Originally a Cantonese custom, dim sum (literally small snack – cuisine prepared as small bite-sized portions of food) is inextricably linked to the Chinese tradition of ‘yum cha’ or drinking tea. Teahouses sprung up to accommodate weary travelers journeying along the famous Silk Road.
Rural farmers, exhausted after long hours working in the fields, would also head to the local teahouse for an afternoon of tea and relaxing conversation. (Parkinson)
Starting in the 1850s, when the Hawaiian Legislature passed “An Act for the Governance of Masters and Servants,” a section of which provided the legal basis for contract-labor system, labor shortages were eased by bringing in contract workers from Asia, Europe and North America. The first to arrive in the Islands were the Chinese (1852.)
“When they (Chinese contract laborers) reached Honolulu, they were kept in the quarantine station for about two weeks. They were made to clean themselves in a tank and have their clothes fumigated. Planters looked them over and picked them for work in much the same way a horse was looked at before he was bought.” (Young – Nordyke & Lee)
“These Chinese were taken to the plantations. There they lived in grass houses or unpainted wooden buildings with dirt floors. Sometimes as many as forty men were put into one room. “
“They slept on wooden boards about two feet wide and about three feet from the floor. … (T)hey cut the sugarcane and hauled it on their backs to ox drawn carts which took the cane to the mill to be made into sugar” (Young – Nordyke & Lee)
The sugar industry grew, so did the Chinese population in Hawaiʻi. Between 1852 and 1884, the population of Chinese in Hawai’i increased from 364 to 18,254, to become almost a quarter of the population of the Kingdom (almost 30% of them were living in Honolulu.) (Young – Nordyke & Lee)
They brought their customs and cuisine with them – and it caught on in the Islands.
One such, dim sum, includes char (or cha) siu bao, a bun with a barbecued pork filling. It is either steamed to be fluffy and white or baked with a light sugar glaze to produce a smooth golden-brown crust.
Char siu refers to the pork filling; the word bao simply means ‘bun.’
In the islands this Chinese pork cake became known as mea ‘ono pua‘a (‘mea ‘ono’ (delicious thing) as in cake or pastry, and ‘pua‘a’ for pork.) Reportedly, the pidgin adaptation “mea ‘ono pua‘a” evolved to “manapua.”
These steamed or baked buns are sometimes are filled with coconut, black bean paste or chicken (and other meats and vegetables,) but char siu pork has been predominant.
Not only did the tasty snack receive a Hawaiian name, they were also Hawaiian-sized, turning the ‘small snack’ to accompany tea, into a meal. (Some suggest the name is a variant of “mauna pua‘a” (mountain of pork.)
After finishing contracted terms as sugar plantation laborers, many Chinese opened businesses and restaurants. Food peddlers would walk neighborhoods selling snacks, including manapua, from large aluminum cans hung with cord at the ends of poles hoisted on their shoulders. (Hawaii Magazine)
A Manapua Man (vendors carrying tin cans on either end of a pole over his shoulder) would walk the neighborhoods, yelling “manapua, pepeiao, manapua pepeiao!”
(Pepeiao (the Hawaiian word for ear) is what is now known as Half Moon (har gao (a shrimp dumpling) because its shape looks like an ear – or what you would imagine is a boxer’s cauliflower ear.)
The walking street vendors are gone, but manapua continues as a local staple. (The Ma‘iola Indigenous Health Program notes manapua in the foundation of the Hawaiian food pyramid.)