I had a revelation this trip: food in Hawaii was fusion long before the term was ever coined.
Sure, some modern dishes are historically Hawaiian and others have been slightly tweaked from a distinct ethnic dish, but a good amount of food in Hawaii is the result of a mash up of numerous cuisines and flavors. One such dish is Saimin: it’s origin dates back to sugar cane plantation days when various immigrants worked and cooked together and saimin reflects all those influences. Saimin has a broth reminiscent of Japanese dashi, uses egg and wheat noodles reminiscent of Chinese chow mein noodles, and is garnished with an assortment of toppings hailing from Chinese, Hawaiian, Japanese, Portuguese, and Filipino cuisines.
My first taste of saimin was a late-night meal at the Hawaiian fast food chain, Zippys, which was forgettable, to say the least. Fortunately, I’ve had better tasting saimin since, but every one has been so MSG-filled that I walk away feeling like I’ve made out with a salt lick. Recently, my friends in Hawaii asked me to craft them modern, homemade, healthier versions of their favorite local grindz (aka only-in-Hawaii foods) and when I asked which to start with, one of them blurted out, Saimin!
The group fessed up to relying on the storebought noodles with the flavor packet (think Cup O’ Noodles sans cup) and that they had no idea how to make it from scratch. So, I poked through some cookbooks, talked to locals, asked my chef friends in the area, and experimented away. Here it is: a from-scratch Saimin that uses ingredients you can find in most grocery store’s ethnic aisles and requires just a bit of your time. The result is a healthy recipe for shrimp saimin that has no MSG, a ton less sodium than the original, and is all around much better for you.
Before diving into this recipe, I wanted to share a few more specifics about saimin. The stock is reminiscent of the classic Japanese broth, dashi – made with konbu, dried shitake, and bonito – but it has a distinct fish flavor and is seasoned generously. The ideal noodles are the saimin noodles, which are reminiscent of Chinese chow mein, but made with egg and wheat. The broth and noodles I settled on are in keeping with tradition (minus the MSG), but my choice in garnishes are more unconventional.
At its most basic, saimin comes garnished with a poached, boiled or scrambled egg, some kamaboko (aka fish cake), and a few scallions. From there, you can garnish it numerous ways, including with nori, bok choy, spinach, SPAM, wontons, gyoza, and on and on until your bowl is super full. (To get an idea of some variations, check out the options at the Oahu Saimin spot, Shiro’s.) My saimin garnishes are less traditional in an attempt to make it better for you.
Here’s my rationale: I decided on a seafood saimin in order to make use of the shrimp that used to flavor the broth. To that I added some blanched broccolini, some shitake for extra umami (to make up for the umami lost from nixing the MSG), and a soft-boiled egg because I like how the yolk runs into the broth and becomes part of the soup.
I’m sure purists will cringe when they see I’ve tinkered with the beloved Hawaiian comfort food classic that is saimin, but to that I say, I’m just adding to the further fusing flavors that makes modern Hawaiian food what it is. Oh, and and that this saimin got an enthusiastic thumbs up from a houseful of my local friends.
Shrimp and Vegetable Saimin Recipe
The konbu, dried shitake, and bonito flakes give the broth a distinct dashi taste, the classic Japanese broth used for making miso soup and ramen. So, once you seek out the ingredients, keep them on hand for dashi; Rachael at La Fuji Mama has easy instructions for homemade dashi. If you can’t find those ingredients or are looking to save time, use the storebought concentrate known as dashi no-moto but be sure to scan the label because some versions contain MSG. The saimin noodles are labeled as such in Hawaii but can be hard to find elsewhere; check your local Asian market or use fresh chow mein noodles, ramen, or, as a last resort, udon instead.
- Makes: 4 servings (8 cups broth)
- Total Time: 45 minutes to 3 hours
- Hands-On Time: 15 minutes
- For the broth:
- 2 quarts water
- 1 pound shell-on shrimp (about 30)
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 (4 inch) piece konbu seaweed, rinsed
- 8 dried shitake mushrooms
- 1 cup bonito flakes
- 1 (2-inch) piece ginger, thinly sliced
- 1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce
- For the saimin:
- 1/2 pound saimin*, chow mein, ramen, or udon noodles
- 1 bunch broccolini (or Chinese broccoli, or broccoli rabe), ends trimmed
- 4 handfuls baby spinach or Napa cabbage, thinly sliced
- 4 fresh shitake mushrooms, stemmed and caps thinly sliced
- 4 poached, boiled, or scrambled eggs
- 1/2 Maui or other sweet onion, thinly sliced
- 1 bunch green onions, ends trimmed, and thinly sliced
- Soy Sauce, for garnish (optional)
- Chinese hot mustard, for garnish (optional)
- Kamaboko, for garnish (optional)*
- For the broth:
Bring water to a simmer over medium heat. Meanwhile, peel the shrimp reserving the shrimp meat and shells separately. Add salt and shrimp meat to simmering water and cook until shrimp are just pink, about 3 to 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove shrimp to a plate and refrigerate until ready to use.
Return liquid to stove over low heat, and add shrimp peelings (shells and tails), konbu, shitake, bonito, and ginger. Gently simmer until shrimp shells are pink, konbu has expanded in size, shitake are rehydrated, and bonito are darker in color, about for 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat, add soy, and let the broth steep.
Start tasting the broth after it has been steeping for 15 minutes — it should be salty enough that all the flavors are apparent but not so much that you taste the salt. The broth is done when it has a smoky note from the bonito, a slight ginger tone, and a good sea flavor but is not fishy. (I have let this mixture steep as little as 30 minutes and up to 2 1/2 hours.) Strain broth, discard solids, and store until ready to use. (Broth can be made up to 2 days ahead. Store covered in the refrigerator until ready to use.)
- For the saimin:
When ready to cook the noodles, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Meanwhile, fill a bowl halfway with ice water and set aside. Add broccolini and cook until bright green and knife tender, about 2 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove to the ice water bath and set aside. Add noodles and cook according to package instructions until tender. Drain and set aside. (Can be made up to 2 days ahead. Store covered in the refrigerator until ready to use.)
- To serve:
Heat the broth to a simmer over medium heat then divide noodles among four bowls. Top each bowl with top with a quarter each broccolini, spinach, egg, mushroom, Maui onion, green onion, and shrimp. Divide broth evenly among bowls and serve with soy sauce and hot mustard passed on the side.
*Note: Some of the saimin noodles and kamaboko that I found had MSG in them so check the label when you buy them, or leave them out.