Deconstructing the Dish: ‘Ohana Stir Fried Noodles at Disney’s Polynesian Resort

(Image Credit: Walt Disney World News Today, https://wdwnt.com/2019/01/review-ohana-remains-great-amongst-recent-menu-changes-and-false-claims/)

As an antidote to the almost global quarantine caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Theme Park Professor, a website devoted to trip planning, travel, and all the ephemera of the Disney parks (along with less thorough sections devoted to other Florida parks, Universal Studios and SeaWorld) launched a “Disney at home” series devoted to bringing the magic of the parks into the home. The archive directs website browsers to virtual rides, fireworks, lesson plans to occupy the kiddos, and most interestingly (to me anyway), recipes for various park favorites. Beset by uncertainty and cabin fever, those hankering for “a taste of the magic” can occupy their time attempting to make a homemade Dole Whip (perhaps a more attainable version than Dole’s DIY version that doesn’t really work) or School Bread.

Recently, the recipes have taken a more tropical dimension, with the site featuring recipes for Tonga Toast and Macadamia Nut Pancakes, culminating with various dishes at ‘Ohana, the most famous and popular restaurant at Disney’s Polynesian Resort. The restaurant features all you can eat dishes along with character experiences, allowing children (and children at heart) to meet and interact with Mickey Mouse and Lilo and Stitch in an “island chic” atmosphere. ‘Ohana remains a popular restaurant destination, one to book with an advanced dining reservation, due to the characters, the atmosphere (the sense that you are on a Hawaiian or tropical island vacation within your vacation to Orlando Florida), and the food itself, with outlets and establishments devoted to covering Disney raving about the ‘Ohana Bread Pudding, Honey Cilantro Wings, and the Stir Fried Noodles.

As someone with an interest in all things Disney and all things food, I find the series intriguing, especially as a brief mental escape from a global pandemic. I have previously made the ‘Ohana Bread Pudding, flambe and all, and found the dessert delicious but one that’s quite dense and definitely should only be eaten sparingly. The noodles intrigued me as well, being someone that enjoys stir fried noodles along with expanding my culinary repertoire. However, the recipe inspired both curiosity and concern, not so much with the degree of difficulty, but the choice of ingredients and the representation of cuisine of the Pacific Islands.

Yakisoba Noodles from ‘Ohana (Credit: Theme Park Professor, https://www.themeparkprofessor.com/2020/03/ohana-dinner-at-home/)

Ingredients:

Yakisoba Noodles

Shredded Red and Green Cabbage

Shredded Bok Choy

Pineapple Glaze

  • 2 cups of brown sugar
  • 1 and 3/4 cups of soy sauce
  • 3/4 cup of rice wine vinegar
  • 1 and 1/4 tbsp garlic
  • 1 and 1/4 tbsp ginger
  • 2 and 1/4 tsp cornstarch
  • 4 tbsp pineapple juice

Now, all of these ingredients sound delicious and for the most part work well together, the recipe is largely noodles stir fried in teriyaki sauce with cabbage thrown in. Moreover, the cuisine of the Pacific Islands is certainly influenced by local ingredients, such as coconuts and tropical fruits along with Asian culinary customs. The initial voyagers to the islands came from the Asian continent and brought their crops and livestock along with their cuisine, while more modern movement due to labor demands (especially sugar and pineapple plantations in Hawaii) fostered even greater contact and acculturation. The noodles at ‘Ohana reflect these patterns, resulting in an Asian dish influenced by the islands through the addition of pineapple.

At least, this is how the ingredients work in theory, a nominal representation of authenticity and diversity within the American icon that is Disney World. In reality, however, the components of the noodles reflect a lack of understanding of the cuisine of the Pacific Islands, the addition of pineapple juice equating the fruit as inherently “tropical” and essentializing the pan-Polynesian setting in a way to be eagerly consumed, metaphorically and literally, by the American public.

Asian and Asian inspired dishes can be readily found in the Pacific Islands, particularly in Hawaii due to the large Asian population living there. Furthermore, teriyaki sauce is not only common but beloved in the Hawaiian Islands, with the famous “Huli chicken” marinated and basted with a sauce combining elements of barbecue sauce and teriyaki. And, of course, pineapples are common to the Pacific Islands and consumed by the people living there, just not as the component of a sauce. Typically, tropical fruits are consumed as is, highlighting sweetness and freshness without adulterating, save for maybe a pinch of salt. Coconuts and coconut milk are integral for desserts, but pineapples are enjoyed as fresh fruit. Pineapples and pineapple juice as an ingredient is largely a Western imposition, to imbue a particular dish or cocktail as inherently “tropical” or “from the islands” with the addition of the yellow fruit.

This is not the first time the Disney Parks produced, marketing, and sold a pineapple flavored offering to convey the aura of a tropical vacation. But, the scrumptious, artificially flavored Dole Whip doesn’t attempt to impart a sense of authenticity, as if one was consuming the cuisine of the islands themselves. The Dole Whip is a soft serve like creation composed of natural and artificial flavors, resembling ice cream but tasting like fruit, something easily accessible and clearly recognized as American . The noodles at ‘Ohana, by contrast, are one facet of Disney’s Polynesian Resort, the hotel defining itself in the setting, iconography, and culture of the Pacific Islands. What results is a Disney-fied interpretation and representation of the Pacific Islands, what Henry A. Giroux calls “an ideologically loaded fantasy.” This fantasy ranges from the name of the resort itself (“Polynesian” a term that translates to “many islands”) to the tiki imagery to the food.

“But,” you may ask, “aren’t chefs allowed to change, adapt, and update recipes? Isn’t the addition of pineapple juice a celebration of the ingredients of the islands?” And yes, people can offer their own interpretations of a given dish, demonstrating creativity or deconstructing to its bare essences to say something about food and taste. But, however, this isn’t what’s happening with ‘Ohana noodles. Instead, this takes the broad strokes of the food and culinary customs of the Pacific Islands and adds pineapple juice to communicate the tropical nature of the dish, essentializing cuisine to a simple equation of “add pineapples and stir.”

Furthermore, the fact that this occurs within the context of cultural appropriation, taking elements from the islands and the people living there and rendering them in a way for a disconnected American public to enjoy, complicates this process. While claiming to celebrate the culture and the cuisine of the Pacific Islands, the Polynesian Resort is one component of the moneymaking apparatus for the Walt Disney Company, the latter looking to profit off of representation and diversity. What results, in the case of this noodle dish, as a misunderstanding and simplification of  cuisine and culture as part of appropriation and commodification.

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