Why I Cook, with Kathy YL Chan

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The Onolicious Hawaii blogger covers all things Hawaiian on her blog, including her favorite Hawaiian recipes.

This Honolulu native has worn many hats: food and travel writer, tea specialist, pastry chef and blogger. The latest endeavor of her nearly 20-year blogging career is onolicioushawaii.com, a corner of the internet dedicated to Hawaii and its food—complete with recipes, hotel recommendations and helpful restaurant guides.

Taste of Home: Tell me a bit about where you’re from and what/who turned you on to cooking.

Kathy YL Chan: I’m born and raised in Honolulu, on the island of Oahu. Food and family and home cooking is a big part of life in Hawaii. It’s not unique or special to be “into” food if you’re from Hawaii…because we all love food in Hawaii! I was surrounded by family and friends who love food in different ways. Some love to cook food, others to eat food, others to host and entertain and others to grow (or fish). Being surrounded by the many different “ways” of loving food naturally led me to love cooking and eating.

I don’t see cooking as a job or a chore, but a privilege. What a privilege it is to go and get ingredients (our farmers markets are incredible), go home, cook rice (always in the rice cooker which every local home has) and make lunch/dinner and share with family and friends. Is there anything cooler than that?

TOH: On your blog, you say that Hawaii food is your “favorite thing in the world.” What are some of your favorite dishes from Hawaii and why?

Saimin, or Hawaii’s version of ramen, is topped with Spam, scallions, egg and kamaboko.Courtesy Kathy YL Chan

KYLC: My three favorite local Hawaiian dishes are Chicken Long Rice, Kalua Pig with Cabbage and Saimin. (Saimin, or Hawaii’s version of ramen, is topped with Spam, scallions, egg and kamaboko.) What do they share in common? They’re all considered local comfort food! Delicious and approachable without being heavy or overwhelming. These dishes are warm and soothing, like a good hug. They are also dishes that are commonly found in Hawaii restaurants and easy to make at home.

TOH: What are some ingredients specific to Hawaii that you love to incorporate into your own recipes?

KYLC: Local fruits! We have amazing fruits in Hawaii. From mango to lychee, lilikoi (passion fruit), dragon fruit and guava, the variety and abundance of fresh local fruit is incredible.

TOH: What is your all-time favorite restaurant on the Islands, and what do you order there?

KYLC: Oh man, this is a tough one. There are many favorite restaurants and food spots/snack shops in Hawaii, it’s impossible to pick one. How about one from each category? For fine dining, I love MW Restaurant. For Hawaiian food, I love Helena’s Hawaiian Food. Nisshodo Candy Store and Fujiya for mochi. Leonard’s Bakery for malasadas. Thang’s for avocado smoothies. Gina’s BBQ for Korean plate lunch. Halekulani, The Kahala, and Moana Surfrider for afternoon tea. Lam’s Kitchen for fresh chow fun dishes. Teruya’s Andagi for hot andagi and bentos. La Palme D’or for roll cakes. Shige’s Saimin Stand for saimin. Musubi Cafe Iyasume for musubi. I could go on forever.

TOH: You’re also a tea specialist. What is your favorite type of tea? And what foods do you prefer to enjoy alongside tea?

KYLC: Depends on the day and mood (and the weather!), though I often gravitate towards a rolled oolong or Chinese black tea. I drink tea throughout the day and my one *must* is to take a break around 3pm, brew a cup and enjoy it with dessert. I love dessert immensely (and once wrote a dessert column for Serious Eats. The column was called Sugar Rush and it chronicled all the tasty desserts in NYC. It ran for five years.). Sometimes it’s a coco puff or slice of custard or chocolate haupia pie. Other times it’s mochi or a hot malasada or a nice piece of kulolo or haupia. Tea and dessert, few things make me happier!

TOH: Which recipe that you developed on your own makes you the proudest?

KYLC: May I mention a recipe that originated from my friend Shannon and her mom? Shann and I grew up together in Hawaii and we were roommates for several years in NYC. There was a lot of Hawaii cooking going on inside our tiny NYC kitchen. One dish Shann taught me (which she learned from her mom) centered around a block of chilled, soft tofu (we love tofu recipes in Hawaii!).

Cut the tofu into cubes and place it in a shallow dish. Then heat sesame oil until it just starts to smoke. Drizzle that hot oil all over the tofu. The sizzle of the hot oil on the tofu “cooks” the tofu slightly and gives it this nice and nutty fragrance. Then pour on the shoyu (soy sauce) and sprinkle furikake, both of which are essential Hawaii cooking ingredients.

I remember finishing the dish with a sprinkle of bonito flakes but Shann remembers differently…so who knows what was the “real” original recipe? These days I finish the dish with chopped green onions. There was no air conditioning in our first NYC apartment so we ate this Hot Sesame Oil Tofu dish all summer to cool off.

TOH: What is your advice for home cooks looking to experiment with ethnic or even just new-to-them ingredients for the first time?

KYLC: Keep an open mind and just try it! It never hurts to try a new ingredient. There’s nothing to lose and everything to learn. Don’t assume that something has to be or taste a certain way. Try to think of recipes as more than “just” a recipe, but more like a doorway into another culture that you can explore.

TOH: As someone who’s been at it for nearly 20 years(!), do you have any pointers for those wanting to get into blogging?

KYLC: Find something you’re passionate about and dig deep into it. Your subject can be anything, there’s nothing too niche or strange. Blogging has a natural way of connecting people all around the world (I’ve met some of my closest friends through blogging). When you put something you’re passionate about out there into the world, it attracts others who are passionate about the same thing.

TOH: What’s your favorite thing about cooking? The “why” of why you cook!

KYLC: I love the creation part—the fact that you’re taking all these separate parts (the ingredients) and creating something whole and complete (the final dish) that can bring people together. It’s a joyful feeling.

Sparkling Strawberry Agar-AgarCourtesy Kathy YL Chan

Kathy’s Sparkling Strawberry Agar-Agar


  • 1 pint fresh strawberries, quartered
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1-1/4 teaspoons agar-agar powder
  • 1-1/2 cups sparkling apple cider


Step 1: Prep the strawberries

Place strawberries in an even layer in the bottom of a 9×9-in. baking dish.

Step 2: Make the agar-agar

In a small saucepan, combine water and agar-agar powder. Bring the mixture to a boil; reduce heat and simmer, stirring constantly for two minutes. Remove from heat and then stir in the cider.

Kathy’s tip: You can find agar-agar powder online, at Asian markets or in the health food section of your supermarket.

Step 3: Mix and set strawberries

Pour mixture over the strawberries and let stand for five minutes. Refrigerate, covered, until it’s set (usually about two hours).

Step 4: Cut and Serve

To serve, cut into 1-in. cubes and place into serving bowls. Top with additional sparkling cider if desired.

Get to know Kathy even better! Follow her on Instagram @onolicioushawaii or visit onolicioushawaii.com.

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