Aloha Spam

Hawaii Regional Cuisine has always comprehended a wide array of cultures, and now the ingredients are from local sources.
By Patricia Yollin

Michelle Galimba left Oahu for the University of California, Berkeley in 1991 to study the works of an 11th-century Chinese poet. But while she was at Cal, her family started a cattle ranch. By the time she had received a Ph.D. in comparative literature, her desire to become a professor had vanished. Instead, she wanted to be a cowgirl.

Two decades later, Galimba is working for her family’s Big Island ranch, which captivated her in a way academia never could. She is also part of a food revolution that began 20 years ago, when a dozen prominent chefs moved away from continental cooking to embrace local ingredients and the state’s melting-pot heritage.

As Hawaii Regional Cuisine celebrates its 20th anniversary, Galimba and celebrity HRC chefs such as Alan Wong, Sam Choy, and Roy Yamaguchi are just a few of the people who have demolished the Islands’ reputation as a culinary wasteland and spawned a local food movement that has recently exploded.

This means that residents and visitors alike can go to the Kapi’olani Community College (KCC) Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings and sample such items as strawberry mochi and fresh lychee. They can drink soursop smoothies at a Chinatown shop or dine at Alan Wong’s upscale eatery, where the menu includes macadamia-coconut crusted lamb chops and tilapia with saimin noodles and lobster truffle butter nage. They can even buy chocolate made from locally grown cacao beans at the KCC stand of Nathan Sato ’79, who worked in molecular and cell biology at Cal before moving to Hawaii and becoming a chocolate-maker.

It isn’t just a matter of innovation or creativity—not in one of the most geographically isolated places in the world, where 85 percent of what is eaten is imported and residents live in fear of the next shipping strike. “People are starting to become aware of how important it is to have a resilient local economy,” Galimba said. “I’ve seen a lot of change in the last year.”

Barbara Santanna, whose fried green tomatoes sell out every Saturday at the most popular farmers’ market on Oahu, put it another way: “Look how far we are from everyone on the planet. To have everything shipped here is nuts. We should be able to feed ourselves.”

More and more people are starting to feel that way, whether it’s out of concern for health, the environment, food security, the economy, sustainability, or all of the above. Their actions are reshaping the culinary landscape of the Hawaiian Islands.

California in general, and the Bay Area in particular, have been influential. “Nobody can deny that the work of Alice Waters et al. has impacted the food movement globally,” said chef Ed Kenney. “Also, we can’t forget that Roy Yamaguchi moved here after cooking many years in L.A.

“But what makes Hawaii’s food movement unique is its roots in the native Hawaiian values of Aloha ‘Aina—love of the land that feeds us. This sensibility existed long before any defined California cuisine movement.”

Kenney, chef/owner of farm-to-table Town restaurant in Honolulu, remembers the old days. His parents, hula dancer Beverly Noa and singer/actor Edward Kenney Jr., were well-known entertainers in Waikiki when he was growing up. “I was a little blond-haired brat. I’d run through the lobbies and kitchens of the hotels,” he recalled. “I was exposed to what was considered good food. Back then hotel food was really continental. I’d have petit filet mignon and potatoes dauphinoise.”

By contrast, dinner choices at Town, where the menu changes daily and uses 85–90 percent local ingredients, have included taro and yuca soup, gnocchi with kabocha and sage brown butter, and guava clafoutis. The restaurant’s guiding principle is “Local first, organic whenever possible, with Aloha always.”

Laurie Carlson, a founding member of Slow Food in Hawaii and publisher of the Honolulu Weekly, said, “I think Ed really represents the new leader of chefs in Hawaii. He is always available to help the community and talk about local. He’s pushing the agenda in a much bigger way than anyone else.”

Kenney has been visiting the Bay Area for 20 years because his mother-in-law lives in Marin County. He was impressed with what local chefs were doing at places like A16, Delfina, and Rose Pistola restaurants in San Francisco. “I thought, ‘God, there’s got to be little neighborhood bistros like this in Hawaii that people can go to any time of the day, where they’re using farm-fresh local ingredients and not messing with them much,’” he said. “I’m not shooting down rice or ginger or wasabi. I was raised with it. I just thought we needed something different.”

A lot has happened since Hawaii Regional Cuisine was founded 20 years ago, much of it quite recently. Farmers’ markets have proliferated, along with new kinds of fruits and vegetables. Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle took the Kanu Hawaii’s Eat Local Challenge in September, pledging to consume only local food for five days. Zippy’s, a beloved chain founded in 1966, began using local beef for its hamburger patties in autumn 2010. The first-ever Hawaii Food & Wine Festival took place this fall, showcasing local food.

Arnold Hiura, whose book Kau Kau: Cuisine & Culture in the Hawaiian Islands was published in 2009, is enjoying the changes. When he talks about local food, though, he’s referring to the food he grew up with, such as plate lunches and loco mocos, with white rice buried under a hamburger patty, eggs, and gravy. His book details how the state’s cuisine was shaped by waves of Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Filipino, Korean, and Puerto Rican immigration.

“Hawaii Regional Cuisine changed how people look at food,” Hiura said. “If you go to a family potluck, some cousin or auntie is always trying something a little different. The whole idea is to find a new interpretation of traditional things.”

For anyone who wants to experiment, farmers’ markets are a good place to start. The range of products, both fresh and prepared, is staggering, and includes taro hummus, Okinawan spinach, red veal, and black sapote, as well as butter, feta, and yogurt from Naked Cow Dairy. Nathan Sato’s award-winning Malie Kai Chocolates can be found at the KCC Farmers’ Market, which is overrun soon after it opens at 7:30 a.m.

Sato graduated with a degree in zoology, and spent 17 years as a computer program analyst. Seven years ago, he vacationed in Oahu and simply didn’t want to leave. He learned how to make chocolate and eventually sold some to the Berkeley Bowl, where he had once worked as a bagger. “My freshman roommate won a Nobel Prize in medicine and I ended up making chocolate,” Sato said with good humor. “Our careers have gone on parallel paths.”

As he spoke, shoppers kept gravitating to his stand, surprised to see any chocolate, let alone seven kinds of bars—including a Kona coffee espresso bar and dark chocolate with Hawaiian cocoa nibs. “I wouldn’t think Hawaii when I think chocolate,” said Maggie Collins, visiting from Kansas.

She is not alone. “Oahu is the North Pole for chocolate,” said Sato, who explained that the island is the northernmost spot in the world for growing cacao beans. There are some on the Big Island but most come from Africa, Latin America, and Asia. In the next few years, he expects cacao orchards to become a big draw in the state’s burgeoning agri-tourism industry.

The very existence of Malie Kai reflects a development closely tied to the profusion of local products: diversified agriculture. It is made possible largely by the demise of the pineapple and sugar industries—doomed by foreign competition—which made the land available. The beans that Sato uses grow on a former sugar plantation on the North Shore, where only 18,000 pounds of cacao a year are produced.

As recently as 1994, sugar and pineapple represented 76 percent of all cultivated farmland in the state. Their decline “has created an opening for diversified agriculture that is unprecedented and likely will never arise again,” said a report by the Hawaii 2050 Sustainability Task Force, which found in 2008 that a “sea change was taking place.”

On the other side of the KCC Market, Wenhao Sun was selling tiny sea asparagus. “We’re prepared for the crisis,” he said. “If there’s not enough fresh water or arable land, the solution is growing plant and vegetable crops in the ocean.” Marine agriculture is in fact being increasingly touted as a hope for the future.

Crisis in one form or another is often on people’s minds: Whether it’s a dock strike or a tsunami, disaster could quickly drain the Islands’ ten-day supply of food. Most imported food comes from the U.S. mainland, especially California, said food writer Joan Namkoong. It’s a four-day ocean voyage for container ships, she said, and products typically are at least a week old by the time they reach markets.

In a May 2008 op-ed piece in the Honolulu Advertiser, Hawaii Regional Cuisine chef Peter Merriman wrote, “The time has come for Hawaii to support its farmers, growers, and ranchers as never before. One acre of agricultural land—that’s approximately the size of a football field—can produce 42,800 pounds of strawberries, 35,000 pounds of lettuce, or 11,600 pounds of sweet corn.”

Namkoong and Dean Okimoto, perhaps the most recognizable farmer on the Islands, created the KCC Market in 2003. Now queues form at many booths and the market has attracted the attention of chefs like Alan Wong. Last year, people were lined up early in the morning on the final Saturday of May, waiting to eat hamburgers grilled by Wong, an internationally known chef. In 2009, President Obama invited him to cook at the annual Congressional Picnic, and it turned into a luau. At KCC, Wong was flipping burgers to help Michelle Galimba and her father, Al, introduce their Kuahiwi Ranch beef to shoppers. All three worked frenetically.

A year later, the Galimbas’ beef was showcased in a much different venue: a Farmer Series Dinner at Wong’s Honolulu restaurant. The menu included beef carpaccio with homemade soy milk ricotta. The beef came from British Whites—cows, not colonialists—raised free range on grass pastures and fed a blend of barley, corn, and molasses in their final days.

Michelle visited some tables with her 10-year-old daughter in tow, while her father dropped by others. She has become a major force in the local food movement and is president of the Hawaii Cattlemen’s Association, secretary of the local farm bureau, and involved with the Agricultural Leadership Program of Hawaii. These days she spends a lot of time on marketing and building a supply chain from the ranch to consumers by getting Kuahiwi beef into restaurants, stores, and farmers’ market. But she would rather be on horseback.

The Galimbas’ ranch has grown from 200 to 10,000 acres. They built their herd the hard way, roping wild cattle from abandoned ranches in the volcano area of the Big Island. “It’s very, very fun,” she said. “It’s kind of like that ‘Star Wars’ movie [Return of the Jedi], the one where they’re on that forest planet on those little flying machines and they’re going through the forest through the trees. You’re on the back of this horse and it’s basically your job to stay on and be ready with your rope. When you manage to catch the cow and tie it to the tree, it’s just this amazing experience of, ‘Wow, we did it.’ You have to be a little crazy to do it.”

Galimba lived in Berkeley from 1991 to 1995 and explains her transition from academia to agriculture this way: “I felt like I was working on something that mattered and I felt more alive.”

She said demand for local beef has surged in the past year but that lack of rainfall and sheer logistics are always a challenge. For instance, 16 critical steps are involved in getting the finished steer from the ranch to the point of purchase, ranging from slaughter waste disposal to freezer space for the packaged product.

She misses Berkeley just a little. “I’ve always been fascinated by food, especially as a way to understand the place where I was living or visiting,” said the rancher, who has fond memories of the Berkeley Bowl market, Cheese Board, and Chez Panisse. “Berkeley was a place that definitely expanded my awareness of local, specialty, and artisan farm products.”

The Bay Area—and in particular, the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market in San Francisco—also inspired Dean Okimoto, president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation, when he co-founded the KCC Market. “I didn’t think it was possible to do it here on that scale, but we’re close,” he said. “And farmers’ markets are a perfect place to test new crops.”

He gets an opportunity to do that every week as owner of Nalo Farms and manager of its produce stand at the KCC Market. Started by his father in the 1950s, Nalo Farms is a dozen miles northeast of Honolulu, in Waimanalo. Okimoto took over the farm in 1983 but seven years later decided to quit after a soil disease wiped out his basil crop. Close friend Roy Yamaguchi, who now has more than 30 restaurants in his “Roy’s” empire, encouraged him to grow mixed greens instead.

“Nobody was doing it here,” Okimoto said. “Restaurants made Nalo Farms a name. Once Roy put it on the menu, they all put it on the menu.” It has reached the point where the name Nalo is used generically for mixed greens on many menus.

Many farms in Hawaii are two acres or less, he said, and much of the land is leased, which means farmers often can’t make long-term plans or be sure the land won’t be sold for development. “You can grow virtually anything here,” Okimoto said. “And the hotter weather produces stronger, more robust flavors. It perturbs me that we bring in California jalapeños.”

But there is always the issue of food security when you live on an island. After the tsunami in Japan, a forum called “Chefs & Farmers Facing Future” was quickly put together. It drew about 500 people. According to the event’s press release, “The tragedy in Japan and the rising cost of oil is a wake-up call for Hawaii to take serious steps toward becoming more food self-sufficient.”

Organizer Dan Nakasone said the scarcity of protein is one of the biggest concerns. Hawaii has only a few egg farms and dairies and no commercial chicken farms. Many calves are still shipped to mainland feedlots and processed there before being sent back to Hawaii in packages.

The preoccupation with Hawaii’s vulnerability to rising fuel prices, war, and dock strikes is always close to the surface. In January, a report to the state legislature by the Hawaii Economic Development Task Force spelled it out: “There are considerable risks and costs to Hawaii’s dependency on importing the estimated 90 percent of beef, 67 percent of fresh vegetables, 65 percent of fresh fruits, and more than 80 percent of all milk consumed in the state.”

However, the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources estimates that 30 percent of what the state consumes, including 85 percent of fruits and vegetables, could be grown locally by 2020. It also found that replacing only 10 percent of imports with local foods would generate $313 million for the Islands.

“It’s just the tip of the iceberg at this point,” said Milton Yamasaki, who worked at the college for 40 years until retiring last fall. He had managed its Mealani Research Station on the Big Island, which has 11 of the world’s 13 climate regions. “We are having things pop up all over the place and are developing products, like tea and blueberries, not available before.” He said newcomers to the Islands and younger adults often have strong local leanings, as well as schoolchildren who are learning how to grow food.

But can average consumers, and not just the elite, afford to support Hawaii farmers? Eating locally is sometimes more expensive. In mid-October, Safeway was selling its Lucerne brand of extra large eggs for $3.89 a dozen, compared with $4.99 a dozen for Ka Lei local eggs. A half-gallon of Lucerne milk was $3.29, while local Viva from Meadow Gold was $5.99 for the same amount. And the market’s “O” brand organic mixed greens were $7.49 a pound, compared with $4.99 for 6.5 ounces of local Manoa lettuce.

Carlson said local offerings will become more competitive as freight rates increase. Reasonably priced local produce can also be found in Chinatown and at the People’s Open Market, established by Honolulu’s mayor in 1973 as a low-cost alternative. She added that more people are growing food in backyards and community gardens. Also, Yamasaki said, professionals such as doctors and engineers are starting small farms. And the price of Hawaii-raised beef is now on a par with imports from the mainland, Australia, and New Zealand.

Despite the push to eat local, there are many obstacles, including the weather, urban development of agricultural land, a big jump in land use to produce seeds for export, and a lack of infrastructure in terms of such basics as slaughterhouses. And even the most ardent of locovores can have difficult moments.

In September, Ed Kenney also took the Eat Local Challenge for a week. At the end of Day 3, he said, “I rip on convenience all the time, but sometimes it’s not a bad thing. In the morning I like to grab an oat cake with my coffee. The coffee can be 100 percent Kona, but the oat cake sure as heck isn’t. The last few days, I can’t grab an oat cake. I have to eat a piece of pineapple or something.”

Patricia Yollin, M.J. ’76, is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Berkeley. She is a former reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, where her coverage of Cal included stories on the Nzadi language, a class for war veterans, octopus sex, and the fight over Panda Express.
From the Winter 2011 Taste issue of California.
Image source: John De Mello
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