Texas has its barbecue, Maryland its blue crabs. Kentucky, we well know, has its bourbon. What some might not know, but are quickly learning, is that the 50th state in this union has its own rich and distinct food culture - a cuisine that's becoming much more mainstream here on the mainland.
Poke (pronounced po-kay), a Hawaiian staple, is touted by restaurant industry insiders and trend forecasters as the most popular fast-casual food of the moment. Poke is sliced fish, usually raw tuna, marinated with some variation of sesame oil, soy sauce or hot sauce and served over a bowl of rice or greens. Think of it as sushi, deconstructed.
If you haven't seen it yet, you will. The National Restaurant association puts poke at the very top of its list of trends that are heating up in 2017. As many as 300 Hawaiian restaurants have opened in just the last 24 months, according to Bloomberg news.
Poke restaurants are popping up in Lexington, Kentucky, and Columbus, Ohio, even in Morgantown, and social media may be to thank - at least in part.
"Food sites like Yelp and other social media outlets have contributed to the mainland's recent love-fest with poke," Sue Kanoho, executive director of the Kauai Visitors Bureau, said. "I think that the food scene in Hawaii has grown significantly in the past five years, but quite frankly, poke has been a part of Hawaii for decades."
Yelp, Foursquare and even Instagram with its drool-worthy food imagery, all have a hand in bringing once distant dishes to neighborhood restaurants. It also helps that poke is not completely foreign to our tastebuds.
"I think the ties to sushi have an effect," Solly Fizer said. "More and more people are enjoying sushi, so poke is something new, but something familiar at the same time."
Fizer is Hawaiian by heritage. He grew up in Barboursville, but travels to the Islands to visit family often. In fact, Kanoho is his stepmother. The dual home base locations afford him a unique perspective, being immersed in two cultures at once - both intrinsically different, yet overwhelmingly similar.
"I think all cultures are tied to their food, and food is their culture," Kanoho said. "Food is often the thing that unites people in a universal sense when you share a meal or a favorite dish."
Much like the cuisine of the Mountain State, Hawaiian food tells a story of its people. Despite the 4,500-mile distance, there are some strong epicurean parallels between the two states.
Spam, for example. Hawaii consumes more Spam than any other state, and its love for the product dates back to World War II. It's inexpensive and shelf stable, which made it a military go-to. Now, Spam has been adapted into one of Hawaii's most iconic menu items: Musubi.
"When we go see the canyons in Kauai, it's a 20- or 30-minute drive," Fizer said, "So we stop and get some musubi on the way up. It's the perfect snack."
A seasoned and fried slice of Spam on a block of white rice, often wrapped in seaweed, musubi is found in restaurants and by the cash register at nearly every gas station in the state.
"You have not visited Hawaii until you have tried a Spam musubi," Kanoho said.
Before you turn your nose up at the canned meat product, a bit of history for you. Spam has deep roots in West Virginia, for similar reasons. It was easy to pack in lunch tins for coal miners and was economical during the Great Depression.
Our nation's longest serving U.S. Senator is even said to have had a taste for it. The late Sen. Robert C. Byrd is rumored to have had an affinity for Spam sandwiches, eating them with mayonnaise on white bread.
Another markedly Hawaiian dish trickling across the contiguous United States is shave ice. That's not a typo, it's shave - not shaved. And you won't find anything like the velvety smooth flavored ice available on the islands here in the Mountain State.
The sweet treat West Virginians devour every summer is crunchy, chunky and usually covered in sugary red dye 40. In Hawaii, the flavorings are often housemade with locally grown fruits like lychee or housemade matcha syrup, and toppings include adzuki bean, mochi rice balls or condensed milk.
There's really only one way to go with your shave ice, though, Fizer said.
"If you want to get it the right way, it has to have vanilla ice cream in the bottom. So you're adding sweet syrup and ice with vanilla ice cream. And for whatever reason that blend is out of this world."
Shave ice, if done the right way, could be the 2018's biggest food craze.
Kanoho said she is noticing the same reboot with shave ice in recent days as she saw with poke.
"Wailua Shave Ice just opened stores in San Diego and Portland, in addition to their successful food truck business here on Kauai," she said. "Shave ice has been around for years and years, and yet, two new stores have opened recently on the mainland and become very successful."
Longstanding native Hawaiian food, however, remains on the Islands for the most part. Poi, mashed taro, laulau, steamed pork wrapped in taro leaves, and lomi lomi, a fresh tomato and salmon salad, are Hawaiian mainstays.
"A lot of the passion around their food comes from tradition being passed down through the families," Fizer said. "When they eat those dishes, or make those dishes, there's a lot of pride behind it, because they're following their ancestors' footsteps, which is a big part of their culture."
When his grandfather makes poi, Fizer said, he makes it the same way as his grandfather before him. And no matter the recipe, that's something we can all relate to - whether the view from our kitchen window is of West Virginian mountains, or Hawaiian beaches.
Comments may be sent to Hanna Nakano at email@example.com.
Try it yourself
Follow this recipe to try Hawaiian Spam musubi at home.
1 12 oz. can Spam
2 c. white rice
2 c. water
6 tbsp. rice vinegar
4 tbsp. soy sauce
4 tbsp. oyster sauce
4 tbsp. white sugar
2 sheets toasted nori
In small pan, bring water to boil. Add rice and stir. Lower from heat, cover. When rice is cooked, stir in rice vinegar and let cool.
Whisk together soy sauce, oyster sauce and sugar until sugar dissolves. Slice Spam into 1/4 inch slabs and marinate in sauce for 10 minutes.
Heat skillet on low and fry spam slices for about 3 minutes each side, until browned.
Using a musubi press ($5.99 on Amazon), or by hand, shape rice into 1/2 inch thick rectangles. Top with fried Spam. Cut nori into slices and wrap around middle of musubi, as pictured, sealing nori together with a drop of water. Musubi can be enjoyed warm or cold.