I’m in the Trader Joe’s frozen aisle, a section of the store that I love to peruse but hardly commit to. I’m frugal, and a firm believer in the notion that I can use my spice cabinet to make even the most rudimentary ingredients taste like one of these microwavable meals for a fraction of the price. But sometimes I treat myself, I can’t make Thai Tea Mini Mochi or Pepperoni Pizza Macaroni and Cheese at home, after all.
Something catches my eye. The box is bright yellow, displaying three spring rolls atop a banana leaf. They’re crispy, as if fried by the hues of the sunset background. They’re called “Kalua Pork Spring Rolls,” so it suddenly makes sense to me that they’re being marketed like a Hawaiian vacation. I’m looking at a family of three little spring-roll people tanning on their banana leaf towel under a tropical sun, where I want to be. I buy them.
Kalua pork is a traditional Hawaiian dish, and it continues to exist as a key part of the resort luaus of today. They’re shows meant to dazzle the audience with whimsical (though false) acts that leave tourists thinking that native Hawaiians do things like eating fire on a regular basis. At one point, an entire glazed pig is carried out for the guests to marvel at. It’s cartoonish in the way that its facial features stayed intact through the entire barbecuing and smoking process. Its eyes are closed like it, too, is playing a role in the grand spectacle. (It’s entirely possible that it was: I never actually saw anyone eat the luau pig.)
The spring rolls are in my apartment’s oven. My radiator sizzles, and I pretend that it’s the pig spit roasting.
“Kalua” actually isn’t just a fancy Hawaiian word. It’s a way of cooking, native to Hawaii that occurs in an underground oven called an imu. Kalua literally means “to cook in an underground oven.” My oven is above ground. This is false advertising, and potentially insensitive to Hawaiian culture. Unless their test kitchen has its own imu, but I don’t think they come in a large enough size for mass manufacturing.
I open the oven to flip the spring rolls and I’m hit with the pungent smell of hot dogs. It seems that this pork is going to be closer to the Americanized version than what’s on the box. They’re not as crispy and brown in the actual pan either. They’re a translucent fleshy color that teases the insides of the rolls: shreds of carrots and purple cabbage running like wrist veins against an unassuming log of pork. One is stuck to the pan. My fork shreds part of the wrapper, but the cylinder of spring-roll insides stays structurally intact. I guess this is closer to a hot dog than I thought.
I put them back in the oven for a few minutes because the suggested cooking time on the box has left them unappealingly finger-like. It takes ten minutes for them to develop any sort of tan like their modelesque siblings on the box, an eternity in frozen-meal time (and that doesn’t take into account the purgatory that is waiting for them to cool).
I first ate kalua pork among the same tropical kitsch as the box I’m staring at right now. It was called “Hawaiian Barbecue” (straight to the point) and it had the layout of a greasy-spoon style diner, but it was filled with fake palm trees and inflatable pool floaties in a plastic tropical paradise. Coupled with the dust and harsh fluorescent lighting, it was like I was in the comfiest room in the Big Island’s sanitarium for the criminally insane. The menu had a few options: chicken, pork, or beef. All barbecued various ways and served with macaroni salad and rice. It was here that I discovered that “kalua pork” is Hawaiian for “pulled pork” (served on a banana leaf for authenticity!). I admit it was a bit of a letdown, but I was paying for the tropical façade as well. Though there were no fire eaters this time.
I know they’re ready to eat when the grease doesn’t sting my hand when I try to wipe it off the roll. Each has a crunch that gives way to juicy, smoky pork (though distinctly American in its saltiness, like the spice blend was copied off of the ingredients list on a bag of beef jerky). I’ve never had “authentic” kalua pork so I don’t have an appropriate model for comparison, but it tastes unlike any other barbecued recipe I’ve ever eaten: Korean, North Carolinian, Texan, each with their own distinct flavor profile. I can’t tell if this one is more “Hawaiian” or “grocery store.” Maybe it’s both, the result of a recipe intricately formulated to facilitate the sale of tropical exoticity to me. It worked. They’re delicious. The four spring rolls that fit in the box are gone soon. Maybe I can nibble the grease from my fingers. Or just buy some more.
There’s a charred aftertaste to the rolls—maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to take their cooking time into my own hands—and I can’t help but think about the roast kalua pig. They’re a likeness of a collective myth of Hawaii, and something I’m willing to buy.