De-Constructing Hawaii’s Loco Moco

Loco Moco Before
Loco Moco (Before) (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

For those seeking examples of culinary fusion, Hawaii provides a very deep well to peer into. Rachel Laudan discovered this while teaching at the University of Hawaii and wrote an award-winning book about the subject: The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage.*

One of those fusion dishes which Laudan mentions, albeit briefly, is a “traditional” concoction called Loco Moco. One of the plate specials so popular in Hawaii, Loco Moco generally features two scoops of white sticky rice topped with a large hamburger patty drenched in brown gravy, topped with a fried egg, and squirted with hot pepper sauce, soy sauce, or ketchup. Canned brown gravy works, too. And sometimes chopped onions,  usually green.

Illustration credit: Eli McIntyre & Zak Opaskar

Invented, according to legend, in 1949 in Hilo on the Big Island (Hawaii), by Mr. and Mrs. Richard Inouye in their Lincoln Grill for a group of teenage athletes, the dish now appears on the menu of most local eateries all over the rest of the islands. Some claim that a Mr. Miyashiro, and not the Inouyes, invented the dish in his Café 100 in Hilo. No matter who first plated Loco Moco, a nonsense name supposedly dreamed up by the teenagers, the dish provides some interesting clues about culinary fusion.

Among the influences forming this dish, the first and most obvious one — at least to an American — is tasted in a sudden sense of déjà vu, a reminisce of grade-school cafeteria food: Salisbury Steak in Gravy. Less prominent, at least in the American culinary repertoire, lies in the link to Korea’s bibimap or Indonesia’s Nasi Goreng, both based on rice and topped with a fried egg. And in Spanish cuisine, there’s bife a caballo, steak smothered with a fried egg on top.

In my opinion, two situations point to Salisbury Steak figuring prominently at the birth of Loco Moco.

Home economists/missionaries arrived in Hawaii and taught school cafeteria managers to cook Salisbury Steak. And Mr. Inouye worked at the famed Royal Hawaiian in Honolulu at a time when Salisbury Steak enjoyed great popularity.

But, no matter what made Mrs. Inouye or Mr. Miyashiro grab the gravy that fateful day, Loco Moco tastes marvelous.

Even though it’s a sure invitation to the Cholesterol Hall of Shame.

Loco Moco After
Loco Moco (After) (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

*Laudan’s book serves as a template for those interested in deconstructing cultural meanderings and culinary borrowings. Although published in 1996, it’s still in print and available in the airport bookstore in Honolulu. During my January 2010 visit to Hawaii, I didn’t see it in either of the Borders Bookstores on Kauai or Oahu. For a brief attempt at examining  Loco Moco and culinary fusion in the context of language/pidgin development, see James L. Kelly’s “Loco Moco: A Folk Dish in the Making.” Social Process in Hawaii 30:59 – 64, 1983.

© 2010 C. Bertelsen

4 thoughts on “De-Constructing Hawaii’s Loco Moco

  1. Now why is it, that it just never occurred to me that Dr. Salisbury may have had a culinary influence on Hawaii’s Loco Moco and so many other dishes? Fascinating post, Cynthia. Thanks for “saving” us some:)

    I happened upon a blog I think you may like. It is in German but thank goodness has a translator. I’m going to link to the latest translated post about Arancini di riso here. I “met” Petra a while back and as of late, she has been a huge help deciphering the titles of some German cookbooks I have. She has an interesting post tiled Toast Hawaii you might like.

  2. Every time we go to Hawaii I say I’m going to try Loco Moco, but somehow I’m distracted by the more adult types of fusion cooking that got their start 20 or so years ago in a very different dining atmosphere. I hope you’ll follow up by writing about the “Pacific Rim” cuisine that combines Asian, Mexican, and Italian themes with local fish and very fresh vegetables from island gardens. It took me a long time to figure out where on the Pacific Rim Italy lies — finally I realized it’s Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.

    I enjoyed your post.

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