Two scoop rice, mac salad, and some meat like teriyaki chicken, a hamburger patty covered in brown gravy, or pork adobo on top of that little bed of shredded cabbage all within the confines of a square, white styrofoam box. Sound familiar? You can pick up one of these plate lunches on any island in just about any town.
The plate lunch is a quintessential local food in the islands. It’s ubiquitous and anyone who grew up in Hawaii can recall a favorite plate lunch spot. Maybe it was Sushiya’s on Prison Street in Lahaina, or maybe your go-to spot was Kitada’s on Baldwin Avenue in Makawao. It’s not just Maui either. Even the president has to get his fix at the Rainbow Drive-Inn in Kapahulu.
The plate lunch is a statewide food tradition. You can’t escape it. I’ve been around plate lunches for most of my life. The three perfectly-shaped mounds of rice and mac salad doused in high-sodium shoyu are part of growing up here. But where this food tradition came from is still a culinary mystery.
Perhaps the most common theory is what I call the plantation theory. It goes like this: in those allegedly halcyon days of plantation labor when almost everyone worked in sugar cane or pineapple fields, lived in substandard housing provided by big companies, folks found themselves in a mix (and sometimes clash) of different cultures.
Out of this milieu came the plate lunch. One can easily conjure up the sepia-toned image of Japanese, Portuguese, and Filipino workers sitting down in the middle of a dirty cane field on their lunch breaks sharing and mixing foods.
The theory makes sense. Most of local culture—pidgin English and mixed ethnicities—came from the plantation. Why should food have a different starting point?
And yet, the more I thought about it, there are problems with this theory. Let’s not be fooled. Plantations were brutal and terrible places for many people. Mixing culture was not encouraged. Workers were separated by race in almost every respect. The Japanese could only associate with the Japanese. Filipinos were also segregated. The Portuguese had their own part of town. The white managers were at the top of the heap. The thought that everyone would break free from these restrictions in the middle of the day every day and sit down together to share each other’s food seems a little hard to swallow.
And even if that was the case, why is the plate lunch today so uniform? Not all plantations were the same throughout the islands. Yet, the plate lunch is pretty much the same throughout the State.
Finally, there’s the mac salad problem. The plantation theory doesn’t adequately explain how mac salad got into the mix. What culture brought that over from Asia? Who’d bring that for lunch? Nobody had a refrigerator in their plantation home or in the field. Would you eat mac salad from a tin can that’s been on your back since five in the morning and under the hot sun?
In the late 1980s, a new theory emerged. Writers at the now defunct Honolulu Herald found anecdotal evidence that the plate lunch got its start at Honolulu Harbor in the 1920s, not the anonymous cane field.
The Iwamoto family started selling foods, snacks, and candies to dockworkers, stevedores, and even tourists from cruise ships on the Honolulu waterfront in the 1920s from a rickety pushcart.
The cart became so popular that the Iwamotos rented space on Channel Street near the waterfront with a small kitchen. By the 1930s, for fifty cents, you got a paper plate with rice, a vegetable, kim chee and a main dish like beef tomato, pigs feet, or chicken long rice. And yes, there was mac salad.
This also explained how it became standardized throughout the islands. If the plate lunch was popular in the busiest harbor in the territory, it can easily catch on as workers stopped in Lahaina, Hilo, and Lihue.
And yet, the plantation theory dies hard. Many food writers think that the Japanese bento found on the plantation evolved into these food stands on the waterfront and later lunch wagons.
No matter where it came from, the plate lunch tradition isn’t going anywhere. For the record, my favorite plate lunch is the glorious chicken katsu curry plate.
Maybe the first time mayonnaise from the mac salad mixed with the curry on top of the chicken cutlet was at Honolulu Harbor. Or maybe it came from a lunch wagon someplace. Then again, it could have started on a nameless pineapple field in Wahiawa.
Frankly, I doubt we’ll ever find out definitely where the plate lunch came from. But who cares? It’s fun to think about while recovering from eating one on a hot summer afternoon.