Aloha. Greetings from Hawaii. This is my last day of a two-week visit to O’ahu. It was a wedding that brought us here, and it’s been a fabulous family reunion. It’s been relaxing, rejuvenating and (I must admit) a bit indulgent. We’ve eaten a lot of great food, and I wanted to use part of our time here to get to know the local cuisine.
I spent a glorious Saturday morning visiting one of the big farmers’ markets here at the Kapi’olani Community College. For a state that relies on about 90 percent imported foods, there’s an amazing local foods movement going on. A new website HawaiiFoods.Hawaii.edu was recently launched by the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources and the Cancer Research Center to help promote local foods and healthier eating (similar to the mainland, Hawaii has escalating obesity rates). The site is a great resource on foods commonly eaten in Hawaii, with nutrition information for local foods that you won’t find in the USDA nutrient database.
I learned about the growing contingent of small-scale farmers who are trying to shift the agriculture industry away from the model of corporate-scale industrialized monocropping (such as sugar and pineapple) to a model of family farms growing diverse crops for sale locally. There seemed to be fantastic Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement brewing, which was evident at the KCC Farmers’ Market, as well as the many local restaurants we visited that promoted farm-to-table menus featuring local foods. One local chef who is making quite a name for himself is Andrew Le, who has one of the most popular booths at the KCC Farmers’ Market. I had read so much about The Pig and the Lady before heading out to the market, so I was eager to check out this haute Vietnamese-style street food created by Le (along with Mama Le and other family members). A former sous chef at Mavro, one of Hawaii’s two AAA five-diamond restaurants, Le is delighting locals with his appearances at various farmers’ markets, pop-up restaurants and special events. Currently, there’s no brick and mortar restaurant, but that hasn’t hindered Le’s growing fame. One popular dish is the Pho French Dip, which was voted one of the top 50 things to eat in Hawaii. The sandwich is piled high with 12-hour roasted brisket, sauteed bean sprouts and onions, and thai basil chimmichurri with pho au jus on the side for dipping.I chatted with several local producers who are making artisan-style foods with local ingredients, including liliko’i (passion fruit), which was turned into jam, jelly, cream cheese and other products.
I met several Hawaiian bee keepers promoting local organic honey.
I discovered a company called Marine AgriFuture that produces Sea Asparagus — a really tasty ocean-based vegetable (aka sea beans, glasswort or samphire) that I spotted on several restaurant menus (with tuna, shrimp and other dishes). The company was founded by scientist Dr. Wenhao Sun and partners to produce and distribute premium agricultural crops grown with a patented salt-water cultivation system. I sampled the Sea Asparagus fresh, pickled and in an “Ocean Pesto,” which was amazing.
Many of the fruits and vegetables at the farmers’ market were organic, predominately grown on small farms on the North Shore of O’ahu. There were luscious greens, including tatsoi (a Japanese spinach), arugula, edamame, white daikon radishes, beets, squash and some of the biggest avocados I’ve ever seen. I loved the sweet potatoes, including purple sweet potatoes (which I’ve written about in the past) and the famous Okinawa sweet potatoes — a staple in the diets of the Okinawans who are among the world’s longest living populations. For fruits, I spotted lychee and mangosteen.
It’s nearly impossible to talk about local Hawaiian cuisine without mentioning the plate lunch — a throwback to the days of the carb-heavy meals served to the plantation workers. The traditional tin containers (called kau kau) have been replaced with the ubiquitous styrofoam clamshells, but the major components are basically the same: meat plus two scoops of rice (often with a scoop of macaroni salad too). They’re crazy about Spam here, but the other popular meats are pork (kalua), Portuguese sausage and Ahi tuna (often served as Poke, a raw version that’s been marinated in soy and spices). And many of the local dishes get inspiration from the rich culinary heritage of Japan, Vietnam and the Pacific.
For dessert, I was surprised (and delighted) to see some Middle Eastern sweets. But the real local treat is Shave Ice — which is somewhat of an art form here. This is no typical SnoCone. The ice is powdery like snow and the syrups are not your basic sugary-sweet toppings.