Saturday, February 25, 2012

Fresh and Wholesome, Island Eating

Farmer's stand in Haliewa, O'ahu

I have never had a bad meal in Hawaii.  As far as I’m concerned, enjoying wholesome tropical foods is as much a reason to go to Hawaii as to snorkel with sea turtles, get sun burned, hike through rainforests, and stand on the edge of a steaming volcano crater.

Even to a tourist like me, the strong local agricultural movement is obvious.  It takes on various faces:  food security, organic, buy local, sustainability. A two-page spread in a recent edition of the Honolulu Weekly spotlighted young farmers who are committed to producing locally grown produce for a living.  In Generation Next:  Food Growers, (February 15, 2012), author Tiffany Hervey interviewed 36-year-old Jonny DesRoches of North Shore Greens who is using raised beds to ensure that his salad greens are organic (“I don’t know what’s been done to the soil before I got here”).  According to the article, DesRoches supplies area restaurants with vegetables year-round from his farm.  Another youthful interviewee, Josiah Hunt, 31 is trying to recreate age-old methods of growing genetically un-modified papayas on his Big Island plantation.  At a clothing store in Haliewa, I picked up a publication, Edible Hawaiian Islands, with articles about rooftop gardening, sweet potatoes (“the complex flavors of an island staple”) and recipes like mahi mahi, pa’i’ai, Ma’O roots & pickled limu.

Musicians entertain during Wednesday
farmer's market at Blaisdell Center
Everywhere, fresh foods present themselves.  Throughout Honolulu, farmer’s markets spring up daily on street corners, tables overflowing with fruits, vegetables, fresh sauces, and homemade treats.  On the North Shore of O’ahu, locals sell plates of shrimp scooped out of ponds that same day.  On the Big Island and elsewhere, pineapple, banana, avocado, coffee, macadamia nuts, and guava groves grow along roads, in parks, and in fields surrounding rural communities.  How can you possibly go wrong eating in this place?

During our February escape from Alaska, my husband, Matt, and I once again discovered and savored Hawaii’s decadence.  Here are some of my favorite food experiences from that visit.

Hawaiian Chef

Locally owned Hawaiin Chef cooperative

A few weeks before we left for Honolulu, I received an email notice for a Groupon offering 50% off a $50.00 box of produce from the Hawaiian Chef.  The company describes itself as a Native Hawaiian family owned business that works with over 40 Island farms. They guarantee that their foods are 100% natural with no pesticides, chemical sprays or GMO.  I bought the Groupon (my first), went online, and placed my order 7 days in advance of my anticipated pick-up.  When we arrived in Honolulu, I entered the cross streets for the Saturday market location into my Android smart phone’s Google Maps app, but upon arrival, there was no market to be found!  Disappointed, I stashed the Groupon.  Later in the week, we happened to drive by another farmer’s market location (an Episcopal Church on Wilder Street) and I made my husband stop to see if I could locate the vendor.  Happily, I immediately found Hawaiian Chef.  After I explained my predicament to the friendly woman managing the table, she took pity and set about preparing a fresh box for me.  When finished, she presented me with an enormous crate of bok choy, collard greens, leaf lettuce, a head of cabbage, zucchini, green bell peppers, a bunch of green onions, Japanese eggplants, cilantro, Maui grown pineapple, apple bananas (taste like apples!), a dozen fresh eggs, and a bottle of papaya seed vinaigrette.  Beside myself with excitement, I lugged the heavy bounty back to the car, up to the condo, and sorted and stored everything in the fridge.  The next morning, as the sun came up over Waikiki, I made a stovetop frittata with the eggs, collard greens and bok choy and later, I cooked up a huge quantity of delicious stir fry.

Bluewater Shrimp & Seafood Market

Great local seafood is available
at Bluewater

My step daughter happens to live in Waikiki and was generous enough during our recent visit to share some insider information on places to get tasty food.  Not surprisingly, she spoke highly of the dinners prepared at the establishment where she works, Bluewater Shrimp and Seafood Market, so one evening after dark, we headed down to the International Market in the center of Waikiki to try it out for ourselves.  The open air International Market is a Honolulu institution.  Winding through the better part of a city block, the market holds covered kiosks hocking plastic tropical flowers, made-in-China jewelry, racks and racks of bright Hawaiian shirts and sarongs, and rubber flip-flops.  Bluewater Shrimp stands on a corner of the market, next to the stage where tourists gather to watch hula dancing, steel drums, or Hawaiian folk music.  The line of customers that forms at Bluewater’s counter each night is long enough to tell you it’s got to be good.  The menu was tortuously difficult to choose from because everything sounded enticing and reasonably priced ($13.00-$15.00).  I eventually ordered the furikake (sesame and seaweed) crusted ahi tuna, which came with a tossed green salad, pineapple and red bell pepper salsa, and a mound of sticky white rice.  Matt ordered clams in a garlicky sauce.  The ahi was fantastic – tender and sweet under the thick layer of salty furikake.  The salad was made of fresh leafy greens and shredded carrots with a tropical flower garnish and the rice was a perfectly neutral accompaniment.  Just as we finished eating, the hula performance started with the dancers performing to piped in, old-fashioned kitschy Island music.  On that particular warm evening, with a full stomach, surrounded by tourists like ourselves from all over the Pacific Rim, the hula music was perfect.

Down to Earth is a Hawaii-based vegetarian-only grocery store chain with its philosophy printed in large letters above the deli cases:  "The single most important thing an individual can do for their health, for the environment, and for the sake of the innocent animals is to adopt a vegetarian diet."  Vegetarian has never looked, smelled, and tasted so good.  We were particularly enamored with the hot and cold lunch bar that featured a spread of entrees, salads, pastas, soups, olives, and desserts succulent and attractive enough to certainly turn a meat-lover into a vegetarian.  Creative combinations of quinoa, seaweed, curry, vegetables, tofu, and all varieties of rice were available for $9.95/pound and salads were offered for slightly less.  For dessert, Matt selected a dense oatmeal cookie loaded with nuts and dried fruit and I tested the vegan pumpkin bar with a delicate citrus glaze.  Down to Earth’s ample produce section is all organic, though not exclusively locally grown.  I bought imported mangoes and apples to take back to the condo that were sweet and juicy.  As an added benefit, the non-profit Silent Dance Center offers daily yoga classes in a funky studio behind the store for just $10 (one hour classes, yoga mats provided).  I have a true confession to go along with this part of my blog:  I was so overly exuberant about finding such a gem of a food source, that I actually got in trouble with the staff for taking photographs.  Thus, I do hereby formally apologize to Down to Earth for the photographs.  I couldn’t help myself:  I love your store.

Cooking up Hawaiian favorites
at "home" in our Waikiki condo
My step daughter introduced us to this local snack and I became an instant fan.  Pokē is a Hawaiian word that means to section, slice, or cut, which is what the preparer does to a fish to make Pokē.  Pokē is most commonly made with raw ahi tuna, but is also made with other types of seafood including shrimp or octopus.  Once the ahi is cut into bite-sized chunks, it’s marinated in a combination of sliced green onion, soy sauce, and other seasonings, then sold over the counter at grocery stores or in restaurants for dine-in or take-out.  My first experience was a variety of pokē purchased from Foodland grocery store (which, by the way, has an excellent selection of fresh, high quality locally grown produce).  At a picnic in the park later that week, I sampled a second variety of pokē that contained crunchy green branches of limu seaweed.  While both types of poke were excellent, I preferred the Foodland recipe. 

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