Chinese Influence on Hawaii’s Food
Manapua, a reflection of the Chinese influence—one of many—on the Hawaiian culture, is an echo of the Chinese char siu bao, the barbecued pork-filled steamed dumplings you may have seen on a dim sum cart.
The 19th century marked a historical period in Hawaii as thousands of immigrants from different countries came to the islands seeking work. Over 50,000 Chinese immigrants brought their customs, cultural activities and especially their ethnic foods.
Food vending in the street was a common trade in the marketplace towns of China. In Hawaii, food peddlers sold a variety of delectable items especially their famous char siu bao. The peddlers would stack their foodstuffs in large cans and sling the cans by cords at each end of a pole. Hoisting the poles on their shoulders, they roamed the neighborhoods with their savory-filled buns. Char siu bao immediately became a favorite among the locals, and was given the name manapua, or mea ono pua’a (“mea ono” for cake or pastry, and “pua’a for pork).
The food peddlers today, also known as the manapua man, don’t roam the streets on foot anymore. He can be found in a big truck parked at beaches, small neighborhoods, near the business districts and other places around the island. For many, eating a manapua can be nostalgic, bringing childhood memories of making a trip to the manapua man’s truck.
Over the years, the manapua’s size and filling changed. The late Bat Moi Kam Mau, former owner of Char Hung Sut in Chinatown, was well known for her local-style manapua. She created the “big Hawaiian-size” manapuas that the island people love to eat. The once small manapua, was now super-sized by the locals. Not craving sweet pork? No problem. Today you can find manapua with different savory fillings such as vegetables, curry, sweet bean, chicken, lup cheong (chinese sweet sausage), sweet potato, lau lau and many more. Baked, steamed, sweet bread, wheat—there is a wide variety of manapua that you can choose from.
Where To Find It
Manapua can be found not just at Chinese restaurants, but local eateries as well. Even the local 7-eleven stores carry the steamed dumplings. Libby’s Manapua Shop, located in the Kalihi business district, specializes in a very simple selection of steamed manapua. To many, their signature pink-colored takeout box indicates some good manapua eats! Chun Wah Kam and Island Manapua Factory are other popular places to indulge your manapua cravings.