The History of Manapua
A Staple of the Hawaiʻi Food Scene
Krystal Kakimoto | Feb 13, 2017
From Traditional Roots to Modern Varieties
There is nothing more satisfying than breaking a warm manapua in half, seeing the fragrant steam slowly rise, and taking that ever so satisfying first bite. The flavors of this beloved local treat bring back nostalgic memories of eating fresh manapua after school or enjoying them at the beach with family and friends. Today, the manapua has become a staple of the Hawaiʻi food scene and can be found at many restaurants and convenience stores. Although its flavor is well-known, its history is not.
Manapua has its roots in China where they are known as char siu bao. Char siu bao is a Cantonese dish of steamed buns that are filled with a mixture savory pork and various sauces. The baozi (buns) are made from a special type of dough which utilizes yeast and baking soda to leaven the dough resulting in a very dense but fine bread. The pork is slow cooked, diced, and mixed with oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, sesame oil, and sugar creating a sweet and savory flavor that is synonymous with char siu bao. There are two styles of char siu bao today—dabao which measures around ten centimeters across and is usually sold as a quick takeaway snack and also xiabao which measures around five centimeters and can be eaten as a takeaway snack or at sit-down dim sum restaurants.
Char siu bao in China dates back to around the 3rd century where, as folklore says, it was invented by the brilliant military strategist and scholar, Zhuge Liang. Mantou, the ancient name for steamed buns or baozi, were a staple of the diet in Northern China and also known as the “working man’s lunch”. During a military campaign to the swampy regions of Southern China, Liang’s men became gravely ill and would not eat. Losing strength quickly, Liang suggested they fill the mantou of their home region with savory meats and sweet fillings to tempt the men to eat. This worked and Liang’s military regained their strength to fight a successful campaign. It is said the military then brought this new dish of filled buns back to their homeland where it became popular with civilians as well.
Char siu bao arrived in Hawaiʻi during the 19th century with the Chinese immigrants who were hired to work on the sugar cane and pineapple plantations. At first, char siu bao was a dish eaten mostly by Chinese but other ethnic groups in the plantation camps soon discovered how delicious the char siu bao was and wanted their opportunity to enjoy it as well. A few entrepreneurial Chinese in the camps saw the market to sell their char siu bao and began walking baskets of this steamed treat through the streets of the camps.
Seeing the Manapua Man pull his van into their school parking lot in the afternoon,
and rushing up to his window to get a warm snack from him.
Over time, the demand for this dish outpaced what peddlers could carry by hand so it was common to see men walking through the plantation camps with huge baskets filled with char siu bao hanging from strings attached to poles they carried on their shoulders. The popularity of char siu bao spread rapidly and it earned the name mea ono puaʻa where “mea ono” translates to delicious pastry or cake and “puaʻa” being the Hawaiian word for pork. Over the years, mea ono puaʻa slowly merged to become the name manapua that we know today.
Rise of the Manapua Man
While some peddlers opened restaurants and stores where they could sell their manapua, others opted to maintain the portable nature of the manapua and mobilized their businesses. The 1970s saw the creation of the “Manapua Man” who drove his van throughout neighborhoods selling everything from food items such as manapua, fried noodles, and musubis to gum, toys, soft drinks, and even fireworks in some cases. Many locals remember seeing the Manapua Man pull into their school parking lot in the afternoon and rushing to get a warm snack from him. Others remember hearing the Manapua Man yell as he drove through their neighborhoods, “Manapua, Pork Hash” from the early morning all the way into evening time.
Modernizing the Manapua
Over the years, the size of the manapua in Hawaiʻi has changed. The Hawaiian-sized manapua was popularized by the late Bat Moi Kam Mau, the former owner of Char Hung Sut in Honolulu’s Chinatown. Originally, manapua were able to fit into the palm of your hand but over the years they were supersized into the huge manapua we know today.
Along with changes in size, the fillings have also evolved. Originally, manapua were either filled with a pork filling or a sweet bean paste. Today, you can find manapua filled with curried chicken, laulau pork, hot dogs, and even tomato sauce and pepperoni! One thing that hasn’t changed is their popularity with the people of Hawaiʻi. Manapua are a nostalgic childhood treat that as adults we enjoy just as much as when we first discovered them.