When I travel to a new place, most of my itinerary revolves around food. It’s only after I figure out where I’ll eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner that I can determine what else I want to do in this new, exciting place. And so, when I went to the Hawaiian island of Oahu for my dear friends’ wedding earlier this month, my days revolved around food. Specifically, poke.
I thought I had eaten poke before in New York City, but it turns out I had only tasted a sad imitation of the raw fish dish that originated in Hawaii. In Manhattan, I’d spend upwards of $17 on a poke bowl from a trendy, Instagram-ready shop that covers the chunks of fish with extraneous toppings like avocado, edamame, mango, and cucumber. Maybe you need all those toppings and fanfare in NYC to cover up the fact that the fish isn’t that fresh, but in Hawaii, it’s much simpler — and ridiculously more tasty. The best meals I had on my trip were eaten in the parking lots of dingy looking supermarkets or gas stations, the kind of places I’d never dare order raw fish from on the mainland, and consisted simply of rice and cubes of fresh ahi tuna, hamachi, or salmon with some spices and onions.
I would have happily eaten poke for every meal (mercury poisoning be damned!) but toward the end of the trip, my body had other plans. One morning, I woke up coughing and wheezing. The next, my nose had stuffed up and I could no longer smell the hibiscuses. My last night in Honolulu, I wanted to take advantage of everything that the island had to offer, but I also kind of wanted to climb into bed and sleep away the sickness.
I was staying with friends who had also traveled there for the wedding, and I joked that the long flight home surely would help clear up my cold. “I’m pretty sure the two cures for the common cold are matzah ball soup and an 11-hour flight.”
As soon as I said it, a light went off in my friend Lauren’s eyes. She grabbed her phone and started googling around. Five minutes later, we solidified the perfect itinerary for our last evening in Hawaii: We were going to get some matzah ball soup.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that you can find matzah ball soup in Hawaii. There are Jews everywhere, there is soup everywhere, and Hawaii has all the classic American staples: fast food, The Cheesecake Factory, The Hard Rock Cafe, and so on. Still, when we discovered there was a place just a 15-minute walk away from our Airbnb called Giovanni Pastrami — dubbed a New York style deli, pizzeria, and sports bar — my homesick (and actual sick) heart fluttered. It was bashert.
Once inside, I nestled into a booth with my friends and took in the giant menu filled with everything a New Yorker could hope for: Reuben bites, pastrami French fries, corned beef sandwiches piled high, New York cheesecake. There were also some intriguing Hawaiian-deli mash-ups, like a kalua pig Reuben and a teriyaki burger with ham and grilled pineapple. But I came for one reason and one reason only: warm, healing matzah ball soup. We each ordered a large bowl with some guava juice (I can’t believe I made it this far into this article without mentioning the amazing guava juice in Hawaii!). Our waiter Ben looked pleased with our order. I was brimming with anticipation.
After the bowls arrived, we spent about 10 minutes photographing the momentous occasion (I may or may not have dropped my phone into the soup) before diving in. The matzah balls? Perfectly fluffy. The broth? Warm and flavorful. The veggies and chicken? Plentiful. The experience of getting exactly what my ailing body needed while 5,000 miles away from home? That’s the aloha spirit, baby.
After we (almost) finished our bowls (they were quite large), I felt the need to explain to our waiter why we were acting unusually excited about our soup. When I told him we were feeling under the weather, he replied, “Ah yes, Jewish penicillin.” He also told us that the matzah ball soup is a big seller and made from scratch, and that the owners of Giovanni Pastrami are Russian Jews from California. And then he gave us a hot tip (get it?) that there’s a good deal on matzah ball soup during happy hour every night.
By the time we got back to the Airbnb, I felt like the matzah ball soup had already done its job. Did it clear up my sinuses and suppress my cough? Not at all. But it made me feel like I was home, and that’s really all I ever want when I’m sick. So mahalo, Hawaii, for the fresh fish, the bright rainbows, the beautiful wedding, and, yes, the matzah ball soup.