Full Feast Mode!

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Kevin Lee’s Naw mai gai from PAI Honolulu is finished with a roasted hen gravy (photo courtesy PAI Honolulu).

The invigoratingly brisk and sweet scent of a Christmas pine. Warm enveloping aromas of baking spice. Nostalgic lyrics and tunes of angelic holiday canons unearthing fond memories of yore… Christmas is often a time of comfort and reflection, one of poignant classical rituals re-enacted to embrace our cherished values. Expectations of innovation are often overlooked, as any disruptions to these rigid set of behaviors — lockdowns included — may be more jarring than a Danish plunge into a frozen lake. Enhancements are often met with apprehension, especially among our beloved seniors, but sometimes pave the way for welcomed new traditions.

Take the holiday bird. For centuries, people endured the puritanical ingestion of a parched carcass whose cavity was crammed with seasoned breadcrumbs and later slathered with lubricating gravy. Possibly in pursuit of moisture, or a recalibration of the enjoyment level between turkey and stuffing, a few imaginative souls from Cajun country discovered the magic of deep frying the fowl in the early 1980s. The tradition of smoking in an imu takes further precedence and has since been another preferred method of cookery in Hawai‘i. While the velocity of change may be on par with the flow of an over-cornstarched gravy, local celebrity chefs are infusing variations that will make people reconsider their holiday meals, take away or dine-in.

Some are tweaking the prime-rib experience with conservative modifications to the accompaniments. Chef Wade Ueoka of MW Restaurant replaces horseradish with a sour cream that incorporates freshly grated wasabi and the crunchy kizami wasabi stems, imparting fragrant vegetal notes with a less nasal-flaring pungency. Roy Yamaguchi of Roy’s Restaurants crafts his complex au jus of mirepoix, herbs, wine and veal stock but then gives it a fumed treatment by smoking it with kiawe.

Gambling with stuffing is a riskier venture, as many revere this adjunct more seriously than the main. Chai Chaowasaree of Chef Chai takes on this feat by infusing a Southeast Asian sensibility into his Thai sticky rice stuffing. Paired with chicken, duck or possibly Cornish game hen, the amalgam of roasted chestnuts, celery, onion, garlic, dried shrimp and shiitake is a requested staple every Christmas. Lawrence Nakamoto of Mariposa re-engineers his by swapping out croutons with the restaurant’s signature monkey bread and in-house smoked Portuguese sausage, to be served with chicken on Christmas Eve.

Potentially, the most perilous endeavor is to alter any component of the pièce de résistance, but Ahu Hettema of Istanbul Restaurant is triumphant with her lavender and brown butter-rubbed turkey breast prepared en sous vide. The presentation is succulent yet firm — almost doubling for pork loin — with an ever-so-subtle perfumed floral note that makes a turkey deep fry seem recklessly bombastic, even blasphemous. Served with velvety, saffron-scented mashed potatoes and a pink peppercorn gravy, this is one rendition that engenders a facetious notion: Why wouldn’t the Turkish excel in the preparation of turkey?

Kevin Lee of PAI Honolulu adds a Cantonese spin when he brines a deboned Cornish hen for his deep-fried naw mai gai, in which he stows a savory XO fried rice of shrimp, scallop, abalone, oyster, lap cheong, bacon and chili. The potent essences are beautifully enhanced by a roasted hen gravy.

Pork tenderloin, porchetta, and ham emerge occasionally as viable substitutes for fowl. In December, Colin Hazama of C4 Table will prepare his “Crispy Mango Smoked Corned Pono Pork,” taking cured and brined pork shoulder and cooking it three ways: smoked with mango wood, boiled and then roasted to yield a crispy texture. It is punctuated with duck prosciutto, only to be complemented with Aloun Farms cabbage fennel kraut and Ho Farms brandy-spiced butternut squash. Hackneyed pineapple is ousted by a local kumquat and cranberry mostarda adding strokes of tart, fruity flavors to deliver festive fall flavors.

Departures to desserts may be forgivable but omissions are intolerable, so the absence of the pumpkin pie that locals hold sacrosanct may breed con- tempt. However, many will appreciate that Hawai‘i-raised Graham Elliot of Pounders Restaurant is giving the age- old recipe a new lease on life with his maple-infused kabocha squash pie. Rich in texture and flavor, the locally grown Japanese winter squash will fill the air with ambrosial baking spice aromatics as it is cradled in a crust nuanced with subtle mineral and briny notes of Hawaiian sea salt.

Michelle Karr-Ueoka of Artizen by MW plans to adapt the traditional bûche de Noël by mingling a German Black Forest cake with a Hungarian Dobos torte (the ancestral root of what is now regarded fondly as Dobash cake). Her “Black Forest Yule Log” rolls chocolate Dobash pudding, Manjari chocolate mousse, li hing Luxardo cherries, crispy meringue and Valrhona Jivara mik chocolate crunch into a buttermilk chocolate cake for a finale decadent enough to induce hibernation.

Hawai‘i’s expanding cultural diversity may be conducive to cultivating culinary innovations, yet many staunchly adhere to time-tested local traditions. The inviting flavors of these chefs will be sure to coax them out of their holiday com- fort zones, and possibly even ignite fiery new sparkles of acceptance, but be sure not to abandon the institution of macaroni salad in the cold.

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