The best way to see a community is through the eyes of locals, right? So, how do you manage to do that when you don’t know a soul in the area? You book a tour.
Follow The Locals!
Now, before you start talking about how you like to see things on your own, and you don’t like groups, and blah, blah, stay with me here. Tasting Kaua’i is not that kind of tour. No bus, no “we’re walking” type of guide, nothing but introductions to local chefs, bakers, restaurant operators, food truck owners and innovative food entrepreneurs…plus tasting to your stomach’s content.
We managed to make it to three of the Tasting Kaua’i tour locations during our visit, and enjoyed them all—but have to say that the walking tour of Hanapepe was our favorite. The walking distance between each food stop was easy, and the cultural experience of Hanapepe was half the fun, particularly when we ended the day at their weekly art night and street fair.
It was full of everything from a hula demonstration, to locally made jewelry and crafts, to even more food to sample from a variety of stands and food trucks. But I’m getting ahead of the story. Here’s how the tour progressed . . .
We started our tour with a large sample of this shop’s poi bowl, full of purple taro root, house-made granola, coconut milk, and fresh fruit. This signature bowl is the sort of thing that is important to Hawaiian culture, since taro is known as the original food of the islands.
Katherine, our guide, impressed on us the history of taro, telling us that, traditionally, it was steamed and pounded by hand, then stored in a gourd. Now it’s grown with advanced water resource management techniques and is part of the food sustainability story for which Kaua’i is becoming known. As we worked our way through the levels of flavor she cautioned, “Always pair taro with something sweet or savory—it’s not meant to be eaten alone.” She added that taro is high in vitamins and is actually the “highest non-dairy source you can get.”
Little Fish has two locations and, in addition to its signature bowl, offers bagels and breakfast sandwiches, acai bowls, smoothies, and a nice line of coffee drinks. They use locally-grown and organic ingredients as much as possible, and the owners are part of the movement to increase food security in Kaua’i, or as they say, “Less and less coming off the ships and more and more coming out of the ground.”
Next, we met Erin, who was cruising the Hawaiian Islands on a vacation from her home in North Carolina when she told her husband that someday they would live in Hawaii.
Fast forward to when she found a business for sale on Craig’s List and said, “Let’s go.” They sold their house in two weeks, moved to Kaua’i, and began carrying on the legacy of the original Popo (Chinese for “grandma”). Using the original recipes from 1982, they continue to turn out cookies with names such as Chocolate Krispies, Butter Dreams, Chocolate Chip Macadamia Nut, Coconut and Chocolate Coconut, White Chocolate Cranberry, Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip, and Keola Deelites, described as similar to a Mexican wedding cookie but made with macadamia nuts.
They now sell at the bakery in Hanapepe as well as to local markets, hotels, shave ice stands—and, you can find them at the airport if you need a boost for the trip home. They also do mail order, so, one way or the other, be sure you have an Omiyagi for those you left behind.
As Erin puts it, an Omiyagi is given as a gift from the island that you can’t get anywhere else. The traditional meaning is that you ask your friends forgiveness for going away by offering them a gift of food after you’ve been on a trip. Trust us, Popo’s Cookies is a great way to apologize, whether it’s needed or not!
Tucked away in the home of Lilo & Stitch, the Thornbirds, and more movie scenes than you can count on both hands, there is a lovely Japanese restaurant that is bringing in visitors from across the world. Japanese Grandma is another one of those, “Let’s move to Hawaii” stories, where an innovative entrepreneur came with a plan.
There have been lots of reviews of this unusual restaurant, with a hidden garden tucked into the quaint setting of Old Hanapepe Town in Kaua’i. Keiko, the owner, had a beautiful table set for our treats, and the setting wasn’t the only thing that got oohs and ahs.
Let’s talk food, name, and cultural history, in that order.
First, the food. We swooned over the Eel Bomb (and this from a girl who never cared for eel). The roll included shrimp, spicy tuna, eel, local avocado, and eel sauce, and goes on the list of “best things I ever ate.” The plate also included Okinawa sweet potato, classic tofu, salad with ingredients from local grower, and Japanese squash, making it a treat for the eyes as well as for the taste buds.
As for the name, we grew more and more curious, since Keiko appeared far from the grandmotherly type or age. She confessed, telling us, “My kids are half Japanese, and they grew up calling my mother, ‘Japanese Grandma.’” As simple, and as charming, as that.
As for the cultural history, turns out we were sitting outside of a former USO building from WWII. As Keiko explained it, “People of all ethnicities got together in WWII. When I considered opening a restaurant here, I looked in the phone book and there were lots of Japanese last names, but no Japanese restaurants. I had worked in corporate, but I knew food.” With a sushi chef and business plan in hand, she went to work.
“It all looked good on paper,” she said. “But my well laid out business plan had a lot of holes in it that were culturally based.” For one thing, “the whole town shuts down at 4 p.m.” For another, the island of Kaua’i doesn’t have a large fish market, and fishing is “up and down—they don’t go out if conditions aren’t good.” With a plan built with local and sustainable goals, it was going to be quite a ride.
The turning point was what Keiko describes as “one article in the Wall Street Journal that said, ‘Simple clean ingredients prepared by a chef with 30 years of experience is a recipe for success.’” Tourism, and local word-of-mouth, brought the visitors, and the ambiance, food, and hospitality keeps them coming.
Kaua’i, incidentally, is now home to a million-plus visitors each year, many of whom come because of the focus on local agriculture. While this can make it difficult to serve the full service restaurants and meet the island-wide demand, entrepreneurs like Keiko are making it happen, deliciously.
There is a bakery in Hanapepe that would surprise you with its menu. Sure, they focus on breads and pastries. But it’s what they do with those breads and croissants that makes this place memorable.
It’s OK to use the word “artisan” here, too, because the food here lives up to the name. I mean, really—a Kaua’i Veggie with local hydroponic lettuce, rainbow garden sprouts, organic carrots, local cucumber, tomato and Havarti with a macadamia nut pesto spread on fresh baked French sourdough bread? That’s just one of the entrancing descriptions that evokes both Hawaii and fresh. They use local produce as much as possible, and 100 percent organic non-GMO flour.
We got to taste one of their Tartines (open-faced sandwich), the Caprese. And by “taste,” I mean a whole half sandwich that was more than many food tours give you throughout the whole tour. It was made with fresh Mozzarella, tomato, that delicious macadamia nut pesto, with a house made citron balsamic reduction, Hawaiian sea salt and fresh cracked pepper, served on fresh baked Country Sourdough. Um, yum.
The chaser was a macadamia nut cinnamon roll, made with croissant dough so incredibly flaky that you got layers of flavor with each bite. The bakery setting lends itself to the enjoyment of the food, with the scent of freshly baked bread never far away.
Ursa and Evan have owned the bakery for the past eight years, starting off selling at farmers markets in the area. Now, in addition to the breads, pastries, and sandwiches they do pizzas, paninis, and coffee, tapping into their own backyard for things like the papaya for the Papaya Cheese Danishes. They even toast and stone grind cacao from a local farmer to make their own chocolate.
We sampled and wanted to take it all home with us, but settled for one of their holiday specialties, stollen, filled with all sorts of lovely fruits and perfect with a morning cup of coffee. Oh, and maybe a chocolate croissant. Or maybe two.
We heard legends…first of the amazing salts found in Hawaii, so treasured that you knew if someone gifted you island salt, you were special to them, and second, of a somewhat salty woman who had taken on salt and never looked back.
And then we met her. Laura was a single mom who left the travel industry and created a family business. That business, after only a decade, has become a big part of why Hawaiian salt has gained such a stunning reputation. Her secret—and she holds it tightly—is the ability to infuse salt (and now sugar, too) with some of the flavors of the islands.
She calls herself the product of “two amazing grandmothers.” She says, “My older sister and I used to cook with them every chance we got. My job was to put the fork marks in the peanut butter cookies. I was learning about flavors at a very young age.”
She developed her first flavor rub at age 11, and relates, “My mom said, ‘You are cooking dinner from now on!’” Years later, Laura and her son entered and won their first food competition, and the business now employs a total of nine, including her son, daughter, and their spouses.
The cranberry dish had Passionfruit Chili Pepper salt; the corn used a Guava Garlic salt, and the potatoes were heavily and deliciously flavored with the house Hawaiian rub. Of course, we bought them all to literally bring back the flavors of Hawaii, and added a little Black Lava salt purely for its potential medicinal value (the charcoal is said to reduce acid). In fact, salt in general is said to filter toxins, provide a umami flavor, and offer healing properties for everything from tooth infections to muscle balance.
While eating, we learned more—although we still couldn’t pry the proprietary secret of the infusion out of either Laura or Chef Thomas. We learned that sea salt is 90 percent water, making “each crystal amazing.” We learned that it’s OK to heavily season foods, because “the more flavor, the better.” And we learned that roasting corn with either the Guava Garlic or the Hawaiian rub, with a little butter and olive oil, is even easier than seen on TV, and way better than traditional boiled corn. Way, way better.
While Salty Wahine has, in many ways, been at the front of the pack in international awareness, Laura is passionate about bringing more of the industry to Kaua’i. “At least six companies here have won international product awards,” she says, with pride. “There is so much talent here on Kaua’i with food.”
Talk about ending on a delicious note—and not only because “ono” is the Hawaiian word for “delicious.” Ono Pops are like the best of all frozen food products rolled into one. What’s more, the many different flavors give you the chance to experience Hawaiian agriculture and learn your favorites.
It was an exercise in decision-making, though, because the variety was pretty extensive, with offerings in both dairy-based and non-dairy. Among our group we tried the Dark Chocolate Tangerine, the Lillikoi, the Kona Latte, the Chocolate Apple Banana, and a few others, but that left a lot of great flavors on the table (or, in this case, in the cart). Mango Honey Cream. Pineapple Vanilla. Starfruit Lemongrass. Salted Watermelon Cream. Mango Habanero-Lime. Orange Cinnamon. Kula Strawberry Maui Goat Cheese. Ume-Thai Basil. And more…
While it’s obviously a treat, it’s also nice to know that Ono Pops “farm-to-stick” concept really does support Hawaiian agriculture, getting ingredients from local farms and working to reduce reliance on imported items. They actually claim that “every fruit grew in Hawaiian soil,” and “every drop of dairy came from happy Hawaiian cows.”
Ono Pops popped up not only in Hanapepe, but also at other farmers markets and in some of the local stores. If only they’d pop up stateside, we’d be able to taste the rest of the flavors!
We ate our Ono Pops just as the evening activities began for the Hanapepe Art Night, a street fair with food trucks and—I’m not ashamed to say—even more opportunities for tasting our way through Kaua’i. Let me just say, there’s no better way to learn about an area than to learn about its food.
We at least got through high school. It may take subsequent trips for higher education. Who’s with me?
Photos by Paul K. Logsdon.
Find links to other stories from our visit to Hawaii here.
Partial promotional benefits provided by Tasting Kaua’i.