On the mainland, farm-to-table has become a popular marketing strategy for many restaurants and other food-oriented businesses. On the Hawaiian Islands, isolated thousands of miles in the Pacific Ocean, using fresh, local, artisan ingredients is how they’ve cooked since the Polynesians first inhabited this archipelago. Today, chefs on islands like Oahu are breathing new life into farm-to-table practices, ensuring local farmers, fishers, and other food purveyors a living and delighting foodies with uber-fresh dishes inspired by uniquely Hawaiian ingredients.
Recently, RFT Editor/Photo Editor Anne Weaver and I traveled for a week to Oahu to experience for ourselves the island’s fresh, natural flavors and we were impressed.
Oahu, 44 miles long and 30 miles across (about 596 square miles), is the third largest and most populous in the chain that makes up the Hawaiian Islands. Because of the island’s location and topography, including the soaring Waiʻanae Range that divides the island into windward (wet) and leeward (dry) sides, this relatively small land mass possesses a number of distinct microclimates. Farmers are able to grow and produce a wide range of fruit, vegetables, and other food products, including mango, taro, honey, corn, papaya, pineapple, coconut, watercress, lilikoi (passion fruit), macadamia nuts, and even cacao and coffee. The waters surrounding Oahu are rich with indigenous fish such as mahi mahi, grouper, flounder moonfish (opa), wahoo (ono), tuna, bass and snapper. Hawaiian shrimp, primarily Pacific White Shrimp, grow in ponds on the north part of the island and supply the food trucks famous for their shrimp plate lunches.
In addition to the diverse growing regions and rich waters, Oahu’s cuisine has been influenced by the influx of numerous peoples. Portuguese and Asians—Japanese, Chinese, Philippine, Korean, and others—have added to the island’s original Polynesian flavors. Grocery stores and farmers markets are often filled with locally-grown Asian vegetables like taro, lychees, bitter melon, taro and yard-long beans.
A great way to experience island flavors is at the many roadside farm stands. We stopped at Kuhuku in North Shore where a gaggle of vendors sell fresh island fruits (whole and cut up) and snacks. We purchased a whole pineapple and bunches of apple bananas, fat mini-bananas with a slightly acidic, apple-like flavor. We also bought bananas wrapped in egg roll wrappers and fried crisp ($1 each). They’re soft inside, crunchy outside and sweet without any added sugar.
You can get an insider’s look at island farming at Kuhuku Farm just up the Kamehameha Highway. They offer 30-mminute farm tours in open air trailers pulled by a bright red tractor. On this 125-acre, fourth generation family farm, they grow bananas, papayas, likikoi, and hydroponic lettuce. Back at the farm office, you can load up on ice cream (vanilla, lilikoi, and apple banana) or a smoothie made with their farm fresh fruits. Or you can buy jams, honey, and their heavenly lilokoi butter (silky smooth with the rich, complex flavor of passion fruit).
While you can find similar products sold at places like Longs Drugs and the ubiquitous ABC stores around the island, it’s worth it to search out producers like Kuhuku Farm to ensure what you’re buying is fresh and authentically island produced. It also provides an opportunity to meet with and talk to island producers.
Another place for food products from small, artisan farmers and food purveyors is at Tropical Farms Macadamia Nut Farm Outlet in Kanehoe. The folks who own this tropical family farm are definitely tourist-savvy, offering free samples of their coffees and dozens of flavors of macadamia nuts. We noshed our way through samples of salted, unsalted, cinnamon, honey, caramel glazed, Kona coffee, and Maui onion and garlic mac nuts and purchased a bottle of their mac nut oil and some noni lotion for a sour knee (noni is a plant reputed to have medicinal properties).
The Old Sugar Mill in Old Wailua Town (North Shore) is another great place to explore artisan island food products. In 1865, entrepreneurs started a sugar plantation in this location. By 1898, they’d built the Wailua Sugar Mill. The mill and plantation changed hands a number of times and eventually was acquired by Castle & Cook, a subsidiary of the Dole Food Company. Dole closed the sugar mill in 1996 and, in 2005, Bill and Reba Martin opened a business selling island food, clothing, and gifts in one of the historic mill’s warehouses. Today, many of the old buildings and the bio burners of the former sugar mill are still in place and Dole has recently re-opened part of the mill to process coffee and cacao from their nearby fields.
When we visited, Reba invited us to tour the coffee and cacao facilities behind the cavernous warehouse. We strolled through the coffee drying area where Reba showed us two different processes for Oahu coffee beans—natural and washed. The natural beans, brown with skins on, are left to dry in the sun on long racks. The washed beans have had their skins removed and are dried on stacked racks. The resulting flavors are remarkably different: the natural process beans produce coffee that has a distinct edge or bite to it; the washed beans produce a smoother, rounder tasting brew.
Reba and Bill sell the Old Wailua Sugar Mill Brand coffee in medium and dark roasts and in both washed and natural. This coffee is produced from the same beans you’ll see sold as Wailua Coffee at the Dole Plantation and elsewhere on the island. However because Reba and Bill roast the beans every other day in small batches, the Wailua coffee you buy here is fresher and more flavorful.
They also had a few cacao trees on display with both flowers and the cacao pods. Reba explained that the Wailua Plantation is the only cacao bean producer on the island. Guittard Chocolate purchases nearly all the Wailua beans and turns them into chocolate products.
The Old Sugar Mill sells Wailua Chocolate from beans grown in the nearby hills. This is exceptional chocolate; what Reba calls “the best chocolate in the world.” It’s uber smooth with lovely fruity notes. Their Wailua Chocolate Covered Coffee Beans marries the best of both worlds—delightful tropical Wailua chocolate enrobing their fresh, crisp coffee beans.
Another great place to savor island flavors is at North Shore Goodies, a company specializing in island food products. While you can find North Shore’s products around the island, it’s fun to visit one of their stores where you can taste before buying. We stopped at their store in the Ka’ala Healing Arts Building just outside of Wailua on the Farrington Highway. The company produces jams, syrups, fruit butters, and hibiscus honey. But the real star is their delicious peanut butter with an island twist. They offer coconut peanut butter, mac nut coconut peanut butter, chocolate coconut peanut butter, and white chocolate raspberry peanut butter. Several of their peanut butter varieties came home with us!
If you’re hungry for something a bit more substantial, plate lunches are an island staple. You can find them in little cafés around the island, but, for an authentic island experience, try the ubiquitous food trucks. On the North Shore, you’ll find the famous shrimp trucks gathered around the fresh water shrimp ponds. For $12, we got a pile of unpeeled garlic shrimp, two scoops of white rice, and a green salad and it was a delicious bargain.
Another great plate lunch is huli huli chicken and one of the best is Mike’s Huli Huli Chicken in Kanehoe on the Kamehameha Highway. This place was featured on the TV show “Diner’s, Drive-ins, and Dives” and there’s a picture of Chef Mike and Chef Guy Fiery of Food Network fame posted on one of their colorfully painted trucks. Behind the trucks, you’ll see a couple of big, flatbed grills with half chickens spinning over a fire of local Kiawe wood. For $9.50 (a buck less for locals), you’ll get an entire half chicken that’s wonderfully juicy and smoky, two scoops of white rice, and a green salad. Be sure to ask for some of their pepper water, a concoction of local peppers, salt, and water. It’s flavorful and spicy without being too hot and it’s great on the white rice.
If your wallet is a little fatter, a terrific place for lunch that features island flavors is Morimoto Waikiki in Honolulu. (Chef Masaharu Morimoto of televisions “Iron Chef” fame has a number of restaurants around the world with similar menus.) We sat on the cool, covered deck overlooking the Waikiki marina.
The lunch menu features both hot and cold appetizers like Hawaiian poke (raw tuna), soups and noodles, salads, rice bowls, sushi, and lunch “sets,” combos of sushi and/or tempura with miso soup, rice, and mixed salad. With four pieces of sushi and eight pieces of super fresh sashimi (big eye tuna, saba or mackerel, Tai, King salmon, yellow tail), these lunch sets make an affordable ($22), farm-to-table meal that’s big enough to share. It came with a cup of flavorful miso, white rice, and a citrusy salad of local greens, tomatoes and cucumbers.
You could also order a few appetizers and easily make a lunch of them. Try the Spicy Alaskan King crab with tobajan aioli, tobiko (flying fish roe), and micro cilantro or pork gyoza (pot stickers) in tomato sauce with bacon cream foam. They also have shrimp and vegetable tempura perfectly battered and lightly crispy.
Kula Grille at Turtle Bay Resort in North Shore is one of the newest restaurants on the island to adopt a farm-to-table ethic. This modernist family-style restaurant has a relaxed island feel and features large windows that overlook the waters of beautiful Turtle Bay.
Breakfast and dinner dishes (they don’t serve lunch) at Kula Grille are made with local ingredients, including seasonal produce, local seafood and meats and poultry from small island farms and ranches.
The dinner options include full dinners and salads, burgers and pizza. Meals start with their house made sweet warm cornbread served with soft butter. Their roasted beet salad features roasted red and yellow beets, fresh and chewy micro-greens and pine nuts, creamy goat cheese and chunks of watermelon and blood orange with Meyer lemon vinaigrette. It’s a refreshing take on a classic salad.
Entrees include local fish, pork and beef dishes (steak and short rib) and a few vegetarian options. The braised/grilled pork belly came as four generous strips of deliciously rich, fatty pork with a sweet, spicy star anise reduction that was served with winter veggies (pumpkin, watercress and confit Maui onion).
There’s always a Kula Grille catch of the day. The herb crusted Moonfish (Opa) was fresh and flaky and came served over house made fettuccini with a rich lobster parmesan sauce, tomatoes, Kuhuku corn, broccolini, and English peas.
In Honolulu, Tiki’s Grill and Bar is a great choice for an authentic taste of Oahu. Talented Chef Ronnie Nasuti works with local farmers and food purveyors and serves delectable farm-to-table island dishes.
We went to Tiki’s for dinner and sat on a second floor deck surrounded by palm trees, beginning our meal with sweet, crumbly pink taro rolls served with vanilla butter.
The restaurant offers a huge appetizer ($12-15) menu (called pupus in Hawaii), including light, fresh ahi tartare with truffle oil and tiny rice balls; grilled ahi (cooked rare) with thinly sliced mango marinated in rice vinegar with sesame seeds; crispy coconut shrimp with garlic aioli; panko crusted calamari steak; cold shrimp salsa; and, one of our favorites, sweet, fruity guava gazed ribs.
For entrees, there are plenty of fresh fish options. The grilled ahi was cooked rare and had a nice smokiness. It was served with garlic potato shreds, grilled asparagus, and a buttery scampi sauce with fresh tomatoes. The macadamia nut crusted mahi mahi was lightly crusted and seared. It was served over orzo pasta, mushrooms, spinach, diced tomatoes, roasted garlic, and lemongrass cream sauce. Delicious!
The portions at Tiki’s Grill and Bar are generous, but do save room for dessert. Their specialty is warm green tea butter cake served with vanilla ice cream and raspberry coulis that will make you swoon.
Perhaps the ultimate farm-to-table experience in Oahu is the five-diamond Chef Mavro in Honolulu. Chef George Mavrothalassitis is a founding member of Hawaii Regional Cuisine. He buys fresh ingredients from local sources and cooks them with a French flair and the results are truly memorable.
Chef Mavro offers two pre fixe dinner options: six or 11 courses. Both can be paired with wines. While the restaurant doesn’t offer a wine list, guests can order wines by the glass from wines offered for pairing.
The courses at Chef Marvo are small and delicate and each is an amazing gastronomic experience. We began our food adventure at this fine dining restaurant with an amuse bouche of fresh yuzu marinated nairagi with salt and anise leaves. It came with warm chewy rolls, baked fresh every afternoon.
Our dining experience here was seamless with multiple courses, paced just right and each more interesting than the previous one. Our dishes included: fresh watercress salad with crispy fiddleheads, heart of palm, maitake mushrooms, tomatoes, purple onion, and chervil dressed with curry vinaigrette; spicy ahi-aleppo with ogo (Hawaiian seaweed) and sea urchin aioli; lemongrass scented roasted lobster served with a fricassee of avocado, kahuku sweet corn, and ribbons of serrano ham; lamb loin served with eggplant “caviar” in a crispy, rich pastry; and seared feta cheese layered with crisp bread tuiles and a pickled persimmon/sea asparagus salad.
The desserts at Chef Marvo, all made in-house, are amazing. We tried likikoi (passion fruit) creamsicle that was complex and refreshing. The black sesame cremeux was incredibly silky and chocolatey and served with a butterscotch crisp and butterscotch sauce that wrapped this lovely dessert all up with a sweet, buttery decadence and ended our meal on a sweet note.
So next time, you travel to Oahu, or to any of the Hawaiian islands, take some time to taste some real island flavors. You’ll begin to understand what aloha is really about. – Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor, Photos by Anne Weaver, RFT Editor