Saimin: A local food celebrity
In Hawaii, kama`aina (local residents) are silly for saimin and for many, it’s considered the quintessential “Hawaii comfort food”. On a cool night, a hot bowl of noodles beats out the dinnertime competition.
Not to be confused with Japan’s ramen, which it closely resembles, saimin is a local dish found only in the islands. The saimin noodle, while resembling other Asian noodles, is known for its square cut and slightly curly texture. While saimin is commonly prepared in a bowl of hot soup it can also be found fried and more recently – even as the “bun” for a burger in a twist on the much-raged-about ramen burger.
Like any popular dish, every restaurant prepares its saimin differently. But traditionally, a bowl of saimin features a soft, chewy egg noodle served in a dashi broth and can be garnished with assortment of toppings ranging from green onions, kamaboko (fish cake) and char siu (broiled pork) to sliced Spam, scrambled egg or nori.
The story behind saimin
The name saimin is the combination of two Chinese words: sai, meaning thin and min, which means noodle. It’s believed that the dish originated during the early twentieth century plantation era as various Asian ethnicities – Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Hawaiian and Portuguese — came together. After a day at the fields, families prepared meals simply, each contributing items to the communal pot of noodles, such as eggs, Korean cabbage (kimchi), Portuguese sausage, or green onions.
*Photo Credit: Denise Sanderson
In the islands, saimin is such a staple that much like rice, you can find it everywhere – from food stands at carnivals, baseball and football games to school lunches.
In fact, in Hawaii even McDonalds serves its own version of the slurper popular dish — the first time in the history of the company that it expanded its menu to include an “ethnic” food. To make it happen, McDonalds researchers worked closely with Hawaii restaurateurs to develop a recipe exclusively for local stores. Not surprisingly, to this day it remains one of the company’s most popular Hawaii menu items.
But if you want to get a taste for saimin that doesn’t include a side of Big Mac (though ironically, a bowl of saimin pairs perfectly with a good burger) here are a few of the arguably best saimin spots in Hawaii.
Though trust us, if you ask five different people their favorite saimin shop you’ll get five different answers.
- Shiro’s Saimin (Oahu): The namesake and brainchild of the late Franz Shiro Matsuo, Shiro’s Saimin has been serving up Matsuo’s favorite dish – a bowl of saimin — since 1969. Today the saimin shack continues to create their noodles fresh, in-house daily. And when they’re not scooping out saimin, they’re cooking up new concoctions for their more than 60-item long menu, which currently includes bowls like their Oxtail Saimin, Grilled Liver Saimin, Hotdog Saimin and Kalua Pork Saimin … And that’s just the beginning.
- Palace Saimin (Oahu): Sitting pretty in Kalihi, this hole-in-the-wall has been a saimin hot spot for neighborhood diners since 1946. Palace Saimin is known for their slippery noodles and special broth (with just a hint of umami). Just be sure to order a side of their wontons and BBQ sticks all around. Because no one will want to share.
- Hamura Saimin (Kauai): This Lihue landmark dishes out more than a thousand bowls of steaming dashi and homemade saimin noodles each day. Owned by the Hiraoka family, Hamura Saimin is a popular lay over for locals picking up take out orders for friends and family on the neighbor islands. We’d recommend swinging in for a bowl of saimin with a side of barbequed chicken sticks and one of their luscious lilikoi (passion fruit) chiffon pies to go.
- Sam Sato’s (Maui): At Sam Sato’s they’re known for their unique spin on saimin – the “Dry Noodles.” A favorite dish amongst locals, here they fry the saimin noodles with char siu, green onions and bean sprouts and serve them with a bowl of dashi on the side. If you’re still hungry put in an order for some teri beef sticks or French fries with a side of Maui’s “traditional” sauce, which consists of a mixture of mustard and mayonnaise.
- Nori’s Saimin & Snacks (Big Island): If you can noodle out the location to this nondescript saimin shack (tip: it’s just across the ways from Hilo Lanes bowling alley) you’ll be handsomely rewarded with some of the best saimin on the island. Ignore the long selection of menu items and stick with what this little shop is known for – it’s saimin. Whether it’s fried or in a hot, savory soup after a few bites you’ll be hooked on this simple snack.
Our only tip: no matter how you cook it, make sure to slurp it up. Just like in Japan, the proper way to show appreciation for a bowl of saimin is a loud SLUUURP.