A Sweet Heritage

Local confection makers are finding delicious inspiration in the traditional desserts of their heritage.

A piece of toast with vibrant purple yam spread and crumbled toppings on a cooling rack with a jar of spread and plate in the background.
Text by
Martha Cheng
Images by
John Hook & Chris Rohrer

In the landscape of sweets, European-style confections and pastries have long been considered the pinnacle of refinement, the height of aspiration. But in recent years, in the islands and across the country, a new generation is reclaiming their heritage and blending it with Hawai‘i and American culture to create sweets that are simultaneously familiar and novel. Ranging from the rustic to the refined, the resulting confections—Okinawan doughnuts from Aloha Andagi, Korean rice cakes from Rice Blossoms, and Filipino jams from Palaman Purveyors—are all born out of each maker’s personal memories of another time and country. Here’s a sweet taste of their efforts.

Aloha Andagi

Every time Junko Bise makes andagi, some 1,000 to 2,000 at each of her monthly pop-ups, she thinks about her grandmother. “Actually, she didn’t teach me how to do because dangerous by the fire,” Bise says. But she remembers watching her grandmother dropping dough into the hot oil—formed from a stiffer batter than what we know in Hawai‘i, and in much larger portions—producing Okinawan doughnuts almost 10 times the size of andagi in Hawai‘i.

It wasn’t until Bise came to Hawai‘i that she learned how to make andagi by helping her senpai, or mentor, at fundraisers. In 2012, encouraged by Hidejiro Matsu, the owner of Marukai at the time, she started Aloha Andagi. “Hawai‘i is very famous for making andagi for all kinds of occasions like bon dance, birthday party,” Bise says. But with her business, she wanted to meld the culture of Okinawa and Hawai‘i. “So mine is not Okinawan Okinawan—it’s Okinawan-Hawai‘i andagi,” she clarifies, sometimes expanding upon traditional andagi by incorporating flavors like strawberry, matcha, and, during the holidays, pumpkin spice and ginger cinnamon. 

Close up of golden brown dough balls being deep-fried in hot oil.
Junko Bise learned to make Okinawan doughnuts in Hawai‘i but cherishes memories of her grandmother’s andagi back home.
An elderly person's hands, wearing an apron, scooping homemade butter from a large wooden bowl with a flat utensil.

About once a month at Marukai, Bise sets up her three woks with hot oil and methodically shapes dough balls by hand. Dropping them into the wok, she waits until they are golden brown before removing them and lightly squeezing out the excess oil from each one. The result? An andagi with a crunchy exterior—craggy and crisp—served fresh and hot. While other venues have offered her pop-up spaces, Bise refuses, preferring to sell almost exclusively at Marukai, out of loyalty to Matsu. She cites him as the reason why, more than 10 years since its inception, Aloha Andagi still exists, ensuring that people in Hawai‘i have classic Okinawan andagi—as well as new flavor twists—to return to.

Rice Blossoms 

Assorted colorful, shiny chocolates with various artistic designs, arranged on a white surface.

Five years ago, when Shana Lee tasted baekseolgi, a fluffy and chewy steamed Korean rice cake, for the first time, she was struck by its ephemerality—her Korean mother-in-law instructed her to eat it within 12 hours. A few years later, when she was looking online for Korean dessert recipes to make for her father-in-law, she came across Rice Blossoms, a New Jersey-based company making modern Korean sweets in pretty pastels. During the pandemic, Lee further delved into the Korean dessert world and took Rice Blossom’s online workshops to learn how to make treats such as song-pyeon, steamed rice flour dumplings filled with sesame seeds sweetened with brown sugar and honey. She was smitten. After six months of intensive training and with the blessing of Rice Blossoms founder Jennifer Ban, Lee brought these confections to Honolulu through pop-ups and special orders. 

For Ban, who is of Korean heritage, the traditional sweets were a part of her childhood. “Mom loved rice cakes,” Ban says, recalling her mother’s affinity for injeolmi, soft and chewy like mochi, coated with soybean powder or rewarmed in the microwave and dipped in sugar or honey. “Our after-school snack would be rice cakes instead of cupcakes,” she says. During a vacation in Korea as an adult, Ban took a dessert class and fell in love with the simplicity of the ingredients and the beauty of the Korean desserts she had eaten growing up. Although Korean culture has increased in popularity stateside—everything from K-pop to Korean tasting menus—Ban noticed a void in sweets. In 2017, she started Rice Blossoms “to play a role in sharing modern Korean desserts.” 

New mothers seeking a connection to their heritage often reach out to Rice Blossoms for a baeksolgi tteok, a white rice flour cake, symbolizing purity and innocence, that’s customary at a child’s 100th day or first birthday. It’s often an austere cake, but Ban adorns her baeksolgi tteok with delicate peonies, roses, cherry blossoms, and other flowers piped from bean paste. 

Rice cakes are deeply rooted in Korean culture: “Koreans traditionally used to share them as a symbol of love and care,” Ban says, whether it was coming together to make song-pyeon during the mid-autumn harvest festival or bringing new neighbors pat sirutteok, a rice cake layered with red beans. While the ritual of occasion-specific rice cakes may have faded, Ban still sees the younger generations trying to connect with their culture, saying they “mix and match with the new and old these days.” And in Hawai‘i, Lee sees modern Korean sweets easily embraced in local culture, which is already familiar with similar desserts like Japanese mochi and yokan. Lee says, “I always try to make those references to local people so that they can have some kind of connection and understanding as well.”  

Palaman Purveyors

Two people standing in a kitchen with one person wearing a black shirt slicing a banana on a cutting board and the other in a green dress holding a jar, with a plate filled with banana slices in front of them on the counter.
In celebration of their unique cultures, Hawai‘i confection makers offer a taste of sweet memories from their past.
Close-up of hands using a fork to spread a black paste on a flatbread.
The Philippine-born confectioners behind Palaman Purveyors bonded over their shared childhood sweets.

Palaman Purveyors began with jam. First, a pandan flavor, its steamed rice notes rounded out with coconut; and then ube halaya, a jam made with Filipino purple yam; and then mais con queso, a sweet corn spread sharpened with cheddar—all nostalgic flavors to Randy Cortez and Arlyn Ramos. The pair had initially connected on Instagram over a shared love of food during the pandemic and learned that they had both moved to Hawai‘i from the Philippines when they were children. Together, they created Palaman (which means “filling” or “stuffing” in Tagalog) Purveyors to celebrate the Filipino food culture of their memories, even down to the soda commonly served in plastic bags. 

“Coming here, you had to assimilate, and the language and culture gets left behind,” Cortez says. He would look forward to when his mom would cook dinner: eating the food of his childhood “was reclaiming my identity and also remembering what I left behind.”

But while Palaman Purveyors’ signature jams are anchored in nostalgia, Cortez and Ramos aren’t afraid to innovate: pop-up menu items have included a black sesame and apple banana lumpia that tastes like peanut butter banana toast; a Mexican chocolate champorado, or sweet rice porridge; and iced coffee sweetened with pandan syrup. 

Though Hawai‘i has the largest percentage of Filpinx residents of any state in the country, Filipino cuisine in the islands is largely confined to casual and old-school turo turo spots. On the U.S. mainland however, Filipino chefs are bringing Filipino American flavors to the forefront of the dining scene in cities from Seattle to Los Angeles to Chicago. “That’s what we’re trying to do,” Ramos says. “To be a little part of the Filipino food movement would be awesome.”