Hawaii has been stirring up a melting pot of cuisines since the first European and Asian immigrants touched its shores. Food was always a taste of “home,” and the sharing between, then fusing of, cultures eventually became part of the state’s culinary traditions.
In the late 1980s, a dozen innovative chefs formalized their emerging concept into Hawaii Regional Cuisine, a distinctive genre that blends the islands’ culinary and ethnic food styles with fresh, local ingredients. The chefs are now household names, not only to foodies; among them, Alan Wong, Roy Yamaguchi, Sam Choy, Peter Merriman and Beverly Gannon.
A decade ago, a “second generation” of chefs—as second generations are wont to do—formed a new group called Hawaii Island Chefs, many of whom trained under the original HRC founders. These chefs have taken the concept a step further—not only creating their personal, signature styles from this fusion, but also developing and sustaining the resources to provide both their restaurants and residents with the freshest local ingredients and innovative new products.
A shrimp truck on the North Shore.
Interestingly, 12 of the 15 founding chefs of HIC are located on the island of Oahu—perhaps not a surprising statistic, as Oahu is the most populated and visitor-oriented destination. But a little more surprising may be the fact that, just outside its bustling business district and resort areas, the island shelters numerous farms that provide this inspiration and wherewithal. For instance, you’ll find moi (a re-introduced, buttery Hawaiian white fish), organic greens, shrimp, sweet Kahuku corn, coffee, pineapple, mangoes, papayas, seaweed, fish, sea salt and macadamia nuts, to name a few. (The other Hawaiian islands, obviously, have their own wealth of agriculture and artisanal products to offer.)
But the cuisine isn’t limited to celebrity-chef restaurants. This is a growing trend fueled by the farm-to-table movement and, in Hawaii, is a way to share the unique culture. You’ll find it, on one end of the spectrum, at Hawaii’s hotels, which in their quest to become more eco-friendly, are strong proponents (for example, Kai Market restaurant at the Sheraton Waikiki has its own live herb walls, pictured to the right). On the other end are the famously casual and delicious plate lunch and bento-box restaurants, the wildly painted shrimp trucks that populate the beachfronts on the North Shore, and the burgeoning number of farmers markets found throughout the island. Here’s a brief agricultural tour of the North Shore, which provides some of those delicious ingredients to tantalize your taste buds.
WAIALUA ESTATE COFFEE AND CHOCOLATE
Dole and pineapple are synonymous in Hawaii, but the company has diversified over the years—in unexpected ways. Part of Dole Food Company’s vast acreage, Waialua Estate produces both coffee and chocolate, planting 155 acres of Coffee Arabica typica and 18 acres of cacao trees in the area’s rich volcanic soil. (The coffee beans are mechanically harvested, by the way, and the estate’s agricultural practices include beneficial insect management and drip irrigation to supplement rainwater; the orchard is also pesticide free.)
Waialua Estate’s cacao trees, lining the banks of the Kaukonahua stream, are a special blend of Criollo, Trinatario and Forestero varieties—and, like wine, the berries reflect their terroir, with coveted dark cherry, berry and raisin flavors. The chocolate itself is made in collaboration with Guittard Chocolate Company of San Francisco, making it one of the only bean-to-bar chocolate products produced in the U.S.
Twin Bridge Farms
Twin Bridge Farms in Waialua traces its origins to two former sugar company workers who had planted asparagus as a side job for the Hawaii Agricultural Research Center. The center was conducting research on asparagus and salinity, and as it turned out, asparagus thrives both in Hawaii’s salty conditions and Waialua’s mild weather. Now Milton Agader and Al Medrano farm 65 acres of asparagus, along with some experimental potatoes and tomatoes. The asparagus is a full-time proposition, as the plants grow 5 to 6 inches a day—which means that the crops must be harvested daily, seven days a week. You can’t get any fresher than picked daily!
Located at the feet of the beautiful Koolau Mountains in Waimanalo, this family-run operation was founded in 1953. The farm specialized in herbs until, in 1990, they lost an entire crop of basil to disease. A serendipitous meeting with Chef Roy Yamaguchi ended with an agreement for Nalo owner Dean Okimoto to grow baby greens for Yamaguchi’s flagship restaurant. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, Nalo Farms supplies more than 3,000 pounds of greens a week to approximately 130 restaurants.
NORTH SHORE CATTLE COMPANY
Also located in the Koolau foothills is the North Shore Cattle Company, a 1,100-acre family-operated ranch that’s the largest commercial grass-fed cattle ranch on Oahu. The company is well-regarded for its 100% Hawaiian grass-fed Angus beef, which is antibiotic- and hormone-free. Its dry-aged products are available in cuts that range from lean ground beef and filet mignon to andouille beef sausages—definitely a “Who knew?” about Oahu.
For more information about Oahu or Hawaii Regional and Hawaii Island Cuisine, go to visit-oahu.com.