photo by Daniel Lane/Pono Photo

I asked my fellow writer and namesake Marta Lane whom I met during a food writers workshop to share on The Ethnik Plate one of her festive fish recipes. She conjured up a Hawaiian paella and a personal story behind this exotic dish. Here is her post:

My mother was born and raised in Barcelona, Spain, where paella is the National Dish. Each paella is made in a large paella pan and starts with a base called sofrito. My aunt begins by buying the freshest ingredients possible and, in her 4-foot diameter pan, cooks meat and shellfish. Setting those aside, she adds onions, tomatoes and garlic and simmers until the mixture is transformed into a sweet and unctuous paste. At this point, she stirs the rice through and tops it with water. It bubbles, uncovered and untouched, until most of the water is absorbed, about 15 minutes. Five minutes before serving, she adds the meat and shellfish, covers the pan with a dishcloth, and lets the steam rewarm, but not overcook, the shellfish.

While I was growing up in Colorado, my mother made her version of this classic dish at least once a month. Mom left out the seafood because dad didn’t like it. Instead, see filled it with chicken and vegetables. Sometimes, she’d add rabbit if she found it in the frozen section of the grocery store.

Today, I live in Hawaii, so my version has fresh Hawaiian fish and local shrimp. To give it a Hawaiian twist, I add fresh pineapple, which plays well with Spanish olives. Kauai Shrimp come with their shells and heads still attached, which is how the Spanish eat them. You can of course remove them to make eating easier, but you’ll lose a lot of flavor. In addition, I believe getting your hands dirty while eating is fun and adds to the enjoyment of a meal.


“May we invite Ela for a traditional Polish dinner?” asked my husband after he had returned from his school one summer afternoon. Ela, just like Jay, studied at the Polonicum Centre of Polish Language and Culture for Foreigners at the University of Warsaw. She was from Israel and had a relative who lived in the western part of Poland—her main reason for immersing herself in the brain flexing activities of the more-exceptions-than-the-rules Polish grammar course.

“Of course,” I cheerfully replied while quickly going through a list of what's traditional and not porky. After eliminating the obvious: smalec (rendered pig fat), kiełbasa and schabowy (pork breaded cutlet), I settled on steak tartare followed by chłodnik, or chilled yogurt-beet soup garnished with hard-boiled egg. For our main course we could have staffed rolls of beef in wild mushroom sauce on top of kasha, or earthy buckwheat groats. It would go so well with my father's crisp dill pickles and my mother's tangy beet relish... “Oh, and she doesn't eat meat at all,” added Jay.

No problem. We could still serve chłodnik but start with grilled oscypek, or sheep cheese instead of raw beef mince. As the main course without meat perhaps a savory buckwheat babka with buttery mushed potatoes, eggs and farmer's cheese would do. A creamy mushroom sauce and... “She is actually vegan,” murmured Jay.

Well. I continued stripping our dinner menu down again. Cold yogurt-beet soup had to go. Kasha with pickles and colorful veggie salads would fill the main course plate. And we end with blueberry filled pierogi, their dough kneaded without eggs. Wait a second. A clear barszcz, or Polish borscht could stay. Polish cuisine offers so many variations of beet soup that we actually have a meat- and dairy-free barszcz, however it is traditionally served during a Christmas Eve dinner. Or whenever we have a vegan guest from Israel or from anywhere else.


“What will we do with all that grain?” I thought to myself when my husband brought home a 20-pound bag of rice. He acquired it during a white elephant Christmas gift swap last December. For those who haven't played, “white elephant is a game of exchanging gifts by basically pulling them out of each other's hands

The holiday “stealing” presents party was practically over when Jay arrived to his office late that day. Everyone had taken what they wanted and no one wanted a big bag of rice. It was something that couldn't be easily re-gifted just like the legendary white elephants given by kings of Thailand to their rivals. Unlike those rare and expensive to keep Thai mammals, our sona masoori rice from India turned out to be a tasty filler for our food budget holes and cracks. 

The unwanted gift also encouraged us to culinary adventures as we started scooping rice down from that huge bag. At first we ate it plain, cooked and topped with a vegetarian version of lecsó that resembles ratatouille minus eggplant (you may remember from my previous post that Jay is not a big eggplant fan). This Hungarian classic in its original rich version clogs your veins with lard and bacon fat. In my opinion lescó doesn't really need any meat but let's go back to rice. 

As time went by, imaginary trips with our free grain took us all over the culinary map. We explored the taste of South India, Spain, Cuba, Iran. Rice was a perfect sponge for a soupy chicken curry putting down the spicy fire of this Indian dish that landed on our unaccustomed tongues. The white grain turned yellow when cooked with saffron, meat, vegetables, beans and a dash of paprika. With a rabbit shortage at the grocery shop nearby, paella valenciana, or famous Spanish rice dish made only a single appearance giving place to an easy to assemble New World disharroz a la cubana con fríjoles negros, or black beans and rice Cuban style. Yellow was also the color of fragrant Persian rice pilaf with crisp bottom of the pot layer and sweet and nutty garnishes on top. 

We ate rice almost daily: in soups, salads and sides. Any ricey leftovers turned the next day into exiting “new” meals like rice pudding, rice staffed peppers or rice balls. And fried rice became the signature dish chez Madigans soon after our dinner at Side Street Inn in Honolulu. The restaurant's take on this Asian staple combines hot linguiça (Portuguese pork sausage), salty dashi (Japanese soup stock) and sweet char siu (Chinese barbecued pork) into one beautiful plate which we tried to recreate.

Inspired by but not limited to the Side Street Inn's version of fried rice, we keep experimenting with other ethnic ingredients and at this point only a few more cups of sona masoori rice left at the bottom of that 20-pound bag.


My husband Jay doesn’t like eggplant. He doesn’t care for its glossy, deep purple beauty. He doesn’t savor its versatility. He complains about its gooey texture. And above all, he refuses to share with me any eggplant dishes in restaurants or at home. 

Alas, we say no to the late summer joy of ratatouille even if the best French chef from Nice would have cooked it from the juiciest tomatoes, bell peppers and zucchini. Even if he would have topped his creations with the freshest, most aromatic herbs and offered a free glass of citrusy rosé, thick chunks of eggplant would still discredit this joyful Provençal dish in my husband’s eyes. 

We can’t order moussaka on a cold winter night. This eggplant-potato-meat layered hardy brick is relished by Turkish, Greek or Balkan folks. Sometimes moussaka reveals its tasty ground lamb and veggies under a cheese and béchamel. If only eggplant slices could have been subbed with something else. 

A romantic night at a trattoria can be easily spoiled if on the table appears “eggplant parmigiana” with mozzarella and tomato-basil sauce. “No grazie!,” says my hubby. “We will take lasagna instead”. So what if it was breaded and fried. Golden-crisp eggplant is still eggplant. 

Even sweet, sour and spicy sauce can’t hide well enough the main ingredient of the Chinese eggplant stir-fry. Oriental cooks use the same traditional flavorings for their Szechwan fish dishes as for this eggplant delight on which we would have to pass. 

There is one dish, however, that somehow overrides Jay’s no-eggplant policy. Baba ghanoush comes usually to our table as a part of a fragrant and colorful mosaic of Arabic hors d’oeuvres. Maybe because it is between tabbouleh and lebneh or other meze parts, eggplant becomes unrecognizable to my husband’s palate. Even if baba ghanoush comes solo, just accentuated by a few “hot pink” stripes of pickled turnips (on picture above at Cedar Halal Food and Deli), its smoky taste changes the eggplantness of this delightful paste. First grilled before being puréed, eggplant inhales the charcoal fumes in a good way. With garlic, lemon juice and tahini added, it resembles hummus. Well, kind of. Sometimes, I even call it the other hummus, to make it more palatable for Jay.