By Cara Fasone
Growing up in Hawaii in the 80s, there were no ice cream trucks. Instead, we had “the Manapua Man.” Before food trucks were trendy, the Manapua Man beeped his horn and the whole neighborhood came running. Although Hawaii’s Manapua Man may have rolled up in a roach coach, his van carried goodies that seemed like treasures to me as a kid.
Manapua and More
In neighborhoods all over Hawaii, adults and kids alike lined up for the Manapua Man. He slid open his door to reveal a glass case filled with candy, soda, cigarettes, a variety of Chinese treats, egg rolls, jin dui, noodles, fried chicken and of course, manapua. Manapua is a giant pork-filled bun.
The Chinese who introduced it to the islands called it Char Siu Bao—sweet pork bun. But the Hawaiians called it mea ono (pastry) pua’a (pork), which became manapua. Manapua is so popular, these days you can find them at 7-Eleven stores, corner snack shops and potluck parties.
The bread has a tiny bit of sweetness, which contrasts with the salty, red pork inside.The bread—steamed or baked--is moist, and the meat is tender. It’s still one of my favorite local snacks.
The Manapua Man Next Door
During my "hanabada days" (grade school days), I lived in an apartment building in Moiliili. I felt like the luckiest kid in the world because I didn’t have to wait for the Manapua Man, like other kids. My Manapua Man was my neighbor, he lived in the apartment unit above mine. It was like having a convenience store in our building.
The Manapua Man’s children were some of my best friends, so I would help them carry cases of soda up the three flights of stairs. Although it was work, it had its perks. I got first dibs on homemade chow mein noodles straight out of the wok and I could keep the leftovers they didn’t sell.
I also got to see the behind the scenes business. Behind every good Manapua Man is an amazing Manapua Lady. I called ours, “Um-um,” which I think means aunt. She would always welcome me with, “Ai chiak mai?” In the Chinese Teochow dialect, it means, “Have you eaten yet?”
She served me congee (rice porridge) with salted eggs and dried shredded pork. I watched her make fried chicken, some of the best fried chicken I ever had. She soaked the chicken in Carnation Evaporated Milk overnight, then dusted the chicken with flour, salt, and pepper, then deep fried it.
Talk Story with the Manapua Lady
Not only did I get to eat to my heart’s content, I got to hear stories I will never forget. My Um-um told me about her journey to Hawaii in 1970s. They were ethnic Chinese, but had lived in Vietnam. When the communists took over the country, she and the Manapua Man traveled on a crowded boat, bringing their six kids with them.
They came with nothing, but made a life for their family in Hawaii. I witnessed everyday how hard work can bring success.
The Manapua Man and his wife have since retired, but remain my very close family friends. Whenever I see kids lining up to buy corn from the Elote Man here in California, I think of my Manapua Man.
What are your favorite snack from the Manapua Man?