A few weeks ago I wrote about a road trip from Hilo to Kona in 1943 by Ken Fujii and his family.
Fujii, who was 5 at the time, mentioned they stopped for “ice shave” on a hot afternoon. One of our copy editors changed it to “shave ice.”
It was my error for not telling them that on the Big Island they call it “ice shave.” This set off an interesting discussion with subscribers to my Wednesday Rearview Mirror Insider newsletter about variations in pidgin and terminology from island to island.
This week I thought I’d include my Friday column readers in the discussion as well.
Fujii told me that he purposely used the term “ice shave” since that was used on the Big Island in his younger years.
“The rest of the Hawaiian Islands called it ‘shave ice,’ but folks in Hilo and the rest of the Big Island called it ‘ice shave.’ I included ‘ice shave’ as ‘bait’ to see who would catch the terminology.
“It would have been interesting to see what kinds of reactions from the rest of the Hawaiian Islands you would have gotten if you had used ‘ice shave’ in the article,” Fujii said. “Only Big Islanders would understand the obscure term.”
I turned to the newspaper archives and found “ice shaves” offered for sale as early as 1897. They were referring to a kitchen tool. The tool was dragged across a flat block of ice.
The shavings would fill the device. The user would then turn it upside down and empty it onto a plate or glass.
The term “shave ice” showed up in the papers in 1924 and said it was a sign on a wagon being pulled down the street by a vendor. It looks like there was an explosion of businesses selling shave ice starting after World War II, around 1945.
Alvin Yee told me there used to be a hand tool labeled “Ice Shaver” at the old GEM stores. “I believe Big Islanders also say ‘haul cane road’ while Oahuans say ‘cane haul road.’”
Kat Koshi expanded on the discussion. “I may be wrong,” she wrote, “but don’t Maui residents also say ‘ice shave’?
“Big Islanders also say tomato beef instead of beef tomato. Guess they just like being a little different.”
“My mother back in Hilo called it tomato beef because she learned to cook it at a Chinese cooking class,” Fujii continued, “and the Chinese instructor who taught the class referred to it as tomato beef.
“That cooking class was very popular among Hilo residents, and was taught repeatedly over many years. I suspect that they all learned that terminology as a result of attending that particular class in the 1950s or thereabouts.
“Learning how to cook Chinese food at home was all the rage at the time,” Fujii said, “so many homemakers enrolled in the night classes. While growing up in Hilo, I learned to call it tomato beef.
“Whenever my mom shared that recipe with friends and relatives, she always referred to it as tomato beef, and her recipe card also said tomato beef.
“I believe that the cooking instructor himself was a recent arrival from Hong Kong or Canton. I found several references to tomato beef on the internet when searching for Western- influenced Chinese foods in Hong Kong and Canton.
“Cantonese tomato beef is one of those dishes that make me nostalgic for Hong Kong,” Fujii said. “They can be found on the menus of Western-style cafes all over the city.
“While it’s also a fast dish that families whip up at home, I can’t help associating it with a cozy, slightly worn, Formica-laden interiors of Hong Kong diners.”
Fujii browsed through all of his old local recipe books. “I did not find any recipe calling it tomato beef. All of the recipe books which had a published recipe called it beef tomato.
“I learned how to cook the dish from a 1971 Maui cookbook that calls it beef tomato. The dish is ostensibly Chinese (even though it is probably Westernized, like other Cantonese dishes, such as beef broccoli). I checked the menus of as many local Chinese restaurants as I could, and they all call it beef tomato or beef with tomato.
“I couldn’t find tomato beef in any recipe books or menus (even menus from restaurants which featured Cantonese food).
“So I am concluding that the term tomato beef was introduced to Hilo by individual instructors or cooks from Hong Kong or Canton, and has been an oral tradition in Hilo. It likely originated when early homemakers in Hilo first learned to cook the dish and the recipe was called tomato beef.
“I assume the terminology has been passed down orally from mother to daughter or son within families, supported by old recipe cards.
“However, all commercial venues like restaurants, and recipe books, today refer to the dish by its more common name, beef tomato, but, in fact, both titles, tomato beef and beef tomato, are valid names for the dish.”
Keala Wong said, “Being pake Hawaiian, we always call it tomato beef. In California it is commonly known as tomato beef, and I never heard it as beef tomato there.
“I have heard that tomatoes, being a New World fruit, were introduced to China by Europeans after the 15th century,” Wong continued.
“I can’t speak for other parts of China, but in Cantonese cuisine in China and Chinese American enclaves, the vegetable is named first in the dish, followed by the protein, so tomato beef would be a literal translation, or Chinese broccoli beef or even tofu pork belly.”
Because our population is isolated to some extent on islands, it makes sense to me that variations will develop in terminology or pronunciation. Have any readers noticed such things?
A different December column generated another lively discussion, in this case, about where Duke Kahanamoku was born.
He said he was born downtown in Bernice Pauahi’s former home. But others, including his family historian, believe he was born in Kalia (now the site of the Hilton Hawaiian Village). I’ll explore that next week and see whether we can get to the bottom of it.