Savannah, Georgia; October 4, 2016: Hawai’i was never on my bucket list, really, but I’m so glad I went. I’d go back. My husband had been asked to speak at a conference in Honolulu so I flew out to join him. We were in the city for several days, then rented a cottage on the West Side of Kauai, way out in the last village on the island, where it was sunny, flat, and dry — the polar opposite of my preconceived notions of the tropics. Mount Waialeale on the “Garden Isle,” as Kauai is known, has long been promoted as the wettest place on earth, but in fact it is the second wettest, after Mawsynram, India. But at an average of 450 inches of rain a year (37-1/2 feet — that’s a three-story building!), Waialeale is nearly always shrouded in clouds. In 1982, 683 inches (57 feet!) fell on it.
I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Honolulu. We were staying in a big hotel right on the beach at Waikiki. The beach is good for swimming, but there are tons of people and the streets are lined with hotels and the same shops you find in any tourist town like Las Vegas. An Apple store abuts Kate Spade. Hermès is a block away from The Cheesecake Factory.
While Mikel was in meetings, I explored Oahu away from hubbub with friends who live there. Everyone always talks about how expensive Hawai’i is but the Chinatown markets abound with glorious local fish, pork, vegetables and tropical fruits — at very reasonable prices. Like Chinatowns everywhere, many of the old-timers are being pushed out by developers, though the area at night is said to be taken over by the city’s ever-expanding homeless population. We had lunch one day in one of the most popular places in town and the food was mediocre, the service bad, and the prices outrageous. We should have eaten in one of the Chinese restaurants. The offerings in the stands and stalls were beautiful. Under a Hillary Clinton poster (“I’m with Her>”), fresh, sweet amaebi shrimp (spot prawns) were advertised: “Fresh. We catch it daily from Deep Sea by our own boat!” This little boy (left) and I couldn’t resist them. I explained to the Vietnamese woman who was selling them that I was in a hotel and had no way to prepare them. “You eat raw. Taste.” And so I did, and what an amazing taste it was! These are the sweet shrimp that you have in sushi bars, but I doubt that I will ever have them again after tasting these right out of the water. Actually because of the FDA’s new regulations* requiring that restaurants serve raw fish only if it has first been frozen, I stopped eating sushi in mainland American restaurants. But I love Japanese food and especially raw fish. I knew before I went to Hawai’i that I would be eating my weight in sashimi and poke there, and that the fish would not have been frozen. Poke is one of the national dishes of the islands and it has taken off here on the mainland as well. It’s basically a salad of cubes of raw ahi (or octopus) lightly sauced with either shoyu (soy sauce) or limu (seaweed), sweet local onions, and perhaps some sesame oil and/or ginger. Hawaiian ahi, or yellowtail tuna, is fished sustainably, line caught. (Because of overfishing, I don’t eat tuna on the mainland, either.) Everywhere we went, there was poke. On the far northeastern shore of Oahu, we had several versions, some served over rice, from a little superette (not unlike mainland convenience stores, but with a deli case in the back where a wide variety of poke, seaweed salads, and kimchi is offered, alongside boiled peanuts!) We ate at a picnic table in a public park overlooking one of the most beautiful — and deserted — beaches I’ve ever seen (photo below, but my friends will be upset if I disclose its precise location — though there are dozens of isolated beaches all over the island). One evening we ate in the minuscule Okinawan gastropub, Izakaya Naru, where I had one of the most unusual (and delicious) dishes of lotus root that I have ever tasted (and, remember, I lived in China!) And several orders of hamachi sashimi.
The biggest gastronomic thrill to me on Oahu was Helena’s. A Honolulu tradition since 1946, and still run by family members, this tiny bulwark of traditional Hawaiian cuisine has earned a James Beard Award and has been featured on several popular television programs, but I had never heard of it (I’ve never owned a television!). Unpretentious, located in a dingy strip mall with little parking, and boasting only a handful of tables, the institution nevertheless draws crowds who willingly stand in line to taste their traditional fare. You walk in and give the cashier your name, and then you go stand outside in the parking lot where some folks back their cars right up next to the front door, leaving them running, as the café’s air conditioner units blow more hot air into the already steamy atmosphere.
The cashier, a niece of the original owner, handed me a menu, and I immediately decided that I pretty much had to have everything on it — even the bizarre, maligned poi (a puree of taro root). I loved it all.
For dessert, they serve every diner a slice of Haupia, which is a light coconut custard (no eggs). It’s one of my favorite dishes, which I came to love when we lived in China. They offered the dish as part of the dim sum service at the Shangri-La Hotel near our apartment in Chengdu. They added dragon fruit (pictured above), which has little flavor of its own. (See photo, below, left.)
On Kauai, we ate most of our meals at home. I wanted to take advantage of the beautiful produce and fish, as well as the much-touted Kauai beef. I had already been blown away by the excellent coffee (the best I’ve ever had, bar none, rich and creamy with hints of caramel and apricot), and there were cows everywhere around us in the lower plains of the island. Makaweli was just a few miles down the road from our rented cottage. We shopped in local farmers markets; some had just four or five farmers, but we always bought something — papayas, mangoes, tomatoes, okra, water spinach, onions, peppers, bananas (several different kinds, all different in taste and texture). But we also shopped in the excellent supermarkets, which, no matter how small, had deli cases in the back with fresh fish, poke, and prepared foods. The beef was a revelation. I have always sought out beef that is profoundly marbled, for flavor, but the Kauai steaks we had were lean, intensely flavorful, and tender. The Makaweli website linked above explains what makes their grass-fed beef so special. It was a game changer for me. Grass fed from now on!
Everything, it seems, grows well on Kauai. From the farmer at right, I bought beautiful European herbs and carrots, which I have had trouble growing here in the SUBtropics. And then, of course, there’s the fish. Real line-caught mahi-mahi just hours out of the water, still shining turquoise and gold. One day I bought beautiful Hawaiian hamachi (also known as Hawaiian yellowtail or almaco jack) — not to be confused with the fatty, farmed hamachi from Japan that is served in mainland sushi bars). I put it on a bed of local parsley, cilantro, carambola, and sweet onions, wrapped it in foil, and placed it on the grill with the long, slender, light green pods of okra (I think probably Annie Oakley variety) and Ichaban eggplant. (Photo, left.)
Another day, I found beautiful little he’he, which are the tiny octopi that cling to the rocks, not those massive tako that come already cooked from Japan. I marinated them with cilantro and lime and hot peppers and macadamia oil, skewered them, and grilled them. I made a relish of daikon, stir-fried some water spinach, and served it alongside rice. A pinch of pink Hawaiian salt, gathered not 5 miles from our cottage, brightened the fresh and local ingredients.
Nothing quite prepares you for Kauai — the grandeur of the Waimea Canyon, the beauty of the Na Pali Coast, the lush vegetation, the stunning waterfalls, the numerous beaches, the dramatic geology, the charming people, and the incredibly fresh, local fare. I could have stayed for a month and not seen it all. You can view my photos on my Facebook page. One last thing: Kauai chocolate is also the best I’ve ever had!
* Here’s the FDA’s regulation about raw fish in restaurants: (D) fish, other than those specified in paragraph 3-402.11(B), that are intended for consumption in raw or undercooked form and allowed as specified in Subparagraph 3-401.11(D), may be offered for sale or service if they are obtained from a supplier that freezes the fish as specified under § 3-402.11; or if they are frozen on the premises as specified under § 3-402.11 and records are retained as specified under § 3-402.12.