my project. There is a certain essence and authenticity that comes from being humbled and trusted enough to take an oral history that I think is lost with multiple edits of written archives. The rest of the research has been done by combing through the internet for bits and pieces that are related to my artifact dish.


Manapua that I practiced making for the dinner party

Snapshot I: manapua questions and nuances

This story begins with the manapua, a dish that was adapted from the Chinese char siu bao; a baked, or steamed bread filled with char siu, or roasted pork. I remember this food from my childhood from multiple trips to a manapua store after school with my dad, who rarely cooked dinner, let alone after-school snacks. Upon moving to New York for college, I discovered that no one calls this dish manapua, as I did for my entire life, but the only similar dish is called char siu bao. I was surprised to notice differences from what I recognized from home, such as the seam on the bao being on the top, and the bao being significantly smaller than the manapua I was familiar with. However, I also noticed similarities such as the bread’s texture and the filling, which were very similar. This made me question part of my identity and that of Hawaii’s food culture. Why was the seam on the bottom of the bread in manapua, but on the top in char siu bao? Where did the name manapua come from? How do the different fillings (and stamps on top of the buns) in Hawaii relate to the single filling (and lack of stamp) in the char siu bao? How do our specific food palates shape and reflect the culture we live in and our own identities? How does immigration history affect the evolution of food culture? In order to find out the answers to some of these questions, we have to look back into the history of Hawaii.


A map showing the patterns of immigration to Hawaii

Snapshot II: History of immigration to Hawaii

The first residents of Hawaii were the Polynesians, who brought food such as taro and fish to the islands. However, the Chinese were among the first immigrants to arrive on the Hawaiian Islands in 1789 to work on building large ships[1]. Shortly after, more Chinese people were brought to the islands to work on plantation fields as contract laborers. Eventually the workers were involved in pineapple, coffee, and rice industries. As time went on, these laborers were joined by their wives and mothers who either worked in the home, on the fields, or in small businesses like bakeries. Immigrants from other countries arrived shortly afterwards. Hawaii became a home to people from Polynesia, America, England, China, Japan, the Philippines, Portugal, Germany, Puerto Rico, Korea, and Samoa[2]. While the immigrants couldn’t share languages, they were able to share food and thus began the mish-mashing of different cultures’ food in the Hawaiian Islands.

[1] Char, Tin-Yuke and Wai Jane Char. “The Chinese in Social Processes in Hawaii, edited by Michael G. Weinstein. Vol. 23 of Ethnic Sources in Hawaii, 50-59. Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii, 1982.

[2] Weinstein, Michael G. Introduction to Social Processes in Hawaii. Ethnic Sources in Hawaii 23 (1982): 3.


The triangle model for food states, Claude Lévi-Strauss

Snapshot III: Food as identity

Claude Lévi-Strauss studied different cultures and discovered that most of them divided food into three different categories: raw, cooked, and rotten. He used this research to create a triangle model for food states. Depending on which way that you turn the triangle, it tells a different story. For example, if you have “cooked” at the top and “raw” and “rotten” on the bottom, it can show a spectrum of “civilized” to “uncivilized” ways to eat food. Many cultures prefer cooked food because it kills germs and it also makes meat more tender, which saves time because it is less laborious to chew cooked meat. This extra time can be used for anything else that would be considered to “civilize” a certain culture. I thought that this was interesting because it tells a story about what people value at this certain time in society. This book was written in 1990 and it privileges a certain style of cooking. In order to draw a linguistic basis for the food as identity argument, Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote that, “cooking is a language through which society unconsciously reveals its structure”[1]. The manapua is definitely a cooked food (the flour being mixed with water and then baked is definitely a more efficient way of eating wheat) and it’s reflective of the culture of Hawaii.

[1] Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Origin of Table Manners. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.


University of Hawaii students sit together to show ethnic differences of Hawaii’s population, 1948.

Snapshot IV: “Melting Pot” vs. “Salad Bowl” vs. “Ethnic Stew”

In Hawaii, there are multiple different cultures and many jump to the conclusion that Hawaii is America’s dream “melting pot” gone right[1]. Until recently, I was under this impression as well. However, the “melting pot” metaphor is also known as cultural assimilation, which implies that all the cultures have melted together, losing their distinctive cultures in exchange for one collective “mixed” culture[2]. The new culture is significantly different from the individual cultures, and what’s problematic about this is that generally it’s that of the dominant group. Another analogy that could be used is the “salad bowl” analogy, which is thought of as the extreme opposite of the melting pot. Though the cultures live in physical proximity to each other, they remain distinctly their own, and do not contribute to a larger culture. This however doesn’t match too well with Hawaii because there is also a broad culture into which many people have contributed to. Laura Laubeová proposes a third model known as the “ethnic stew”[3]. In this model, the foods (cultures) melt a little bit and contribute to the flavor of the stew, but they still maintain some of their distinct features and structure. I believe that this metaphor is the best for that of Hawaii’s food because it respects the individual cultures, but it also acknowledges the changes they have made on the culture as a whole, or as people in Hawaii call it: local culture. Today there are foods such as manapua, which have been adapted from Chinese dim sum char siu bao, spam musubi which has Spam, which comes from the American GIs consumption during WWII combined with rice balls, or musubi, from Japanese culture, and saimin which is a plantation era food similar to ramen, but which draws inspiration from Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Hawaiian, and Portuguese elements. These foods all contribute to the larger culture that is local Hawaii culture.

[1] Time. “The Beautiful Half-Truth of the Hawaiian Melting Pot” Last modified August 21, 2015.

[2] Gloor, LeAna B. “From the Melting Pot to the Tossed Salad Metaphor: Why Coercive Assimilation Lacks the Flavors Americans Crave.” Hohonu 6 (2006): 29-31, accessed April 11, 2016.

[3] Tolerance. “Melting pot vs. Ethnic stew”


My dad and me playing in our home: Aiea, Hawaii, 1995.

Snapshot V: Naming the manapua and Oral histories

The name manapua comes from the Hawaiian phrase “mea ’ono pua’a”. This phrase I’ve found, can mean both “delicious pork thing” or “pork cake/pastry” depending on what source you’re using for research. I started my research with the “delicious pork thing” as the translation, and that led to the conclusions of other common Hawaii definitions in my past. In Hawaii, many things aren’t explained with much detail, and so a name with the translation being thing, would be very appropriate and reflective of this culture. My dad goes on business trips to Kauai often and once, he was asking directions to a place to eat. He was told “two streets after the brown store and past the monkey pod tree.” Because there is only one road in this certain area of Kauai, almost everyone who lives there would understand these directions completely. I thought this would have implied a certain insider-outsider mentality, making it harder for the outsider since they don’t live there. In this situation my father was the outsider (because we live on ’Oahu). However, he says, “some stuff is so distinct that it’s almost easier because you don’t need to know street signs; you can see landmarks like ‘big giant tree’ or ‘giant red building’. You don’t need to know streets actually. Instead of looking for the streets, you know to go 2 streets, turn right and it’s right after the blue building or the mango tree. And sometimes it’s the only thing that’s there, it’s a huge mango tree — like how can you miss it? It’s so obvious so [you] don’t have to look for the street. They say ‘go two streets down’ and instead of saying the street name, they say you know, landmarks ‘turn right by the two-story building.’”[1]

I asked my Hawaiian-language-speaking cousin and she said that mea=food, ’ono=delicious, and pua’a=pork[2]. Basically, there’s no singular translation in English that would do this phrase justice, and so it would be up to your own discretion to use whatever definition fits best. By naming something, we change the way it is perceived in a culture, and by creating a new name and new food adaptation, it’s like creating a new perspective around it, and claiming things for yourself. In the New Testament in the Bible, existence began with the power of naming things in the garden, and humankind was able to wield this power giving them dominion over other creatures. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that the structure of language can have an effect on the perception of the speakers, thus resulting in how they think and understand the world[3]. This means that a particular language and the words that make up the language have the power to shape the experiences of people who speak that language. This makes me wonder about the experiences of people who speak different languages, and how they perceive the world in a different way than I do.

[1] Phone call with father: Greg Sagarang on April 11, 2016. Words were paraphrased

[2] Hawaiian-language speaking cousin: Alaina Sagarang, recent grad of Kamehameha School (via Facebook Messenger)

[3] Culture Decanted.


Wisefish Poke bowls, New York, NY


Snapshot VI: Commodification of Hawaiian culture through poke

The inability to speak a language and understand a history leads me to think of how Hawaiian food in general is becoming an unstudied culture in continental America. As of recently, Hawaiian food has become a fad in mainland culture. (In Hawaii, we call the continental America, “the mainland”. Until I came to New York for college, I didn’t realize that this wasn’t a common way of referring to the 48 states that occupy a common land-mass.) Poke is one of the foods that is being used as a “cool” or “hip” new food to eat.

The kind of poke that is popular in Hawaii draws its roots from Japanese and Hawaiian cultures. The Hawaiian version of poke consists of raw kukui nuts and limu (seaweed)[1], and the name comes from the cut of the fish[2]. It’s usually soy sauce, or shoyu-marinated raw fish (usually tuna) that is mixed with other seasonings and toppings such as Hawaiian salt, green onions, and seaweed served on top of a bowl of rice. This is a common food for people to eat in Hawaii, but recently there have been stores opening in New York and along the west coast specializing in poke. However, this is offensive to some people who have grown up with the dish[3]. One of the stores “Wisefish Poké” added an accent to their store name. This accent brings a whole cultural history with it because they are used primarily on European languages such as French, and this dish is not French in the slightest. It changes the connotation that comes with the name when you first read it. The word “poke” is hard to pronounce in the first place and many people from Hawaii pronounce it wrong, including myself.

The problem with this naming issue is that there are so many people who work so hard to preserve the culture of Hawaii; they’re trying to eliminate stereotypes and correct the miscommunicated history, which is like a slap in the face. This is similar to when people call people from Hawaii “Hawaiian” as if it’s similar to “Californian” or “New Yorkers”. However, Native Hawaiian is an ethnic minority. In Hawaii we identify ourselves ethnically such as Japanese, Filipino, or Hawaiian. It is characteristic of the Hawaiian culture to be very connected to the food that is eaten, and the people who make the poke in Hawaii all know where it comes from and are aware of the overfishing problem, and are respectful to not waste certain parts of the fish. While there are certainly restaurants in Hawaii that aren’t this respectful, it’s an important part of the Hawaiian culture. Critics of the poke fad on the mainland claim that it’s not ethical to commodify the Hawaiian culture if there is no respect for the food being prepared itself, because that doesn’t respect the history of the dish within the culture.


Bonus snapshot:


Poke at Foodland, a local supermarket in Hawaii

[1] Honolulu Magazine. “Poke: Past and Present.” Last modified: April 18, 2011.

[2] Laudain, Rachel. The Food of Paradise. Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 1996.

[3] First We Feast.


Char Hung Sut, dim sum restaurant in Chinatown, Honolulu, HI

Snapshot VII: What makes Hawaii’s manapua unique?

While manapua hasn’t become a fad on the mainland yet, there are places in New York that sell similar versions. What makes the manapua from Hawaii distinct upon first glance is the larger size and the lack of a seam on the top. The larger size of the manapua was introduced to Hawaii by Bat Moi Kam Mau, the owner of Char Hung Sut, a local Chinese dim sum restaurant[1]. There is no literature on why the seam is on the bottom of the manapua, however, there are many different fillings such as: classic char siu, teriyaki chicken, vegetable, curry, sweet bean, lap cheong, sweet potato, and lau lau (meat or fish wrapped in ti leaves and steamed). Because there are many different fillings, there’s often different (edible) stamps on the tops of the manapua to differentiate between the fillings. If the top of the manapua had a seam on it, this would be impossible. This is my personal belief on why the seam of the Hawaii manapua is on the bottom instead of on the top, it’s due to the cultural adaptations that it adopted when it reached Hawaii.

[1] Char Hung Sut Restaurant. “About.”


Dim sum being sold in bamboo steam boxes in the street in China

Snapshot VIII: The history of dim sum

Manapua in Hawaii was inspired by Chinese char siu bao which is a common dim sum dish. Dim sum is thought to have been from Cantonese cuisine, but some also argue that it was originally made in Northern China[1]. Originally, it was made as a luxury for the emperor and his family, and eventually it started to become popular with the wealthy. Dim sum is usually associated with teahouses or “yum cha”, meaning to drink tea. It was thought that eating while drinking tea was bad, but this was proven wrong and so small dishes were often served in teahouses. Teahouses were popular along the Silk Road in China because people needed a place to rest, and this became a popular spot among travelers.

Char siu bao can be both baked and steamed, although the more popular version is steamed. Char siu, or roast pork, is the most common filling in the bread. Originally the filling was a mix of fatty and lean pork but now it’s healthier to use leaner cuts of the char siu[2]. In China, and even in Hawaii up through the 1960s, these char siu bao were also sold in the streets by peddlers who would walk around local neighborhoods[3].

[1] Dim Sum. “Dim Sum.”

[2] Chowhound. “The History of dim sum (partial) and…what are the traditional dim sum dishes?”

[3] Aloha Hawaii. “Manapua: Chinese Influence on Hawaii’s Food.”


Char siu manapua, “steamed pork bao” from Mei Li Wah Bakery New York, NY

Snapshot IX: Manapua in New York vs. Hawaii

Manapua would probably be considered a fast-food in Hawaii. It is definitely not quick and easy to make, but when it’s at a store it’s a very convenient grab-and-go meal. I visited Mei Li Wah Bakery in New York (which according to Yelp has char siu bao most similar to the manapua found in Hawaii). There was a counter with a huge steam case behind it filled with different types of bao. The smell of the restaurant reminded me of Chinese restaurants I had visited as a child. Once I got to the counter, I quickly ordered my steamed pork bao, baked pork bao, steamed chicken bao, and pork-wrapped noodle. The lady put the bao from the case into individual plastic baggies and then told me to wait for 10 minutes for the noodle dish. I stepped to the side so other customers could order, and everyone ordered quickly and immediately walked out. There were a few customers sitting down and eating in 5 of the 8 booths which were available. One of them was a family, and the rest were men eating by themselves. I sat at an empty table to wait for my food, and noticed that there were white cardboard boxes completely folded and ready to be filled with bao, which were stacked in every single open space of the restaurant. There were also pictures on the walls of the owner during Chinese New Year celebrations, of possibly the family, and of important Chinese political leaders. There were dollar bills and coins from America and China both taped to the outer walls of a refrigerator that was filled with canned soda and juice. The walls were lined with red and gold décor, and dragons could be found whichever way you turned your head. All of these sensory elements reminded me of home, at the manapua place that my dad used to take me after school when he would pick me up. The lady knew my name, and she knew that I liked the char siu manapua and the rice cake dessert with the brown layer on the top. I remember looking into the manapua case and seeing the different designs stamped on the tops of the manapua. At local 7-11 stores in Hawaii you can also find manapua with different fillings, however these have different colored papers that they lay on to represent the different fillings.

This project has been a difficult one for me because I have been taught to look for and recognize research in a very specific and sequential way. Through this project, and this class, I have explored the problem with counting on a very specific type of archive. The one that we privilege now is a written-down and documented archive which is only available to certain readers and writers. Through the selective act of producing a book, it goes through many edited versions and many critical readers before it can be accessed by the writer’s intended audience. This has created a defined process which results in a certain type of literary “mastery” or “expertise”. It is only once a book is written or a thesis is completed, that we consider people to have a certain kind of knowledge on a topic. This is problematic because sometimes it makes us think that mastery and expertise can only be gained through this form of consuming “Knowledge” and producing written texts.

However, this class, especially the Skype talk with Ken Hom, has made me realize that we are constantly learning, and that sometimes the people we consider experts in a certain field don’t even consider themselves experts. We have constantly been asking ourselves “what’s a fact?”, “what’s the truth?” Through the current system of education, truth and fact are only accepted when they have been published and written down. This method of creating, replicating, and dispersing knowledge privileges a certain literary and usually Westernized culture, while dismissing any other type of knowledge. For this project I have tried to collect knowledge from different media including oral histories, photographical histories, in addition to the classical written-down archival histories. This has been very relevant to my project specifically because a lot of the Hawaiian history isn’t written down; it’s an oral history that is passed down throughout generations. Just because histories aren’t written down, doesn’t make them any less significant. I would imagine that advocates for the written-down history would most likely argue that if you don’t write something down, then it can be altered and that makes something lose its authenticity. However, I believe that as stories, recipes, memories, and other knowledge archives are passed down orally, even if they change shape a little it’s possibly for the best. Perhaps with this new change the people who are hearing it are better able to relate to the stories because the person who is conveying the information is able to alter them in a way that is applicable to the time period.

As mentioned in the beginning, I think there’s a sort of really beautiful trust that a person sharing has to have with the people receiving the oral history. The person who is giving the information has to trust that the person receiving it will use it in a way that is reflective and not dismissive of their culture. I read a few oral histories online at the Center for Oral History at UH Manoa and I think the way they did it was by using a tape recorder and transcribing everything that was said. There are many errors in the grammar of the transcription due to the language used, but I also think this is more authentic than any version that would have been written down and edited a million times would be. There’s a sort of authenticity that comes through the pages when you’re reading something from an oral history, that if you know the culture and have heard people speak like that; it’s almost like you can hear them speaking to you. When I was reading the oral history of a man who worked at a restaurant, the way that he spoke was distinctively from Hawaii in a (now newly recognized language) Pidgin English accent. It reminded me of being home, and of when I would sit with my grandpa and he would tell me stories, or of when at Christmas time I am sitting with my family and everyone’s telling stories of “the olden days.” These kinds of histories are what’s getting omitted with the increase in importance of the written, edited, and published types of Knowledge production.