Honpa Hongwanji’s bon dance beef sticks satisfy generations of fans
Dancing is a way to show gratitude for one’s ancestors and today’s blessings, but enjoying the company and the local foods is just as popular at the Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin’s two-day bon dance.
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Carnivores might have gone ape at the sight of all the strips of raw red meat lined up for skewering during the monumental setup for the Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin’s two-day bon dance.
Rows and rows of people, from kindergartners to grandmas, talked and laughed while preparing the teriyaki beef sticks Thursday for the yearly Buddhist obon festival, held last weekend at the 100-year-old Nuuanu temple.
Dancing is a way to show gratitude for one’s ancestors and today’s blessings, but enjoying the company and the local foods is just as popular.
Elsewhere in the kitchen, a team was making stew and noodle dishes from scratch, among the myriad delectables sold at the fundraising event.
Alan Tomita, bon dance chairman, has been the designated “barbecue stick person” since joining the committee 20 years ago. The finger food is the most time-consuming item to produce, so at least 80 people strung meat onto skewers for four hours.
They were aiming for 3,000 sticks this year, but stringers were unintentionally generous with the meat so they ended up with only 2,800.
“People are going to get a bargain,” he said — the sticks sell for $2.50 each.
Few people know the recipe for the 26 gallons of shoyu-sugar marinade that Tomita boils up, but the secret is using sake instead of water. And, “you gotta use the Aloha Shoyu,” he said, as other brands are too salty.
The meat sticks were refrigerated, to be grilled during the bon dance.
The first marinade that Tomita, a civil engineer, made 20 years ago was “horrible,” he said, so a recipe was obtained from the owners of the old Wisteria Restaurant. He’s made some changes — marinating for four hours instead of just one, and upgrading the meat. Since he switched to a cut that he calls “almost a rib-eye” three years ago, the barbecue sticks have sold out, Tomita said.
The Hongwanji sponsors several Boy and Girl Scouts clubs whose young members help prep all the food and set up the booths.
“If it if wasn’t for them, we would die,” Tomita said. Students from the Hongwanji Mission School across the street were also there, “just giving back,” said teacher Kris Maeda.
Ashton Takuma, who is entering fifth grade, said he found meat stringing “hard, very gross,” as he munched on a Spam musubi.
“The fat and texture is weird.”
Bringing years of experience to the operation were sisters Gladys Ozaki, Judy Takaki and Sharon Kaichi, who used to make meat sticks for their family’s restaurant, Jean’s Saimin, on the corner of Liliha Street and Vineyard Boulevard (it closed in 1969).
Tomita directed everyone to watch how the sisters skewered the meat, and to ask them for help when needed.
Ozaki, who cut the blocks of meat into strips at her table, said it’s tricky to “sew” the meat onto the skewers because it is so thin and slippery. Takaki said she could literally do it with her eyes closed, as she used to doze off while doing it when she was 10 years old.
Dianne Ida, a temple member since she was a child, brought her grandkids for the first time to help make the food they enjoy.
“I wanted them to know what goes into the preparation.”
Granddaughter Elle Kakuda, 6, really got into stringing meat, but grandson Cole Nakamura, 7, quit after two skewers.
“He thought it was going to be fun,” Ida said with a smile.