There’s a culinary revolution happening across the Hawaiian Islands, one that is harnessing centuries-old techniques in a place that until relatively recently relied heavily on importing nearly all of its produce.
Chefs are going back to sustainable roots, farm-to-fork, sourcing from local fishermen and farmers and rediscovering long-forgotten ingredients.
And this trend is filtering to high-end restaurants and resorts with visitors finding that Hawaiian food is not all about Spam and macaroni salad served up from the buffet cart at a luau. Beyond the resorts some of the best culinary delights are to be found at grower’s markets, the farm door and from food trucks.
On the island of Kauai we step around the ubiquitous wild chooks and into the van of Erik Burton who runs Kauai Guided Tours. He’s brandishing a just-harvested giant banana. They call him the ‘Banana Man’, he’s a keen grower who is working to locate, identify and preserve what remains of the heirloom varieties Kauai produces. He’s just come from the frontyard of one of the members of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (he’s not saying which one, he says the Kauai way is to not name names) where a rare variety of banana is growing.
We’re keen to experience local cuisine and find out where it’s sourced and Erik’s reeling off the local grower’s markets worth visiting. He’s noticed an increased interest in visitors wanting to learn about local food on what is known as the Garden Island. He’ll drive some to Kapa’a market on Kauai’s eastside, others to Kauai Culinary Market on the south shore, or Hanalei Farmer’s Market on the north shore (“where you might even get to meet Milo the surfing Pomeranian”).
“Also on Saturdays is the farmers market at the Kauai Community College, you have to show up to try the amazing white pineapple soft-serve made from 100 per cent locally low acidic grown white pineapple,” he tells us. Erik’s enthusiasm for local produce knows no bounds.
The locavore food movement is really nothing new, it dates back to early Hawaiian settler days when each family was allocated a separate lot of land and together made self-sustaining communities known as ahupua’a.
More recently, in the 1990s a food revolution called “Hawaiian Regional Cuisine” was spearheaded by chefs such as Roy Yamaguchi who infused Asian flavours into locally-sourced produce. Now, a new generation is utilising the islands’ salad bowl, breadbasket and meat tray with the knowledge that the volcanic soil is ripe for producing everything from high-quality avocados, heirloom tomatoes to bananas.
Erik’s driving us to the source – the Limahuli Garden and Preserve on Kauai’s north shore where Director, Kawika Winter takes us through the botanic garden. The rock walls terracing the gardens were used to grow taro 700 years ago. It’s a living ahupua’a system.
Kawika points out other canoe plants (brought over by the Polynesians) such as turmeric, sugar cane, coconuts and bananas. There’s a plantation-era garden highlighting the crops introduced by the wave of immigrants that arrived on the islands to work on sugar plantations, these include pineapple, mango and papaya.
Away from the heritage gardens, the day’s taste highlight comes from a red food truck parked alone by the beach in Kapa’a. The ice treats from Wailua Shave Ice feature locally made syrups with fresh fruit piled on top, my “Love Potion #9” shave ice features vanilla bean milk and fresh strawberries, another has dragon fruit, honey, coconut flakes and bananas on top.
We end our tour in a supermarket and head directly for the aisle dedicated to Spam with varieties including macadamia nut and teriyaki. It’s the polar opposite to the fresh fare we’ve sampled and a reminder of what has been popular in Hawaii (and still is) for the past half-century. The unspoilable, no-need-to-refrigerate salty tinned meat was first brought over by GIs from the US mainland during World War II.
On the island of Maui, it’s the rich volcanic soil of the Upcountry, among houses owned by Oprah, Willie Nelson and Owen Wilson where the farm-to-fork revolution is happening. Up rolling green hills at cloud level are small farms opening up their larder for the public to taste.
At the Ali’i Kula Lavender farm we take a walking tour through fields of fragrant Spanish, English and French lavender. It’s the French variety that’s used for cooking. We sample lavender strawberry pepper jam, as well as lavender-flavoured coffee, chocolate and scones.
Many of the farms up here have a reciprocal program with like-minded producers. Ali’i share crops with the nearby Ulupalakua Vineyards, specialising in wines made from handpicked pineapples. You can taste the pineapple wine in a cottage built for the royal visitation of King Kalakaua in 1874. Across the road diners feast on elk burgers roped in by a local paniolo (Hawaiian for cowboy) at the Ulupalakua Ranch Store.
At the nearby Surfing Goat Dairy, goat’s milk is made into truffles in flavours such as Lilikoi (yellow passionfruit) and Hawaiian chilli pepper. They offer an ‘Upcountry barbecue’ where you can dine on (very) locally sourced goat’s cheese, corn, tomatoes, onion, beef and chicken with chocolate truffles for dessert.
You can also take a Hawaiian Sea Spirits farm and distillery tour on the hillside in Haleakala to see how organic vodka made from sugar cane blended with deep sea mineral water off the Kona coast of Hawaii is made. If you care to imbibe while there, there’s a herb garden to add different flavours to the libation.
On Hawaii’s Big Island it’s all about Kona coffee. There are many roasting doors to visit including Kona Coffee Living History Farm where costumed interpreters guide through Kona’s history. Serious coffee lovers should head to the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival which runs for 10 days every November.
Come early Saturday morning on the main island of Oahu the crowds are gathering for the KCC Farmers’ Market at the Kapiolani Community College. Everything we have seen touring the other islands is here, as well as rambutan, sea asparagus, abalone, duck eggs and tangerines. Chefs, cooks, locals and tourists jostle to spend up. It’s clear Hawaii’s next wave in food is cresting.
More evidence is the Pau Hana Market – a convoy of food trucks selling such delights as tiger prawns sourced from Oahu’s North Shore and ramen noodles with smoked beef slices – among the high-rise hotel towers on the Beach Walk in Waikiki which opened last year.
Sitting down for a Lavender Chi-Chi cocktail (with Hawaiian made Kai Coconut Pandan Vodka, lavender syrup, pineapple juice and coconut water, all locally sourced) at the beachside Moana Surfrider hotel, a local is telling me about the success of the inaugural Great Hawaiian Food Truck Festival that has just wrapped up. Thirty vans pulled up on the main drag in Waikiki selling fresh produce.
Who knows, one day it might even replace the annual Spam Jam – the festival dedicated to the tinned luncheon meat.
Norwegian Cruise Lines Pride of America has a seven-day cruise beginning in Oahu then visiting Maui, Hawaii’s Big Island, Kauai and back to Oahu from US$899 a person. It’s a great way to get a good overview of each of these four islands; see NCL.com. For Kauai Guided Tours, see kauaiguidedtours.com.
Opened in 1901, The Westin Moana Surfrider, is Honolulu’s first beachfront hotel. Just as it would have been a century ago, the rocking chairs on the porch are still there as is the banyan tree in the beachside courtyard, rooms from $US270 a night. See moana-surfrider.com.
Andrea Black was a guest of Hawaii Tourism.
TOP 5 FIELD-TO-FORK RESTAURANTS
Eating House 1849, Oahu
Chef Roy Yamaguchi’s newest venture on Kauai’s south shore pays homage to one of the first restaurants in Hawaii, called the Eating House which opened in the mid-1800s. Like its namesake, the restaurant sources from local farmers, ranchers, foragers and fishermen. eatinghouse1849.com
This casual restaurant in suburban Honolulu is run by Oahu-born chef Ed Kenney, an early-adopter of the locavore movement. Try the Hawaiian-sourced pork charcuterie cured in-house with mashed taro root and paiai (which is solidified poi). The motto here is, “Local first, organic whenever possible, with Aloha always”. townkaimuki.com
Ko Restaurant, Fairmont Kea Lani, Maui
Inspired by sugarcane plantation era workers’ family recipes (Ko means sugar), Executive Chef Tylun Pang is an advocate for sourcing locally. Try their line-caught fresh catch of the day with a macadamia nut crust and tomato-ginger butter and a side of island grown vegetables. korestaurant.com
Olympic Cafe, Kauai
Located in Old Kapaa Town, the Olympic Cafe’s menu includes local giant avocados and freshly caught fish. Prices are reasonable and this being America, the portions are enormous. www.olympiccafekauai.com/
ThE Pig And The Lady, OAhu
Chinatown’s The Pig and the Lady’s menu changes daily depending on what produce is available but pork is always guaranteed, including roasted pig head. The Vietnamese-inspired dishes come from recipes Chef Le learned from his mother, Loan Le (‘The Lady’). thepigandthelady.com