Now comes the part I love – the foods of Hawaii. This is honestly my favorite kind of food. Everything is so fresh! You can go down to the harbor just north of Kona and buy fish right off the boat – beautiful ahi, opah, ono, and many more, that you can take home and grill. And the fruits and vegetables – too numerous to name.
At our little cottage in Hilo, on the east side of the Big Island, we’d go down to the office every morning and get cups of rich Kona coffee, fresh coconut-pineapple muffins, and papayas and bananas, picked from trees on the property. I couldn’t have asked for a better breakfast! Those bananas were small and so sweet that they almost tasted like a different fruit altogether.
When we’re on the Big Island, we usually go to Peter Merriman’s eponymous restaurant up in Waimea (horse and cow country). I believe he was the first chef to serve wok-seared ahi – crispy on the outside and rare on the inside. That was also the first place I ever tried corn from Pahoa (an agricultural area near Hilo). Here’s what Merriman does with the fresh corn: he cuts it off the cob and sautees it in butter for a few minutes – that’s it. And it’s to die for! I’ve tried this at home, and it’s pretty good, but nothing tastes like the sweet corn from Pahoa.
This time on the island, we went to Merriman’s café on the Kohala coast and had his fish tacos. That day, the fish was ahi – delish!
Our other favorite chef on the Big Island is Sam Choy. We’d been going to his unassuming restaurant in an industrial area of Kona for a long time. But now he has a beautiful place, up on a hill in Keahou, with a 230 degree view of the ocean below. When we went to the new place, we started with some poke – raw island fish with greens, onion, and seaweed. For my main course, I chose “Sam’s Trio of Fish,” consisting of three kinds of fish, sauteed and served like a teepee over garlic mashed potatoes and island green beans. (Are you hungry yet?) David, my husband, had the “Seafood Laulau,” (Sam Choy’s mother’s favorite), consisting of fish and vegetables wrapped in tea leaves and steamed. Yum!
Sam also serves pork, beef and chicken. we just love the island fish. In fact, island beef, raised up in Waimea, is some of the best beef I’ve ever tasted — grass-fed and tender.
The other great food experience we had on the Big Island resulted from our trip to a farmer’s market in Kona, where we bought some fruit we’d never tasted before. In the photo above, you’ll see dragonfruit, papaya, and rambutan. When I first cut open the dragonfruit, I actually gasped when I saw the wine-colored flesh inside, peppered with fine black seeds. It has a texture that resembles firm jello and has a mild, sweet taste, something like a pear. The rambutan appears as a fuzzy red ball, and this red skin must be cut away to reveal the white fruit inside that has a grape-like flavor. Of course, we’re all familiar with the papaya, but it’s so much better fresh off the tree.
Any kind of vegetable you can imagine grows well in Hawaii. I mentioned the corn. Tomatoes are to die for, and the Chinese long beans are a local favorite – like green beans but much longer.
The one Hawaiian food I’ve never gotten used to is poi. I agree with the person who said it tastes like wallpaper paste!