Sam Choy's Travel Tips
When I interviewed Sam Choy over the phone for an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, he graciously answered a few questions for Tasting Kauai’s readers. As a regional legend, it’s simpler to link to Sam Choy’s bio, than list his lengthy accomplishments. We discussed food and travel, then Sam shared tips on finding the tastiest bite of culture.
The first time food and travel intersected for Sam, he was representing America and seafood at the World and Food Show in Anuga, Germany then Sial, France.
“You get to see and taste food from other cultures, and each country puts their best foot forward,” says Choy. “You get to taste it, smell it, hold it. It’s a good learning experience.”
As you can see from his pictures, Sam experiences exceptional food and travel moments. But he says you don’t have to travel far to find those same opportunities. In Cleveland, Ohio, he toured farms and gardens, where he picked and tasted fresh produce, then had lunch. He also visited open markets “that have been there forever” and saw “fabulous products they’ve created.”
“People want to go Spain to see the natural beauty, or Rome to see the Vatican, or tour Europe and visit places they’ve seen on TV,” says Choy. “But if you do food tours, it’s a whole different experience. When you combine seeing something with tasting it, it’s more memorable.”
Sam offers two additional tips for finding good food in new places.
“When I travel, I find where local people eat. Sometimes, I sit in the lobby of a hotel and observe the employees. Then I’ll ask someone, like the bellman, ‘Hey, were do you guys go to eat?’ I can tell if they’re recommending places they think I would like, and I stop them and say, ‘Wait a minute, I want to know where you go to eat.’ They’ll say something like, ‘Well we like to go to eat at such and such place. It’s not the best part of town but the food’s amazing.’ I say, ‘Yea! That’s what I wanna know and that’s where I wanna go!’ And usually, the food is remarkable. I’ve had my best meals that way, even in New York, Boston and Chicago.”
According to Sam, going to an open market is the most important thing to do.
“Then you can really see the pulse of the area and know exactly what they’re raising, how fresh it is, and what they’re eating,” he says. “I love that traveling and food is such a welcome education. You go to experience a destination and that’s what makes traveling a very powerful tool.”
He told me that when he travels, he looks around “very quietly and humbly” then cooks Hawaiian dishes for people. Sam adds local ingredients and creates a fusion of two cultures. For example, a big pot of island beef stew.
“It’s a European dish, so lot of people like to make that,” he says. “But they don’t do it as good as we do in Hawaii. Spam musubi is another Hawaiian fusion food.”
Adapting his cooking style to the food that’s available is one of Sam’s favorite things about traveling.
“I can make a salad and create a vinaigrette from ingredients that grow there, and hear them say ‘Wow!”’ Then I say, ‘Yea. That’s a little taste of Hawaii. It’s a win/win, you know? I go ‘Wow!’ and they go ‘Wow!” We enjoy each other’s company, we are both exposed to something new and we learn about each other’s culture.
“Jamaica’s national food is ackee,” says Sam, of a fruit than can lead to hypoglycemia and vomiting if you eat it before it’s ripe. “They cook ackee with salted fish, it’s a staple there, like fried rice or poke in Hawaii. Jamaica also has callaloo, which uses wild spinach. They also have octopus, squid and coconut. So I created a luau with wild spinach and squid. When I did the squid luau they were blown away. They loved it.”
There are four definitions in the Hawaiian Dictionary, but the lūʻau Sam is speaking of is “young taro tops, especially as baked with coconut cream and chicken, or octopus.”
Today’s version is more like soup. I rarely see it on restaurant menus, but the dish is a mainstay on Hawaii’s family tables. Cooked taro leaves taste similar to spinach, without that gritty feeling spinach can leave in your mouth.
Like Sam, I like to visit open markets when I travel. And I buy local products as gifts. But, I’m a journalist, so I refer to trusted magazines and websites to find where I want to eat when I’m traveling. I read articles in publications that don’t write about advertisers. I don’t rely on Yelp and Trip Advisor because they often seem like rants, and are usually based on one dining experience with no knowledge about the place’s backstory. Believe it or not, I’m pretty shy. I like doing interviews because I get to ask questions and listen. But the next time I travel, I’m going to break out of my shell and talk to a local!
If you’d like to meet Sam Choy in person, be sure to check out next week’s blog post to learn how. In the meantime, here’s a video of Sam making luau leaf for luau stew, and his squid luau recipe. If you can’t find taro leaves, use any green that’s available and let me know how you like it!
Watch how he makes it on Food Network’s My Country, My Kitchen
EPISODE: Hawaii with Sam Choy
Total Time: 2 hr 15 min
Cook:1 hr 40 min
Yield: 4 servings
2 pounds calamari (squid)
3 pounds taro leaves
1 teaspoon Hawaiian salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
6 tablespoons butter
2 medium onions, diced
3 cups coconut milk
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
Clean calamari and slice in rings, then set aside.
Wash luau leaves, remove stems and thick veins. In a pot, boil 3 cups of water with the Hawaiian salt and baking soda. Add the leaves to the boiling water and reduce heat. Simmer, partially covered for 1 hour. Drain, and squeeze out liquid.
Sauté onions and cleaned calamari in the butter until the onions are translucent. Add the coconut milk, cooked luau leaves, salt, and sugar. Simmer for 30 minutes.
Recipe courtesy of Sam Choy from Sam Choy’s Sampler, Mutual Publishing, 2000