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Hawaii: Big Appetite

From haute cuisine to ono grindz, Hawai‘i Island offers a diverse array of culinary diversions


Photos by Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)/Dana Edmunds & Tor Johnson

Hawai‘i Island, despite its newcomer status as the youngest of the Hawaiian Islands, has been gifted with a wide range of climates and rich volcanic soil that make it the most agriculturally productive of all the islands. Foodies touching down on Hawai‘i Island will find an exciting culinary experience that feels very close to the soil and the sea. Sure, fancier restaurants may be found on O‘ahu and Maui, but here in Hawai‘i’s breadbasket (or perhaps “poi bowl” is a better metaphor) you can get your hands dirty, discover the processes, wander the orchards, meet the fishermen, and sample widely from the unique tropical mélange that is Hawai‘i cuisine.

If you Grow It, They Will Come

It’s no secret that Hawai‘i Island grows amazing coffee. Even the casual coffee consumer perks up at the word “Kona.” And sure enough: A lovely drive through the Kona region is a connect-the-dots collection of coffee plantations, many of which offer tours and samples. But it’s worth realizing that Hawai‘i’s coffee isn’t grown only in Kona, and Kona doesn’t grow only coffee.

In recent years, coffees from Kona’s neighbor to the south and east, Ka‘u, have taken top honors at statewide competitions. And there’s another antioxidant-rich crop to tantalize your taste buds in this region: chocolate. Depending on when you visit, you might see cacao beans being harvested, fermented, or roasted. No matter when you visit, you will definitely see chocolate being eaten.

Take a Stand

The earliest vegetation arrived in the Hawaiian Islands by floating in on the sea or being carried here by birds. Since then, humans have taken over, introducing a spectacular array of exotic fruit from all over the Pacific and Asia. Many of these exotics grow best on Hawai‘i Island, so a stop at a fruit stand here is a wilder experience than elsewhere. Slice into a dragon fruit that looks like it was sketched by Dr. Seuss, sample a citrusy-sweet soursop, or try to heft a 60-pound jackfruit.

Not content to just browse the fruit stand? Join up with one of the agricultural tours offered around the island to gain insider knowledge of how the islands’ rich bounty of produce is cultivated.

Malasada, a Portugese-style donut, is a Hawaiian favorite

A Locavore’s Paradise

If you’ve visited the islands before, you’ve heard of Hawaii Regional Cuisine. One of the points of origin for this movement toward locally sourced, naturally produced, fresh food is the ranching town of Waimea, halfway between Hilo and Kona on the northern arc of Route 19. Surrounded by rolling grasslands incongruously punctuated by cinder cones, Waimea may not seem a likely spot to find the island’s best dining, but that’s where “local” comes in.

Restaurants here pride themselves on the short distances between where the food—be it grass-fed beef or fresh vegetables—was grown and where it is served. The regional cuisine movement is as much about encouraging farmers and ranchers to produce the kind of food the chefs want to prepare as about the preparations themselves. All that is abundantly delectable in Waimea.

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