Veteran meal maker Gary Yuen navigates not just recipes, but wind, weather and waves — not to mention sliding cutting boards, rolling fruits and vegetables, and sloshing sauces.
Yuen and his counterparts cook in very specific settings — aboard the voyaging canoes Hokule‘a and Hikianalia.
“Some nights, before I went (to sleep), I’d look at the next day’s menu and start prepping,” Yuen, 64, said of the late nights required to keep active, busy crewmembers fed. “Lots of times, the cooks don’t sleep a lot.”
Voyaging cooks have vital roles, as they’re required to do more than just fill tummies and please palates. They are responsible for keeping up the nutrition, health — and morale — of those they feed.
“You gotta be real creative. If the food is too bland, they won’t eat. And if they won’t eat, they get weak,” Yuen said. “If they go down, there’s one less man available.”
Yuen, who has taken nine voyages since 1985, recently coached two newbie cooks for the canoes’ around-the-world journey that commences Saturday, weather permitting. They practiced aboard the Hokule‘a, docked at the Marine Education Training Center at Sand Island, to create an exceptionally grand meal of “alfredo” fish pasta, Tahitian poke and cole slaw.
“When we catch fresh fish, we do something special,” Yuen explained.
On the Hokule‘a, all food is cooked on deck over a two-burner gas stove housed in a galley box tailor-made for the canoe. Yuen even baked cakes in it. The Hikianalia, launched two years ago, has the same setup for the stove. It is also outfitted with an oven fired by propane and photovoltaic panels that allow for an electric rice cooker.
Bob Perkins, director of the marine center and a captain for the worldwide voyage, designed the plywood composite boxes, sandwiched in fiberglass, that can withstand high temperatures. The boxes are lined in stainless steel for easy cleaning and include steel “rails” that wrap around the stove to keep pots from sliding off the burner when the ocean is rough. The high walls of the box maintain heat efficiency and protect the stove’s flames from waves and wind.
He also designed foam composite boxes used for storage.
“The materials allow the boxes to be lighter. The less weight, the less energy it takes to move the boat,” said Perkins. “All together, the composite parts offer about 1,500 pounds of weight savings.”
At the training session, cooks hunched over a storage galley box that served as a kitchen counter, chopping and seasoning ingredients. At hand on deck was a bucket of clean saltwater and a towel, used for washing hands, and a box filled with cooking oil and standard seasonings. Out at sea, flies are nonexistent and seawater is clean, which help keep the open-air preparations sanitary.
On rough days, cooks develop juggling skills, said Yuen.
“You gotta hold down the cutting board, the food and the bowls, because that wind will pick up,” he said. “You just learn to cope.”
With water limited, some prep involves clean saltwater, such as when cooked pasta is rinsed. The first pass is with seawater, followed by a rinse with freshwater.
At the practice, fresh mahimahi was cooked with garlic and onions, and tossed with pasta in a sauce base of cream of mushroom soup.
Even on the docked vessel, the meal was especially satisfying out in the open air.
“A fair amount of the meals is all about morale, keeping the crew happy and healthy,” said Lita Blankenfeld, head of the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s logistics committee, who is responsible for provisioning the food. “I can’t imagine more than 20 days of not seeing land. Since it’s mostly a Hawaii crew, we’re focusing mostly on local foods.”
Dinners can include chicken curry, salmon patties, penne pasta and chicken tofu. Lunches are hardy finger foods to be eaten while on duty, such as tuna or peanut butter on crackers, and nuts.
Cooks must do their homework to accommodate vegetarians and others with special diets or food allergies. Sometimes they hold tastings and take surveys of the crews’ likes and dislikes.
Blankenfeld, 64, packs containers with ingredients for each day’s meals; the cooks have a six-day rotation of menus. Yuen says it can be fun to open the box each day.
“It’s full of surprises sometimes, with things like pudding, candy and beef jerky,” he said.
Journeys begin with a supply of fresh fruits and vegetables, which usually have a shelf life of up to a week. Cabbages, squash and sweet potato are among the hardiest and last longer. Eggs are purchased unprocessed because the coating on unwashed eggs extends shelf life.
Two to three weeks into the voyage, eggs are tested before being cooked. When dropped into fresh water, a still-fresh egg will sink; one that floats is filled with gases and could be spoiled.
Fresh fish supplements the planned meals. Crews fish every day, and when they are successful, they take only what they can use. Nothing goes to waste; besides raw and cooked fish, crews will eat fish-head soup and dried fish.
Blankenfeld’s duties include menu planning, and she even includes recipes in each food box.
The job requires her to juggle many concerns: lack of refrigeration, space limitations, weight of supplies, minimizing rubbish and cost. Priority No. 1 is food safety, she says.
Blankenfeld stocks dried, dehydrated and canned items, though canned goods are limited because of their weight and the fact that they create a greater volume of rubbish.
To ensure enough provisions, she adds 5 to 10 percent overage of supplies.
Blankenfeld also researches each country’s customs policies because “I don’t know of any country where you can take in living, fresh foods,” she said. “If the canoes had anything fresh left, they’d have to dump it before they dock.”
She’s developed her method to the madness over 15 years. It was during 1999 when her father, Myron “Pinky” Thompson, assigned the job to her and a friend while planning a voyage to Rapa Nui.
Blankenfeld is married to navigator Bruce Blankenfeld and is the sister of Nainoa Thompson.
Loading everything onto the canoes is a major undertaking that requires the manpower of the crew, family and friends, and volunteers.
One of the heavier items is water, of which 85 ounces is allotted per crewmember per day.
Master navigator Kalepa Baybayan, 51, who’s been voyaging for 39 years and will take part in the first three legs of the worldwide voyage, says the key is managing weight distribution.
Though Thompson will determine the loading strategy, Baybayan said that basically, “we want the center to be the heaviest part of the canoe,” so water will likely be stored there.
The bins of food Blankenfeld packs are also loaded strategically, to balance the weight of the front, back, left and right sides of the canoes. She labels the bins by date and they are packed so that weight is removed alternately from each side of the vessel. Manipulating weight in a canoe helps support efficient sailing.
“There’s a whole process to this,” said Blankenfeld. “It’s not like cooking at home.”
RECIPES FOR THE VOYAGE
This pasta dish is adapted for home kitchens. On the voyaging canoes, cooks use dehydrated vegetables and canned butter that requires no refrigeration.
PASTA & FISH
Courtesy Gary Yuen, Polynesian Voyaging Society
1 pound pasta
4 pounds fish
1-1/2 sticks butter
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 medium onion, finely chopped
4 to 6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 (12- to 14-ounce) can coconut milk
1 (14-ounce) can chicken broth
1 (10.75-ounce) can cream of mushroom soup
1 teaspoon brown sugar
3/4 pound frozen mixed vegetables
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
1-1/2 cups crushed almonds
Cook pasta according to package directions. Rinse, then place in serving bowl. Set aside.
In pan, saute fish in butter with salt, pepper, onion and garlic. Place on top of pasta.
In same pan, add coconut milk, broth, soup and brown sugar. Add vegetables, more salt and pepper and Parmesan cheese, and simmer a few minutes. Pour over fish and pasta. Sprinkle crushed almonds over everything. Serves 12.
Approximate nutritional information, per serving (not including salt to taste): 600 calories, 31 g fat, 15 g saturated fat, 145 mg cholesterol, 600 mg sodium, 41 g carbohydrate, 5 g fiber, 4 g sugar, 40 g protein
Kaiulani Odom developed this dish for breakfast. She says coconut milk is good for the digestive tract.
Courtesy Polynesian Voyaging Society
2 (12 to 14-ounce) cans coconut milk
2 cups water
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon cinnamon, or to taste
4 cups hapa rice (brown and white rice mixed)
1 cup raisins
Walnuts or other nuts (optional)
1 to 2 sweet potatoes, cubed
Mix coconut milk and water. Bring to boil.
Add rest of ingredients. Cook until rice is done and liquid has been absorbed. Serves 12 to 14.
Approximate nutritional information (not including optional nuts): 450 calories, 15 g fat, 13 g saturated fat, no cholesterol, 250 mg sodium, 76 g carbohydrate, 4 g fiber, 13 g sugar, 7 g protein