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A Hawaii Noodle Factory That Makes an Incredible Comfort Food

Every time I go home to Hawaii, I always make a special stop to Chun Wah Kam Noodle Factory. The family business has been serving made-from-scratch noodles since 1942, but the reason I make the trip repeatedly is for their manapua.

I grew up on manapua, fluffy steamed or baked buns filled with meat. My favorite is char siu. It’s a beloved food in Hawaii, right up there with malasadas and mochi

“They’re reasonably priced and they kind of speak to a lot of locals in the sense that they’re kind of a Hawaii comfort food,” Elliott Chun of Chun Wah Kam Noodle Factory tells SFGATE. 

“Everyone’s got a char siu bao. Manapua is that, kind of, but it’s not,” Elliott continues. “The texture and the flavor of the dough is different. A manapua dough is going to be lighter and softer. It should also have a lot more flavor.”

The company was founded by Wah Kam Chun, who left for Hawaii when Japan invaded China during World War II. Elliott is the grandson of the founder, and works alongside his parents and cousin in the business. 

Chun Wah Kam Noodle Factory’s founder, Wah Kam Chun, with his wife, Kim Ling Chun, and grandson Elliott Chun.

“He fled China by himself because that’s all he could afford. He was married to my grandmother at the time [and they had two kids together],” Elliott says. “He came here, he learned the noodle trade, and then in 1942 he split off on his own to open Chun Wah Kam. It took him years to save up enough money to bring his family over from China.”

The company started out, as its name implies, as a noodle business, selling mostly to wholesalers. It wasn’t until the 1970s that it added a lunch menu, with noodle dishes, using family recipes. This is also when they began selling manapua, starting with a standard recipe of yeast, flour and precooked filling. Elliott says the family spent years perfecting it.

Ching Chang, the oldest sister of Wah Kam Chun, holds a steamed manapua, ready to eat.

Today, Chun Wah Kam Noodle Factory sells several thousand manapua per day from its four locations on Oahu. They also have expanded into assorted fillings, such as Thai curry chicken, azuki bean and shoyu chicken. Around holidays, they color the steamed white buns in festive colors.

The popularity of the manapua lies in its origin, which goes back generations. When Chinese immigrants came to Hawaii in the 19th century to work on the sugar plantations, they also brought their char siu bao (pork-filled buns). 

“Manapua are deeply embedded in the collective memory of old Hawaii,” writes Arnold Hiura in his book “Kau Kau: Cuisine & Culture in the Hawaiian Islands.” 

“In simpler times, they were sold on the streets of many communities by peddlers who were known only as the ‘manapua man,’” Hiura continues. “Carrying their tasty goods in containers hung on each end of the pole, the manapua man canvassed the neighborhoods with the pole slung over his shoulders.” 

Food to go from Chun Wah Kam in Honolulu, including a mixed plate, left, with ginger chicken fried rice and udon noodles, and a box of baked manapua, right.

Over time, the char siu bao evolved, and got bigger. “Things come to Hawaii and the melting pot of cultures kind of changes them,” Elliott says. When immigrants first brought it to Hawaii, Hawaiians renamed it “mea ono puaa,” which translates to “delicious pork pastry.” Eventually, the name was shortened to manapua.

In the mid 1900s, manapua men shifted from peddling on the street to selling out of food trucks, which can still be found around neighborhoods today. Manapua is also sold at brick-and-mortar stores, like Chun Wah Kam. 

Chun Wah Kam Noodle Factory also serves plate lunches that may include fried rice, chow mein, orange chicken and beef broccoli. 

The popularity of Chun Wah Kam Noodle Factory’s manapua has grown since its humble beginnings. Now, Elliott says, the family would like to expand to the neighbor islands and eventually the continental U.S., particularly Las Vegas, where there is a large Hawaii expat population.

And as someone who has moved away from Hawaii, I see the appeal. The food connects me to my past and to the place I still call home. 

“When you’re eating a manapua you’re not just enjoying it. It’s maybe tapping into some emotional parts of it,” Elliott says. “I think it’s just that cultural tie that has just kind of made it an iconic cultural food of Hawaii.”

Source : SFGATE