You may be reading this because manapua was the thing to eat as your afternoon snack. Or because your own town came with its well-known manapua man. Or because you want to know what the hell manapua is and who is this man that dons its name.
The more familiar name for those living in, at least America, is Chinese pork bun, or steamed bun. Usually, a cha siu filled steamed bun that won’t break the bank but will satisfy your afternoon cravings. It was the thing we did as kids; running out of the house chasing down the manapua man with our bits of change. Sure the ice cream man was around, but the manapua man was our island thing.
It’s true. He drove a van, usually with a glass display case anchored at the sliding side door. It was filled with your more common American snacks. Skittles, M&M’s, Snickers, soda’s, chips, etc. But who would chase down a manapua man and not get manapua? Well, me. What can I say, I was a kid? My taste buds hardly existed. I was even that kid that never enjoyed POG (passion orange guava), basic blasphemy in Hawaii. A kid that’s doesn’t enjoy the taste of local food and sweet Hawaiian juice. I was that kid and I’m not afraid to admit it.
I may not have enjoyed the savory-sweetness of a manapua but rice cakes were my jam! Another sweet treat that I can say was something like a tapioca-flan-cake confection. It’s still a favorite sweet treat of mine. It’s sticky rice usually cooked in coconut milk then covered in a sweet syrup. I am no epicurean but if you are looking for a recipe that, instantly made my mouth water check out The Little Epicurean’s Biko recipe.
While some kids chased after ice cream trucks we waited for our after school delight with island style and understated flair. The routine was all the same – kids, parents, grandmas, older and younger siblings all gathered around to order – cash only. As kids, we stood face to face with Cornuts, Starburst and Twix bars, but we knew what was worth ordering. If rice cakes and manapua weren’t doing it for you, often the manapua man acted as the best kind of local fast food around. Plate lunches filled with noodles, rice, delicious savory sometimes sweetmeats. As he prepared your order chips hung by clips from a repurposed clothesline behind the man. Soda cans usually displayed on a shelf. My rice cake slice often spilled over the edges of the paper boat it came in. My brother usually had his manapua and Hawaiian Sun P-O-G to wash it down.
The van was basically a bodega on wheels. It was plain with nothing especially eye-catching about it, except if you caught it on its passenger side. It’s sliding door locked to an open position with a display case full of snacks. Being a child at the time that I lived on the North Shore of Oahu, I figured this was normal. I thought this is what every town in every place had. Well, not so much.
I currently live in a place and time where food trucks rule. I feel I can share my story of the manapua man with people that never experienced his awesomeness. What we lack in the comforts of home we find in a communal sense of nostalgia, practicality, and pride of home when we share our stories. Have it be the local bodega or manapua man.
The man provided a “convenience” of sorts to the hard-working people in some of the lesser talked about locales. The story starts back in the plantation days of historic Hawaii. It was a way to provide for the plantation workers. Sure, today we see food trucks serving up the same thing, but the man with the manapua hardly has a catchy business name. It’s simply The manapua man. In every town, where one exists, it’s simple.
Before hipsters and pop-ups and restaurateurs in food trucks. There was the manapua man. Rolling through our neighborhoods serving up Hawaiian-local style food. Remembering the regular faces of those he served. He was someone to count on when you needed a sweet-sloppy treat or pork filled steamed bun. In my case, he was the man that noticed my absence from the crowd. Absent because I was sick (nothing drastic). He filled a paper bowl with sticky rice handed it to my brother. “I hope your sister fills better,” he said. No payment needed. It’s this memory I will always have about Hawaii’s non-ice cream man. The manapua man – established in Hawaii at some point in time, in our tummies temporarily, and our memories forever.