by Joshua Lurie
My fall trip to Hawaii was to learn about the increasing connection between islanders and their homegrown food. For years, Hawaii imported 85% of its food from across the Pacific, but islanders are finally starting to harness the power of their fertile volcanic soil to produce food on-site, and that means taking mountainsides beyond pineapple and sugar cane.
My first Hawaiian island adventure started Big, as in Big Island. My flight landed in Hilo, Hawaii’s fourth largest city, which occupies the northeast corner of the island, which is larger than all the other Hawaiian islands combined.
My home base for two nights was the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel, a concave building on the bay that dates to 1975 and resides next to Lilikolani Park, which has Japanese influenced bridges, bonsai and bamboo, and remains popular for fishing and walking. On a clear day, you can see Mauna Kea Mountain, home of a Keck telescope. On less dynamic days, you have to settle for azure waters, the street’s namesake banyan trees, and the chirp of coqui, invasive Puerto Rican frogs.
My first Hawaiian meal was at the hotel’s Queen’s Court, home to a buffet that touts greatest Hawaiian hits like poke, a taro leaf and pork stew called lau lau, and pounded taro root, poi, which is bland on its own but pairs well with salty foods like kalua pork.
My first morning in Hawaii involved a drive down the east coast of the Big Island along Highway 11 to visit the Volcano Village Farmers’ Market, which capitalizes on the island’s nutrient rich volcanic soil and convenes on Sunday mornings at the Cooper Center and adjacent Carlson’s Court. Flavorful finds included Papa’a Palaoa Bakery’s sausage breakfast sandwich on an English muffin with Puna goat cheese and fresh basil, Michiko Kakimoto’s glutinous mochi filled with local lilikoi and pohaberry, a bowl of Thai chicken soup spiked with roasted garlic and chile sauce, and the fuzzy ice cream bean that comes from Central America.
At Kuahiwi Ranch, the Galimba family has been raising animals in sustainable ways, with respect for the land, since 1993. Al Galimba (pictured at left), wife Sami, daughter Michelle, son Guy and the grandkids have grown their ranch to 10,000 picturesque acres overlooking the Pacific Ocean, which reside between Wood Valley and Waiohinu. The Galimbas raise Charolais and Angus cows, which feast on barley, corn, mill run and grass, but never hormones or antibiotics. We saw the meat for sale at Volcano Village Farmers’ Market, and the Galimbas also supply stores like Food Land.
My tour concluded in lunch with Al Galimba at Hana Hou, a canary yellow restaurant just above the southernmost point in the U.S. Drake and Patty Fujimoto’s place features a mural of the bay, and specials appear on a dry erase board. Stuffed Papaya cradled macadamia nut curry chicken salad, shaved red onion and tangy lilikoi dressing. The passionate dish paired well with a bottomless glass of tangy lilikoi lemonade.
My first trip to coffee origin wasn’t in Brazil or Ethiopia, it was at Rusty’s Hawaiian Coffee, just up the road in the Kau District. The man behind the farm, Rusty Obra, was a chemist, and his wife Lorie was a medical technologist. They started clearing sugar cane fields in 1999, and Rusty passed away in 2006, but she continues to grow, process and roast the beans with help from daughter Lorie, son-in-law Ralph and Quality Control specialist Miguel Meza. Rusty’s Hawaiian Coffee grows six coffee varietals at Cloud’s Rest, which is where the mountains meet the sky.
Consumption stopped briefly during a visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. My hike led past stone steps, fiddlehead ferns and native types of ginger and raspberries, depositing me at a vast crater with steaming fissures, and in the distance, flowing magma that lights up orange at night and contributes to vog, volcano fog. I climbed to the Crater Rim Trail, which leads past steam vents that wash over ferns. The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory offered the best vantage point of the magma, and resided next to the Jaggar Museum, which explains the science behind Mauna Loa, “the earth’s largest volcano,” which has a true base of 56,000 feet.
All this hiking and magma made me hungry, and Nori’s Saimin & Snacks provided relief. Beth-An Gilbert-Nishijima’s inconspicuous restaurant with straight-backed wood booths specializes in saimin, a multi-cultural noodle soup that dates to Hawaii’s Plantation era. New Hilo Style Saimin included egg noodles, scallion, fish cake, char siu, egg and pork wontons. Their specials board touted tempting options like pig feet soup and panko mullet, and a stand by the register had slabs of signature chocolate mochi.
One of the definitive Hawaiian dishes is moco loco, a hamburger patty touting gravy, steamed white rice and fried egg. Of course we had to get loco at the source, and opted for Cafe 100, which may have invented the dish in 1949. We obliterated the O.G. Moco Loco, but they also have versions with Spam, bacon, or teriyaki beef.
It’s hard to imagine a more resilient fish market than Suisan, which survived two tsunamis since seafood peddlers Kamezo Matsuno, Torazuki Hayashi and Hitaro Egawa formed a collective named Sui San Kabushiki Kaisha in 1907. The market long ago relocated from its original downtown location. Now Matsuno’s granddaughter Christine presides over the seafood selection, including more than a dozen kinds of poke, a raw fish preparation seasoned with ingredients like furikake, shoyu, and wasabi. We enjoyed classic Ahi Hawaiian Style with rosy chunks of tuna, strands of seaweed, nutty sesame seeds, oil and local kukui nuts. Ahi Hawaiian Style with Chile Pepper Water and Uku Hawaiian Style completed our poke exploration.
We visited Hawaii Nui Brewing Company, Hilo’s most prominent local brewery, and met co-founder Keith Kinsey, who along with co-founder Andy Baker, bought Keoki Brewing in Kauai in 2007 and merged with Big Island-based Mehana Brewing Company the following year. The Hawaii Nui tasting room is open every day but Sunday and features beer on tap and in bottles, including Hawaii Nui Hapa Brown Ale and Mehana Mauna Kea Pale Ale.
The last stop in town was at Two Ladies Kitchen, a mochi confectionary that isn’t typically open on Mondays, but accepted customers due to a massive special order. Tomi Tokeshi learned to make mochi from a Buddhist priest who trained in Japan, and niece Nora Uchida (pictured at left with staff) now packs the pink retail counter. Tantalizing glutinous rice options included sweet and sour shiso with a purple hue and herb flecking; a yellow, subtly sweet and tangy lilikoi square, plus larger mochi coated with a judicious amount of earthy red bean paste and filled with an entire sweet strawberry.
Apparently there can still be life in a slaughterhouse. That’s the case at Hawaiian Vanilla Company, which Jim Reddekopp and wife Tracy founded along a winding road above the Pacific Ocean in a 1947 slaughterhouse that once supplied Portuguese sugar cane workers with meat. The couple manages 20 acres and a retail store, and hosts vanilla-centric breakfast, lunch, and afternoon tea. For lunch, Tracy Reddekopp marinated chicken in vanilla bourbon citrus, grilled and served it with vanilla caramelized onions and lettuce on house-made Hawaiian sweetbread. To drink, we received iced tea, lemonade or Arnold Palmer, all flecked with vanilla bean. For dessert, they dispensed scoops of vanilla ice cream doused in sweet tart lilikoi curd.
Prior to my first Hawaii trip, it was pretty much a certainty that the hole-free, Portuguese-inspired, plantation-era donut called the malasada would enter my life soon after landing. A Hilo native suggested Tex Drive In, home of “ono kine [delicious local] food & hot malasadas,” which were on my drive to Waikoloa! My picks were one malasada piped with Bavarian crème, another with guava jam, both warm, soft, lightly sugared and pull apart, with a pleasantly yeasty smell wafting from the paper bag.
My next two nights were at Hilton Waikoloa Village on the Big Island’s western shore, 62 acres carved out of craggy volcanic rocks, which opened in 1988 as a Hyatt and switched to a Hilton in 1993. An elliptical stone path wraps around the rim of the entire property, lit by tiki torches, leading to white sand beach on one side and a system of pools on the other side.
My first on-site dinner was at Kamuela Provision Company, a regional steak and seafood restaurant with a huge lanai (patio) overlooking a coral beach, light waves, and if you’re lucky like me, a pink sunset. Reserve the alli (king) table for an extra $25, and chef Charles Charbonneau will provide a waterfront table, amuse bouche, and glass of Champagne. On the menu, a naupaka flower indicates the majority of ingredients are from Hawaii. That included my plate of ahi carpaccio, seared in sesame oil and lavished with macadamia nut pesto and kabayaki, sweet soy reduced with ginger and garlic. Molokai sweet potato gnocchi arrived in a brown butter, pancetta, sage and lemon broth, and Ginger Steamed Monchong also incorporated kabayaki, sushi rice cakes and hot peanut oil.
The following day, after a morning run along the coral beach and a shower with coco mango shampoo that left my hair smelling like a pina colada, the Lagoon Spoon, which has mix-and-match cereal bar, along with my choice, a savory malasada sandwich. Sugar-free malasada dough served as the bun, and my choice of meat was a sausage patty, which joined American cheese and an omelet cake.
My last Big Island lunch was at Merriman’s, from iconic Hawaii Regional Cuisine co-founder Peter Merriman, who launched his first signature restaurant in Waimea’s Opelo Plaza way back in 1988. He and corporate chef Neil Murphy now oversee five restaurants, including a more casual Mediterranean café in Waikoloa Village. The original location has a peaked roof, a dining room with iron chandeliers sporting “pineapples” and an open kitchen. Just outside, they grow herbs and fruit for the restaurant. Our appetizer sampler included flaky mahi fillets with ponzu relish, wok-charred ahi plated with pickled ginger, and juicy tomato topped with sweet grilled Maui shrimp, Haas avocados and tangy lemon vinaigrette. Our entrees consisted of signature BBQ Grilled Shrimp & Asparagus on garlic macadamia rice, and boneless Chinese Short Ribs served with hot mustard and spicy kimchi.
Of course no first time visit to Hawaii is complete without a luau, and my luau took place back at my hotel’s Kamehameha Court (pictured at right). The traditional dinner show took place in a facility named for the first King of Hawaii, who united the surrounding islands. They led me to a chair at the communal Alii table closest to the stage, where we all feasted on indigenous classics like lomi lomi salmon, sesame and soy baked chicken, Kalua pig, bone-in beef short ribs (galbi) and local Kona Longboard Lager. The show told the story of the South Pacific through song, complete with a troupe of male and female dancers. The show started with a hula lesson, followed by a Polynesian “fashion show” and a hula’ing cowboy, and concluded with one of the alluring female dancers leading me on stage for the frantic finale.
My whirlwind four-day tour of Hawaii’s Big Island regrettably had to come to an end, but before my flight boarded at Kona Airport, time allowed for a cup of single estate Hawaiian espresso at Kona Coffee & Tea and an visit to the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority, aka NELHA. The facility pumps cool seawater from 2000 feet under the surface to use ocean in aquaculture and terrestrial based growing. Every tenant in NELHA’s 870-acre park has to use seawater. Rich Bailey’s DewPoint Systems channels condensation, aka irrigation, into pipes, which helps grow grapes. Gerald Cysewski of Neutrex Hawaii cultivates spirulina (a “super food” that delivers five servings of vegetables) and astaxanthin, an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and carotenoid that captures the red pigment color in nature. Astaxanthin comes in powder or tablets, mixable with fruits or juices. Mmm. NELHA also houses businesses like Big Island Abalone, which grows ezo, a northern Japanese variety prized by sushi chefs. Koyo Water uses reverse osmosis and bottles desalinated seawater for the Japanese market. King Ocean Farm raises halibut, and Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm produces ornamentals.
It was a short time before my plane departed for Oahu, where more adventures awaited, but four days on the Big Island left me longing for more.
Find more of Joshua Lurie’s writing and photography on his website, Food GPS.