Hawaii: Taste the Aloha
Eat your way through the islands as you discover Hawai‘i’s thriving farm-to-table scene, where the freshest local ingredients make for memorable meals and equally memorable adventures.
As global and mobile, as cosmopolitan and multicultural as we have become, one of the pleasures of travel remains the discovery of local foods you can’t get in your own hometown.
Hawai‘i is certainly no exception. Drawing influence from a panoply of cultures and traditions, and benefiting from ideal growing conditions, food in the islands is some of the freshest and most flavorful you’ll find anywhere.
To deliver “Fresh” with a capital F, Hawai‘i chefs have embraced the principles of farm-to-table cuisine. Sourcing food on-island has become paramount, and chefs cultivate their relationships with farmers carefully. It’s commonplace now to see menus with the salad greens, fresh cheese, or a cut of pork identified by the imprimatur of the farm that raised or produced it. With food this fresh, you can’t help but notice the difference eating so directly from the ʻāina makes.
Breadfruit, Taro, Jaboticaba
Sure, the papayas and pineapples are enticing year-round in Hawai‘i, but the local orchards are also producing fruit that’s so exotic, you may have trouble pronouncing the names. Jaboticaba. Longan. Mangosteen. Surinam cherry. Cherimoya. The flavors and textures found in these tropical fruits are extraordinary. Take the rangpur lime, for example, which isn’t really a lime at all but a cross between a mandarin orange and a lemon. Or the dragon fruit—it’s shocking pink on the outside, but when you cut into it, you’ll find a white, creamy flesh speckled with black dots. It tastes like a kiwi tinged with essence of strawberry, plus . . . Well, half the fun of trying exotic fruits is figuring out how to best describe their flavors to your friends back home. What’s in season this summer? Panama and poha berries, lychee, rambutan, and tamarind. You’ll find them being used in dishes at local restaurants and for sale at farmers markets. Look for them fresh, cooked into sauces, or prepared as jellies.
Surinam Cherry, Mangosteen, Longan
Canoe Foods Make a Comeback
Nutritious and versatile, taro and breadfruit have been relied on as Oceania’s staple foods for thousands of years, not least because they helped voyagers survive long journeys at sea. These workhorse ingredients have been attracting renewed interest from chefs, food entrepreneurs, and scientists.
It’s Not Really Bread: Breadfruit can be baked, steamed, or roasted—much like potatoes. But the trees also produce construction materials, provide animal feed, and even serve medicinal purposes. The National Tropical Botanical Garden’s locations in Kahanu Garden, Maui, and the McBryde Garden, Kaua‘i, are part of the Breadfruit Institute, which studies ways the plant can contribute to sustainability and food security—not just in Hawai‘i but in places like Haiti and Kenya. According to the Hunger Initiative, just one breadfruit tree can feed a family of four for 40 to 60 years.
The Sacred Root: Taro, a root vegetable Native Hawaiians consider sacred, has also been in the spotlight. A documentary called I Am Hāloa featured high school students eating taro, called kalo in the Hawaiian language, for 90 days as a way of understanding their Hawaiian culture. It inspired many people who watched the film to give it a try. The movie includes interviews with island chefs like Andrew Le, of The Pig and the Lady, discussing how taro is used in contemporary cuisine.
Interpreting Taro: On the entrepreneurial front, a company called Pomai Kulolo combined traditional kulolo (a dessert containing taro, coconut, and sugar) with haupia, a creamy coconut sweet, to make layered dessert bars it has dubbed “Haulolo.” They’ve been a huge hit at farmers markets. On Kaua‘i, Hanalei Taro and Juice Company offers taro hummus as an interpretation of the Mediterranean staple, and on Maui, the Maui Taro Company has had commercial success producing tasty burgers made from the taro plant’s root, stalk, and leaves.
Mother Nature Network named Hawai‘i one of the “Top 8 Agri-Tourism Destinations in the World,” citing the wide range of options and ease of travel. There’s a spectrum of options across all the islands, from flower nurseries to organic orchards to working ranches. You can book with a food tour company, which will escort you to a variety of farms in a day and provide a locally sourced lunch and plenty of delectable samples. Or visit an individual producer, like Hawai‘i Island Bees or Maui’s Manawai Estate Chocolate, on your own. Not only will your eyes be opened to how some of your favorite foods come into the world, but you’ll have a chance to pick up some unique gifts.
Hilo Farmers' Market
The Farmers Market Scene
When the Saturday farmers market at Kapi‘olani Community College first opened in 2003, it was, shall we say, an early adapter of the farm-to-table movement. The offerings were slim: local eggplant and sweet corn, some baked goods—only 16 vendors in all. One of the founders of the KCC market, Hawai‘i food expert and author Joan Namkoong, told the Star-Bulletin newspaper at the time, “Hopefully the consumer gains knowledge about the food they are eating and an appreciation for the farmers’ efforts. Food doesn’t just come in a pretty package at the supermarket. It’s all about building farmer-consumer relationships.”
Consider those relationships built. Today, 7,500 people every week throng to patronize 60 vendors. You’ll get a taste of the islands, quite literally, as you nosh your way through Waimānalo-grown portobello mushrooms, Kahuku sea asparagus, slow-roasted Moloka‘i sweet potatoes, and beef sliders sourced from Hawai‘i Island cattle. Fortify yourself with a cup of Ka‘u or Kona coffee and linger to admire the heliconia and other tropical flowers.
Numerous thriving farmers markets dot the island, and the style and content varies depending where you are. Stop at the Lipoa Street Farmers Market on a Saturday morning to pick up snacks before hitting one of the Kīhei beaches. If you find yourself in Pukalani, don’t miss the Upcountry Farmers Market, a good stop for Maui-made crafts as well as edibles.
If the KCC market started small, the Hilo Farmers Market started smaller still, with only four farmers vending their goods back in 1988. It’s grown into one of the finest markets in the state, with mountains of local, in-season produce and tasty prepared foods as well. The market takes over Hilo town on Wednesdays and Saturdays beginning at 8 a.m. Keep your eye out for artisan-crafted specialties, like Aunt Phyllis’ macadamia nut butter or Hawai‘i Bal-samics—traditional Italian balsamic vinegar infused with the flavors of Hawai‘i.
Most corners of Kaua‘i have their own farmers markets. Some of them, like the Kapa‘a and Koloa markets, are very much focused on fresh-from-the farm produce. Others, such as the Saturday market at Kaua‘i Community College, offer prepared foods, too. The simplest way to choose a market is probably to go to the one nearest where you happen to be when you get the hankering. But remember to look up from your shop-ping tote once in a while, as you’re likely to be rubbing shoulders with local chefs in search of new ingredients and inspiration.
Dive into Aquaculture
Teaming innovation with investment, the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawai‘i Authority in Keāhole, on Hawai‘i Island, has become to aquaculture what Silicon Valley is to tech startups. This business incubator near Kailua-Kona welcomes visitors to tour some of the enterprises that call the center home (you’ll need to make reservations in advance). The site is host to Hawai‘i Island Abalone, the largest land-based abalone farm in the world, as well as Kampachi Farms, Kona Coast Shellfish and Kona Cold Lobsters, which bring lobsters and crabs in for finishing before they make their way to the table.
Want to taste the results of the islands’ aquaculture efforts? Of course you do. A restaurant called Daylight Mind in Kailua-Kona, to pick just one example, serves a Keāhole lobster BLT, a Kaua‘i prawn scampi, and a ceviche made from local abalone.
Ed Kenney, an O‘ahu chef and proprietor of Town and Superette, two Kaimukī-based establishments, espouses this mantra: “Local first, organic whenever possible, and with aloha always.” These words reflect the blend of tradition, creativity, and ultra-fresh local ingredients that continue to make Hawai‘i a world-class culinary destination.