Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Aloha! Hawaii Food Adventure


So here I am, back from my first visit to Hawaii & posting my first blog entry in five months (!). All that writing for school in an enforced "less casual way" hopefully didn't supplant my blog voice, at least not in the long term. We shall see :)

School starts up again in a few days, so let's get crackin'. First up, a quiz question:

Which of the following three things did I NOT eat in Hawaii:
A. Crab
B. Pineapple

Hint: One of these things I didn't eat at all, and the other things I ate twice. What is your guess? The answer will be revealed as you read of my various food finds on the islands of Oahu and Big:

Coffee – Trying Kona coffee was big on my list, and there were two general kinds: 100% Kona and 10% Kona. The cheaper kind is what many restaurants serve. Hey why not, it’s cheaper. The best Kona I experienced then, the 100% kind, was from the local swanky coffee shop Island Vintage Coffee. That Kona sang in a smooth, lusty baritone. The town of Kona is on the Big Island, and the town of Hilo is too. I visited Hilo yet found no Kona for sale. However, a person on my island tour received a gift of Hilo coffee from the Hilo Coffee Mill, and the smell emanating from those coffee bags hinted at the glories of coffee dreams. Sadly there was none for sale at the airport, but thankfully they do mail order.

Croissants – Ok sure, this is not an item indigenous to Hawaii. But, the croissant I had with my Island Vintage Kona coffee was 20x better than the "you-claim-this-is-a-croissant" croissant I get once a week in Los Angeles at Starbucks (their croissant is the only pastry they sell without sugar painted all over it). Dear Los Angeles, you are closer in distance to France than Hawaii. Maybe you should visit Hawaii to learn a thing or two about making good croissants. Thanks for listening.

As you may know, whenever I visit a new town/city/country I always check out the McDonald’s to see what's unique. In Hawaii there were two such things:
1. The haupia pie is a standard hot pie like our apple and cherry, filled instead with a coconut-style cream. Interestingly, the flavor wasn’t very coconutty. Who cares though, it was pretty addictive, like a faintly tropical white pudding fried pie and I meant to stop eating halfway in but before you know it, all gone.

2. I never made it to the second unique thing. That would be their kind of "big breakfast." They replace the standard starches of English muffin, pancakes and/or hash browns with white rice (the starring starch of a Hawaiian "plate lunch"), then add scrambled eggs and either SPAM, Portuguese sausage or a combo of both. I did have a Portuguese sausage with egg and rice at this Zippy’s chain on the way to the airport. It was fine except I couldn't eat all the sausage: too many fat pieces in it (on purpose). As for SPAM, you’ll soon see I did experience that a few times during the trip...just not at McD’s.

Longans – After my tour group left the top of a live volcano (with real magma flowing in the distance!), our tour guide passed around a bag of “dragon eyes,” or longans. This translucent golf ball-sized fruit contains a lone black seed in the middle about the size of, um, a pupil actually, so the fruit in its entirety does kind of look like an eyeball. You eat them by lightly breaking the thin beige skin with your teeth, peeling off the skin, and popping the fruit into your mouth (just don't eat the pit). The fruit felt like eating a litchi/cherry combo, just without any extreme sweet or tart flavor. Or it was like eating a more exciting green grape.

Coconut Wine – This is something I saw in shops but didn't try and have no regrets! Would you try something so scary sounding for $20? I tried to taste it in my imagination and that's all it took for my superego to say no (thanks for watching my back, SE). Here's my thinking: besides a cost to my palate, the coconut "wine" would really cost $45 to purchase... $20 for the wine and an additional $25 for the bag check to fly it home for sharing. By the way, a recent Tweet on the subject said: “I can't commit to it but I'm relatively sure this Royal Chief Coconut Wine is the worst wine I've ever tasted.” All right!

Pineapple – This is the answer to the quiz question: I did not eat any pineapple in Hawaii. Why? It was never really offered. But wait, didn’t I visit the Dole Plantation? Why yes I did. The tour guide told us they don’t really grow pineapples much these days (thanks South America). If I’d wanted some pineapple—besides buying the cute Hello Kitty pineapple marshmallows which I didn't buy because I really only do marshmallows in S'mores—all I had to do during my 30-minute Dole tour stop was wait in a very long line and get me some Dole Whip, a.k.a. pineapple soft-serve ice cream. Ha to THAT! If I want to stand in a line for my Dole Whip then I’ll just go to Disneyland and stand in line there, as I have done many, many times. It's my favorite way to eat pineapple.

Crab – I ate crab on two occasions, but both were at chain restaurants. So as not to be judged by readers, I will only say that the crab was decent but not on par with crab enjoyed at other places, i.e., at a certain wonderful seafood place on a dock in San Francisco.
So yes, Hawaii does serve crab but from my recent experience best to stick with its local specialties, like…

The Loco Moco – This is an island favorite of a burger patty on rice topped with gravy and an egg. It was touted as a true national dish of Hawaii, sort of like the “plate lunch.” Ok, the plate lunch is some kind of fried meat (your choice) with two scoops of white rice and one scoop of macaroni salad. I like meat and rice, but not macaroni salad so sorry there, I never tried a plate lunch in Hawaii. The loco moco, to me, is better! (No macaroni salad.) If a place is fancy they may top all that decadent loco-moco-ness with fried onion strips too. As much as I would have enjoyed onion strips, my loco moco lunch in the picture was just fine without. This is a once every two years dish…delicious but not at all healthy!

Fresh Coconut Juice – Picture it…we just left the black sand beach with new coconut tree plantings and had a half hour before leaving for the volcano visit. Found a little area walking back with a café and farm stands. And then, I spotted the coconut lady. “Pick a coconut!” she said, surely high on life from living in Hawaii. I picked the smallest young coconut she had since I wasn’t too thirsty, and for $2 the husks were hacked off and a straw poked through. Good deal. The only down side was the juice was a bit ripe for its own good. They call this phenomenon “the champagne,” where the juice is fizzy and not quite fresh-tasting. Can't complain, the experience itself trumps any taste expectations. When the juice was gone (and I had help from a friend), the coconut lady scooped out the remaining young, almost jelly-like coconut meat for my late afternoon snack, which I didn't realize at the time was an early dinner.

Spam & Egg Musubi – What? Why? Because at the end of the day of black sand beaches and visits to steaming craters and live volcanoes, my tour boarded a plane going from one island to another at 10:00 p.m., and it occurred to me I hadn’t eaten dinner yet! (Young coconut meat and juice notwithstanding.) Hey, I do not like not having dinner! Nothing available at the airport, and back in Waikiki the only place nearby and open was the ABC Store (what would be the offspring of a 7-11 store and a rabbit, as there are so many and they are everywhere). For $1.89 I grabbed this Hawaiian bite for my better-late-than-never dinner. It is a hunk of rice topped with a scrambled egg square and then SPAM, wrapped in some sushi-style nori and sealed in cellophane for storage in a heat box. Apparently SPAM became popular in Hawaii during WWII, as soldiers had it as a part of their meal rations and it somehow stuck. The SPAM on top of my egg musubi tasted, how you say, just as old as that fact. Back at my hotel room with my "dinner," I did not quite delight in the musubi's SPAM element but of course ate it. It did the trick, that's what really matters (and that I didn't get sick). I probably won’t eat it again.

Macadamia Nuts – We know that Hawaii grows macadamia nuts, but who knew they came in flavors other than salted and chocolate covered? I didn't. Lucky for me one of my tour groups visited the source, a place called Tropical Farms that grows and flavors their own macadamia nuts. And they give out free samples!!! (You know I like that.) Flavor options include Kona coffee glazed, honey glazed, cinnamon, and my favorites were the caramel and maui onion & garlic. Many restaurants chop em up to add to things like meat breading or pancake batter, but my fave is when they're chopped up on top of waffles. Macadamia nut waffles with coconut syrup are especially scrumptious (thanks Vit's Hawaiian Steakhouse). Mmmm, so simple yet my best meal on Oahu. Yum!

Spam & Macadamia Nuts – You're probably thinking, if she didn't eat pineapple that means she ate both crab and SPAM twice. But why?? I'll tell ya why. Because sometimes two completely opposite foods—one not edible, the other extremely delicious—can be joined together successfully. Such is the case with the illustrious SPAM-flavored macadamia nuts. It was against my instincts when a lady at the Hilo Hattie souvenir store offered a free sample. I ADMIT IT ... I tried it and I liked it. The thing is, it really didn’t taste like various pig parts and fat when done up as a powder coating on a nut. It only tasted of smokey salt. And what's wrong with that? It was good. Just in the end not $4.95-per-can or ridicule-for-life good.

Dim SumJade Dynasty Seafood Restaurant from Hong Kong opened their first and only U.S. location in Honolulu two days before I got there. This would explain the very low chairs at the bar—I didn't want a big dim sum table for myself—and that's why the bar was level with my neck. The bartender explained that the wrong chairs were ordered and new ones were coming, but in any case this explains why I was the only person sitting there. On to the food: either this restaurant is really good, or dim sum improves exponentially the closer you get to Hong Kong. Either way, my mochi rice, red bean & coconut mochi balls, and shrimp look fun rolls were some of the best I’ve had. So if you ever happen to be in Honolulu and on a rainy day make a stop at the Ala Moana mall, go ahead and skip Romano’s Macaroni Grill and Bubba Gumps to go to this place.

Kalua Pork – Besides the waffles, another new favorite thing I was lucky to try is kalua pork. What is it? It’s pretty much just pulled pork, and what happens when a pig is roasted at a luau and shreds of tender salty meat are pulled out. Not that I would know since my luau was rained out. But it's ok, kalua pork is served everywhere and I tried it first at a restaurant during a day tour (really good), and again on my last night in Hawaii at Duke’s Waikiki (super good). At Duke's, BBQ sauce was added, making it taste like a high-end pulled pork, and it was ingeniously served on a taro bun. That’s right, a soft and purpley taro bun. Delicious. A pilot on layover who was sitting next to me let me try his kalua pork nachos, but eh, all the other stuff on there blocked the pure, rich flavor of the meat. That's why in my opinion it's best to eat this specialty straight up or in a sandwich, and not covered up with other gunk.

In summary, I adored being in Hawaii—SPAM encounters notwithstanding—and hopefully I'll get a chance to visit again soon. In the meantime, there are a bunch of casual Hawaiian places in L.A., including King's Hawaiian Restaurant & Bakery in Torrance. Kalua pork and loco moco, here I come!

Until we eat again,


kona coffee said...

Way to go! That's pretty adventurous to see a visitor try a spam musubi...AND spam macadamia nuts.

It's also great to see that you tried both 10% Kona coffee blends AND 100% Pure Kona coffee.

Anonymous said...

When you posted "The haupia pie is a standard hot pie like our apple and cherry, filled instead with a coconut-style cream. Interestingly, the flavor wasn’t very coconutty." I immediately thought of poi as the cream inside. People have described it just that way --- rather tasteless and creamy like Junkett would be. I love how you make eating into an adventure. xoxoxo Mom

Marly said...

Only thing is that poi is taro-based, and this pie was publicized as being coconut. Look at this comment from another food blog: "The Haupia Pie looks to be an offspring, not only of the Apple Pie, but of their previous limited offering, the Taro Pie." Poi is made with taro, but this is not their taro pie (currently offered in Thailand & Guam). Another blogger said, "Haupia just means coconut milk based. In most cases it comes in the form of gelatin, but it’s also enjoyed as a cream or custard filling as it is here."