Saimin, a style of noodle soup found Hawaii, has roots in Japan and China—but has spent almost an entire century in the islands morphing into its own distinct thing.
Found throughout the islands everywhere—from local, diner-style restaurants to McDonald’s, hospitals to resorts—basic saimin is often ordered as a snack or side to more substantial mains. Elaborate versions, loaded up with garnishes, work as a stand-alone meal.
The broth is typically made with a light dashi stock, though some restaurants add shoyu (soy sauce) or stock made from shrimp shells, chicken, or beef. The noodles, made from wheat flour and egg, are softer in texture than those usually found in ramen. Some establishments (Shige’s, Hamura’s) make their own noodles, while others use noodles from local factories (Sun, Iwamoto, Eagle).
Here’s what you need to know to order.
At its most traditional, saimin will be served with few garnishes, perhaps just green onions and char siu. But most contemporary basic versions will be served with some combination of the items below.
- Green onions, sliced into thin rounds
- Char siu (sweet, spiced roast pork)
- Spam or luncheon meat (molded meat)
- Greens (usually some type of spinach-like dark green, bok choy or cabbage)
- Kamaboko (sweetened fish cake)
- Bean Sprouts
Saimin broth is typically light and salty. Condiments—soy sauce, hot sauce, black pepper—can be added at the table. Here’s what’s usually available:
- Hot mustard, to be mixed to taste with shoyu in a small shallow bowl and used either as a dipping sauce for noodles, char siu, or won ton, or added to the broth directly as seasoning
- Shoyu (soy sauce); see hot mustard
- Chili pepper eater or Tabasco
- Black pepper
- Shichimi, a Japanese spice blend with chili flakes, sesame seeds, ground ginger, and nori
Most saimin shops serve several variations on the basic saimin, with each coming in at least two sizes: small and large. Some, such as Shiro’s Saimin Haven on Oahu, have considerably more. These are the common ones:
- Wun Tun Min (Also Won Ton Min, Won Ton Mein): saimin with soft Chinese-style meat dumplings
- Wun Tun Soup (Also Won Ton Soup): saimin broth with soft Chinese-style meat dumplings and garnishes, but no noodles
- Fried Saimin (also Dry Saimin, Dry Mein): stir-fried saimin noodles topped with traditional saimin garnishes and often served with a cup of broth on the side
- Cold Saimin: room temperature saimin noodles with traditional saimin garnishes, served as a salad
- Saidon: saimin broth with udon noodles, most famously served at Palace Saimin
- Zip Min: the signature dish at fast-casual chain Zippy’s; served in a lidded stainless steel bowl with breaded shrimp, wun tun, choi sum, kamaboko, dried seaweed, egg, sweet pork and green onions
Saimin is often ordered in combination with other dishes, usually a beef or chicken skewer or hamburger. Some restaurants will offer combination plates that bundle these items.
- BBQ Stick (also Teri Beef Stick or Chicken Stick): a single skewer of meat, usually beef, and often marinated in a teriyaki sauce, that has been grilled or sautéed. Some establishments cut the meat into pieces before skewering, kebab-style, while others thread a single thin strip of meat onto the stick. An order of one or two sticks alongside a saimin is common.
- Shrimp Tempura: battered and fried shrimp can be ordered on the side or added as a topping
- Hamburger or Cheeseburger: a diner-style single that is often part of a combination order with saimin
An accompanying essay is available on Lucky Peach’s newly minted website, luckypeach.com. If you loved this—or even just strongly liked it—subscribe to the magazine for a full year of essays, art, photography, and recipes that will bring delight to your heart.