How Sun Noodle’s Saimin Became Hawaii’s Favorite Noodle — Cooking in America

For the past 35 years, Sun Noodle has been facilitating the ramen boom that swept the US. These guys provide noodles for hundreds of restaurants across the US, Europe, and even in South America. They built the factory first in Hawaii, then in California, and later in New Jersey, which when combined make over 200,000 servings per day — that’s crazy! But in 1981 the company actually started out probably making saimin, the staple noodle of Hawaii. It’s similar to ramen but the noodles are made using a flour that’s higher in ash, and egg, that give these noodles much more flavor and a firmer texture. So the recipe dates back to the plantation era in Hawaii: it’s a perfect example of the type of food that can only come together out of the blend of immigrant cultures that exist here on the islands. It’s like a blend of Chinese, Japanese, and Portuguese in a bowl. Thank you for having me! “Welcome to Sun Noodle.” When we make wontons at home, it’s always the Sun Noodle brand. It’s very much a part of the Hawaii culture. So how did Sun Noodle end up in Hawaii? “My grandfather had a noodle factory in Japan. My dad was 19, he wanted to explore the road, he came here with one machine — that one suitcase story — and started a little noodle operation. He went door-to-door to each restaurant that he could, couldn’t speak English, and so had to do it by showing the noodles. That’s how it all started. In Hawaii we have Chinese, Filipino, all kinds of cultures. This factory makes more than just Japanese noodles. We make chow mein, chow funn, wonton, gyoza skins. It’s very diverse here. He came here expecting to sell more ramen noodles, but as we know there’s like a saimin shop at every restaurant, so he learned how to make saimin noodles by speaking to the local chefs. I would say a majority of our products that we make out of this factory is saimin.” I grew up eating saimin my whole life, and I still don’t know what the roots of saimin is. Is it Chinese? Is it Japanese? It is Okinawan? “For a lot of people, the plantation is where you had a mix of Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, Filipino people living in the same house, and so I think it’s a blend of different people coming together to create a bowl of soup noodle. But the biggest difference is the noodles. The saimin is a lot greyer, or darker in color, and ramen is all more yellow. For our saimin noodles we use a flour that has a lot more ash content, so much more flavor. That’s why it’s a bit darker. So chef we’re gonna try to cut a wonton, 4 x 4.” I’m ready! Make like I’m gonna cut the whole thing. Oh man already screwed this up. But this is the only factory that does the wontons? “Yeah. Out of all 3 for us. These are only very special, as the customer wants it. All the parts that they’re making here today is for the local market. All the saimin shops in Hawaii.” I love that. “They’re still at that aspect of it all being hand-cut.” But the reason why we’re a little different from other manufacturers is that we’re very chef-driven. We listen to what the chef is wanting and we come back to the factory and try to recreate a noodle that works for them. And that’s how we can do our business here in Hawaii. But 2004 we moved to California because a local ramen shop from Hawaii wanted to open in Southern California.” So rad. “That opportunity now has given us the chance to grow on the mainland.” Where’s like the craziest place your noodles have traveled? “For me growing up in Hawaii, but seeing a Sun Noodle truck delivering in Manhattan has been pretty amazing.” Rep that 808. Selling noodles to all of these hipster ramen shops in all of New York and all of that. How was it growing up with your dad and all that? “He’s just the true entrepreneur and that work ethic that you can see in a factory, fixing and helping people, I think is why a lot of people respect him from here all the way to New York City.” What’s the next 3-5 years? “We start to export to Europe now in seven different countries, ramen and you know just noodles in general — it’s very popular but one thing I think for sure that my father wants to do before he retires is get saimin in the spotlight.” We’re in the heart of Kelihi, where Palace Saimin is one of the oldest customers for Sun Noodles. Home for 70 years to locals where they come and get a bowl of the most comforting thing in the world. You only find saimin here in Hawaii. It’s a blending of so many different cultures, but it’s all coming together just like the people here in Hawaii, put into a bowl and in the end it’s something delicious. I grew up eating saimin for breakfast, I didn’t know what cereal was. The noodles are cooked perfectly, still crunchy, the broth is light, it’s clear, perfect amount of salt parked in the background, simply topped with chau siu and green onions. That to me, that’s heaven. Saimin’s one of the foods that when you eat it, it doesn’t go to your stomach, somehow it finds its way to your eyelids and it’s sitting right here. You have a pillow of saimin. I’ll take saimin over ramen anyday. Ramen’s trendy. Saimin is life.

Comments 63

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *