During my visits, I prefer eating food that is unique to the islands. Typically, I concentrate on seafood and tropical fruit. Four years ago, I saw Huli-Huli chicken on Maku’u Farmers Market and decided I have to try it next time. Since it is a signature dish for Hawaii, I assumed it should be served on every corner on the Big Island. I was wrong. During my recent hunt for Huli-Huli chicken, I found only two highly recommended businesses and both of them were open for a few hours one or two days a week:
Randy’s Huli Chicken and Ribs on Yelp on Facebook
Open: Fridays and Saturdays, 9-4
Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance being at the right place at the right time to taste their food. Oh well, I had to make my Huli-style chicken at home in Texas then.
“Huli-Huli Chicken is one of those great “only-in-Hawaii” foods. In 1955, Ernest Morgado of Pacific Poultry barbecued his version of teriyaki chicken for a farmers gathering. The chicken was such a hit, it became a favorite Hawaii fundraiser, raising perhaps millions over the ensuing years for schools, softball teams and hula halau (hula groups). The chicken was cooked between two grills. The grills had to be flipped over. And since huli is the Hawaiian word for turn, thus was born the name Huli-Huli Chicken.”
According to the sources (see Recipe Notes below), the Huli-Huli chicken was not grilled using a mobile rotisserie we see these days. And originally it was not a whole chicken either. Can we sandwich pre-cut chicken legs in a basket like this, grill them turning every few minutes, and be true to the Huli-Huli cooking method? Absolutely.
“Huli-Huli Sauce was originally a teriyaki sauce, which in Japan, is a simple blend of soy sauce, mirin (a sweet rice wine), and a little sugar reduced to a glaze. But nowadays there are scores of variations on the theme. […] Morgado’s recipe is a secret, and every vendor on the islands has his or her own variation on the theme…”
First, I found a bottle of Hawaii’s Famous Huli-Huli Sauce in a grocery store on Big Island, read the label, and quickly put it back on the shelf. That was not a sauce I’d cook with ever. Secondly, I read the recipe variations available online. Almost all of them are pineapple flavored teriyaki sauce. If you shop for sauces from that perspective, there are quite a few of them with a pretty decent list of ingredients, for example:
The research encouraged me to work on my version of the sauce. I started with blending all ingredients into a smooth puree — as simple as that. Since pineapple is a powerful enzymatic tenderizer, I was looking for the best ratio and timing: marinating chicken for shorter time periods didn’t give me the flavor I wanted, for longer — turned the meat into mush. Because of solids, the puree was excellent for marinating, but not so much for glazing. Eventually, I ended up separating the marinade and the glaze into two recipes. The marinade became a mild salty liquid, while the thick glaze concentrated all the flavors.
Chicken drumsticks and slices of pineapple and onion, Huli style
Some ingredients for this recipe are the treasures I brought back home from my recent trip to Hawaii. Many of them are available online. If you care for the original island flavors, there are links below. If not, substitute with available and affordable items — tropical fruit flavored white balsamic vinegar, local honey, smoked salt. (Kiawe or Prosopis pallida is a species of mesquite tree.)
4tspsmoked saltHawaiian Island Salt Company Kiawe Smoked
Wash a large ripe pineapple. Remove prickly skin and core. Slice the flesh, measure 40 oz and transfer it into a blender or food processor jar.
Peel and chop ginger, measure 8 oz and transfer it into the same jar. Note: The ginger available in Central Texas stores is not the freshest and juiciest. Make sure you buy plenty to have 8 oz of peeled ginger at the end.
Smash garlic cloves with the flat side of your knife and remove the skin. Transfer garlic into the same jar.
Use the lowest speed of your blender or food processor to process pineapple, ginger, and garlic into a chunky puree. Do not make it smooth. Line a strainer with cheesecloth and place it on top of a non-reactive bowl. Pour the puree into the strainer and squeeze 3+ cups of highly fragrant juice. Give it some time and pressure to better yield. Discard the solids.
Combine the juice with chicken stock, light soy sauce, lilikoi balsamic vinegar, and honey in a pot, bring to simmer over medium heat and cook it down to 4 cups of thick sauce. (Note: To make it thick and viscous, use homemade gelatinous chicken stock.) Add scored Thai chilies to the sauce to infuse while it is cooling. When the sauce is room temperature, remove the peppers and either discard or reserve for serving. Using a whisk, blend sesame oil into the sauce. Store refrigerated in a closed jar for up to two weeks or portion and keep frozen for longer storage. Note: One piece of chicken or half of Cornish hen requires about 1/4 cup of this sauce to glaze and serve.
Combine brine ingredients in a large bowl. Submerge chicken, cover, and refrigerate — whole chicken for 6-8 hours, chicken legs for 3-4 hours, halved Cornish hens for 30 minutes.
for grilling Cornish hens
Preheat salamander/broil (top heating element) in your oven or Salamgrill 450+F. Place a grilling rack into a baking pan and arrange Cornish hen halves skin down. Brush them with the glaze and sprinkle with smoked salt. The hens should be ~10" below the heating element. Cook for 3-5 minutes until pink juices disappear.
If using an oven, turn the salamander/broil off and turn the oven 400F on. If using Salamangrill, tun the heat to minimum. Flip the hens skin up, brush with the glaze, and continue cookingfor the next 20-25 minutes, turning and glazing them every 5 minutes.
Glaze them skin up for the last time, sprinkle with smoked salt, turn off the heat, and keep them in the crack-open oven until ready to serve.
for grilling chicken drumsticks
Combine brine ingredients in a bowl: 2 oz salt + 4 cups water + 1 tbsp fermented chile and garlic sauce + 1/4 cup fresh pineapple slices. I had fresh turmeric, so I added 2 tbsp thin slices. Submerge 5 chicken drumsticks, cover, and refrigerate 1-2 hours.
Preheat grill on high, and then reduce the heat to medium-low. Using paper towels, pat dry chicken drumsticks, coat them with some vegetable oil, and sandwich between folding grilling grids.
I grilled the same way a few slices of seasoned pineapple and sweet onion.
Grill chicken drumsticks and pineapple and onion slices turning and glazing them with some Huli style glaze every 2-3 minutes for about 20-25 minutes. (The inner temp for chicken is 155F.) Make sure they are being cooked with hot air. In other words, they should not touch the heavy grill grid. Expect glaze drippings to caramelize and burn. They'll need to be cleaned after cooking is done.