Makeup and wardrobe for the bitter melon dishes.

I’m adding finishing touches to a bitter melon editorial shoot for Island Scene Magazine. Lew Harrington was the photographer, Anna Manuel, the art director. iPhone image by Anna Manuel.

Link for Marlene Nakamoto’s story:

The final layout, story by Marlene Nakamoto.

The final layout, story by Marlene Nakamoto.

Sometimes food styling involves getting down on the floor. iPhone image by Anna Manuel

Sometimes food styling involves getting down on the floor. iPhone image by Anna Manuel


Coconut Tuna

A vintage recipe from The Pacifica House Hawaii Cook Book, 1965

The recipe for Coconut Tuna seems fairly ordinary at first, a list of ingredients and then directions for white sauce – shortening (I used butter), flour, milk – that will serve as a base for the canned tuna, pineapple and pimento. Pretty typical bland Mid Century fare likely hoping the addition of pineapple will add a touch of tropical exotica to dinnertime.

It’s the next sentence that provides the eye-opener: “Sandpaper off rough fiber of coconut shells and saw in half crosswise.” That seemed like a lot of trouble to me. Then I found myself wondering exactly how June Cleaver with her pearls and manicure would have managed sandpaper and a saw. My method was to first use the point of a sturdy knife to pierce the coconut eyes so the coconut water could drain out. Then, armed with a microplane rasp, the next step was to smooth away a bit of the “rough fiber.” A good twenty minutes later, I was happy not to be using sandpaper on the still-rough coconut.

Rather than drag out the saw, I whacked the coconut a few times along its equator with the reverse, unsharp, non-cutting side of a 12″ chef’s knife for two coconut halves while wearing a heavy glove-type potholder for protection. The tuna/pineapple filling went into these and then into the oven for browning. After a few minutes, my son remarked on the “unusual” aroma of canned fish and fruit baking.

The coconut shell was a novel way to serve what was basically creamed tuna. It might have provided a tropical touch at the Cleaver’s dinner table. But how did it taste? I think I can safely say I won’t ever need to prepare this recipe again.

Coconut Tuna
3 Tbsp shortening
6 Tbsp flour
3 cups milk
2 7-oz. cans tuna, flaked
1 Tbsp pimiento, cut into strips
1/2 tsp salt
Dash of pepper
1 cup diced canned pineapple
3 coconuts

Make a white sauce with the shortening, flour and milk. Add remaining ingredients (except coconut) and mix well. Sandpaper off rough fiber of coconut shells and saw in half crosswise. Fill the halves with tuna mixture, place in shallow baking pan and bake at 350 degrees for one hour. Garnish with a spring of parsley or watercress.

– from The Pacifica House Hawaii Cook Book, 1965

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Writer Jessica Mischner assembled a collection of vintage discoveries for a beautiful Thanksgiving table that includes an item from my shop – a gorgeous orange and gold bowl by HK Tunstall – saying “…add luster to the table? Gold! Each of these pieces is holiday-worthy without feeling overly precious.”

HK Tunstall ware was created in Stoke-on-Trent between 1933 and 1942. This vintage serving bowl was embellished with rose motif gold transfers and beautifully hand-painted orange and black accents. The unusual rounded square outer shape transforms into an octagon at the base of the shallow bowl.

A 1965 collection of Island-inspired recipes edited by Don Fitzgerald with Sybil Henderson.

Published in 1965, this culinary glimpse of the past offers dozens of recipes that attempt (sometimes successfully, sometimes less so) to blend Asian and Pacific flavors with 1960’s mainstream USA tastes. Then-exotic food items like pineapple, papaya, coconut and macadamia nuts figure prominently in such delights as Cheese ‘n’ Pineapple Pupus, a concoction that involves dipping cubes of fresh pineapple first into Luau Mayonnaise, then into shredded coconut and grated cheddar cheese. Another pseudo Polynesian dish, Macadamia Nut Stuffed Eggplant, involves a somewhat standard preparation of stuffed eggplant (thankfully without pineapple or coconut) sprinkled with chopped macadamia nuts for that authentic island touch.

Apparently lobster was more affordable in the 1960’s, based on the number of lobster recipes included, among them Sandwich Islands Lobster Salad, Coco Lobster Soup, Seafood Curry in Papaya and Baked Lobster Waiohai. The last recipe was developed at Kauai’s Waiohai Hotel, which is now part of a large chain of time share properties. Other fondly remembered businesses that provided recipes and/or culinary assistance to the cookbook include Spencecliff Corporation, Waikikian Hotel, Coco Palms Hotel and Pan American Airways.

Asian-inspired recipes include Japanese Sweet Pickles, Teriyaki Sauce and Shrimp TempuraKorean Kim Chee and Broiled Meat; and Chinese Chicken Fried Rice and an ambitious Pineapple Peking Duck. All are fairly authentic, though several include monosodium glutamate, a common flavor enhancer at the time.

The recipe for a whole Kalua Pig – “dig a round pit large enough to enough to hold a freshly dressed pig of at least 100 pounds” – describes the centuries-old process used by Native Hawaiians for roasting food in underground pits, or imu. Other Polynesian-inspired recipes include Tahitian Poi and Coconut Milk Spinach. A glossary of commonly used Hawaiian words is included at the back of the cookbook. Line drawings of island scenes and a section of color photographs contribute to the volume’s tropical feel.

Browsing through the cookbook provides a look at mid-century Hawaii as it became the “Crossroads of the Pacific,” a melting pot of cultures and their foods and flavors that thirty years later morphed into Pacific Rim Cuisine.

Stand by for photos of Coconut Tuna!

Suggestions for an Oriental Luau: “Pork chops are a favorite Hawaiian entree and are complemented by rice, fresh papaya and cottage cheese. Papaya Melba dessert is in the center.”

Menu, recipes and decor ideas for an Island Luau from the Pacifica House Hawaii Cookbook.


Recently a Japanese food enthusiast has been trying to convince me natto is a good thing. This Hawai‘i transplant from the the midwest eats the fermented soybeans on a regular basis believing it will help with all manner of life’s aches and pains. I’m not convinced.

The polite way to describe natto is to say it’s fermented soybeans. A more realistic description would be to say it smells like strong cheese combined with wet dog and dirty running shoes. Natto has the sliminess of boiled okra, multiplied by about 100. For such an evil-smelling substance, natto’s taste is surprisingly mild. I know a few brave eaters-in-denial who compare it to the flavor of medium cheddar cheese.

But in researching natto, I’ve learned it’s also low in calories and fat, high in protein and important amino acids. Natto contains fairly significant amounts of calcium, fiber and iron, along with a few trace elements. It’s a popular breakfast food in Japan and among Hawaii’s more culinarily adventurous residents. My friend says it helps with his arthritis.

My grandmother (we called her Obachan) used to firmly declare “Natto is good for you!” as she was stirring an odiferous lump of slimy fermented soybeans into her hot rice for a breakfast treat. Sometimes she’d add a few drops of shoyu, chopped green onions and a bit of wasabi for extra flavor. We grandchildren stared with stunned fascination as she proceeded to add a raw egg – which increased the sliminess quotient a few thousand times – and, after a few more stirs, lifted a morsel with slimy strings of natto… juice? sauce? oozing off the chopsticks into her mouth. “Natto will help you live a long time!” she would say.

And Obachan did live a long time – 96 years. For most of her life she enjoyed relatively good health, likely enjoying natto all the way. Obachan tried to eat a healthy diet, mostly vegetables from the backyard garden, along with fish and chicken. She stirred skim milk into her coffee and ate fresh papaya and bananas almost everyday. Obachan ate desserts and fried foods sparingly. But, like my friend, she thought there was something special about natto.

I tried experimenting with natto, determined to benefit from its highly nutritious qualities, and came up with this recipe for an Omelet with Salmon, Nori and Natto.

Omelet with Salmon, Nori and Natto
makes 2 servings

1 sheet sushi nori, torn into 1” wide strips
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
3 eggs
1 Tbsp. mirin (sweet rice wine)
1 Tbsp. low salt shoyu
1/2 tsp. salt

3 or 4 oz. salmon (leftover is good), cooked and flaked, about 1/2 cup
1 – 2 oz. pkg. natto
2 or 3 stalks green onion, finely chopped for garnish
Toasted sesame seeds for garnish

Heat a large non-stick pan over medium heat. Mix eggs, mirin, shoyu and salt in a medium bowl. Add vegetable oil to hot pan, then carefully place nori strips in the pan. Pour egg mixture into pan and swirl pan gently to distribute over the pan bottom. Cook eggs for 1 – 2 minutes, then lift up the sides of the omelet to let uncooked portion slide underneath. When egg mixture no longer appears runny in the middle, after about 2 -3 minutes, sprinkle in the salmon flakes. Top with natto and cook for 1 or 2 more minutes, depending on how well done you like your omelet.

Roll omelet onto a serving dish and sprinkle with green onions and sesame seeds.