Updated: October 3, 2023
The leader of Maui’s new manapua shop — Happy Opu — takes the snack very seriously. After all, the savory or sweet treat is one of the main comfort foods to come from Hawaiʻi’s ethnic and cultural melting pot.
“Everyone has their idea of what manapua should be. What size should it be? Too big? Too small? Can it be fried? What is the proper bun to filling ratio? Sweet bun, savory bun … should char siu be red? Can it be more savory than sweet? Who has the best manapua on Oʻahu? And don’t get me started on steamed versus baked,” owner Jason Kashtan said, laughing.
Kashtan’s care is perhaps one of the best ingredients behind Happy Opu, though.
“He has so much support behind him,” said Haʻikū resident and longtime local food industry professional Laynie Dougher, who’s known Kashtan for 15 years after working with him at Maui restaurants. “He’s a really good guy with a big heart and a really hard worker.”
The new manapua shop launched with a soft opening last month at 60 E. Wākea Ave., Kahului. Happy Opu is open from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m., or until food sells out, Wednesday through Friday. As it grows, the manapua shop will extend days, hours and menu offerings, with the goal of eventually providing steamed manapua.
After people caught word of Maui’s sole manapua shop, they have been lining up early to get assortments of the freshly baked buns, including char siu, chicken curry, kalua pork and cabbage, and ube and red bean. New manapua flavors are rotated in. Pork hash with shrimp is also in stock. Rice cakes, almond cookies and pies round out the menu.
“I’ve heard good things,” said Clarence Respicio, who was tasked last week with bringing a bunch of manapua and rice cakes back to the office for his coworkers. “Now I have to rush all the way back up to Makawao.”
All the food at Happy Opu is made from scratch — from the buns to the fillings. Kashtan said local ingredients are used as much as possible and everything is done in-house.
The take-out shop has a cheerful, clean and organized aesthetic, with Opu characters designed by the Kashtan family dancing on the walls. Cute, smiling Opu designs on T-shirts, key chains and stickers add to the warm environment.
Happy Opu employs a staff of eight, including repeat ‘Aipono award-winning baker and Maui native Chayce Cardenas, and the business is hiring.
MANAPUA, A HAWAIʻI STAPLE
Manapua, Hawai’i’s take on the traditional Chinese bao, are steamed or baked buns filled with meat, vegetables or other savory or sweet fillings. Historically, the most popular manapua filling is char sui pork, but modern-day manapua are packed with everything from kalua pig, chicken curry and hot dogs to sweet potato.
Chinese are believed to have brought char siu bao to Hawai’i in the 19th century. Char siu bao is a Cantonese dish of small-sized steamed buns filled with pork and sauce. The steamed snack was carried in baskets and sold through the streets of sugar and pineapple plantation camps.
Char siu bao gained popularity and Hawai’i’s own version was born: manapua. There are two possible origins for the Hawaiian word manapua: mea ‘ono pua‘a, or Chinese pork cake, and mauna pua’a, which means “mountain of pork,” according to Hawai’i native and food writer Catherine Toth Fox.
Hawai’i’s manapua are typically larger than the Chinese bao.
In the late 1900s, the concept of the “manapua man” evolved. Food peddlers, known by locals as manapua men, would drive in vans and trucks through neighborhoods and other populated areas to sell manapua, fried noodles, musubi, ice cream and other snacks.
Famous manapua shops in Honolulu’s Chinatown are now-closed icons Char Hung Sut and Libby Manapua. More recently, popular Chinatown shops include Sing Cheong Yuan Bakery and Royal Kitchen, among others.
A small handful of Maui manapua shops came and went in recent decades, news reports show.
HAPPY OPU: A RECIPE FOR BRINGING PEOPLE TOGETHER
Kashtan said the idea for Happy Opu came after he launched with partners a commissary kitchen called Hawai’i Ghost Kitchens. When the manapua shop had a soft opening Jan. 13, the aim was trying different fillings and figuring out a production schedule.
“Plans (for a grand opening) changed when we opened the doors,” he said. “We were instantly tasked with simply keeping up with demand.”
Originally from Massachusetts, Kashtan has been on Maui since 2000 and has been working in Maui’s restaurant industry for 23 years. In 2018, he started Wahi Hawai’i, a small business offering eco-friendly alternatives to plastic like bamboo straws, cutlery and bento boxes.
Kashtan’s wife, Miyu Furukawa Kashtan, along with his two kids, spend lots of time working at the shop. The couple regularly puts in 12- to 13-hour long workdays, filled with everything from baking buns to making pork hash.
“Our 8-year-old daughter had to learn patience as she sat in on meeting after meeting to discuss all aspects of the business,” Kashtan said.
As Happy Opu starts out, Kashtan thanked customers for their patience as the team finds its rhythm. He’s heartbroken when people have been waiting in line and food sells out, or staff isn’t yet able to accommodate the requests for more days and more selections, like steamed buns.
“Please know that we are working our hardest to create the best experience for you, to deliver the tastiest snacks and to have it available for as long as possible during the day and through the week,” he said.
Ultimately, Kashtan said Happy Opu aims to provide recipes that bring people together.
“Opu is about bringing the community together, giving them tasty food that they’ve been missing — food that makes them happy and something that they can share with their families,” he said.
For the latest information on Happy Opu, including hours and menu items, visit its Instagram page @happyopumaui.