Feasting on the Garden Island of Kaua’i
Source:The Montreal Gazette
KAUA’I, HAWAII — I didn’t expect the feral chickens. They were everywhere on Kaua’i: rust-coloured hens followed by lines of bobbing chicks, glaring roosters with iridescent black sickle-feathers. Most memorably, feral chickens were hanging about the Hanalei Taro & Juice Co. stand— where I had my first taste of chicken laulau, a traditional meal of meat (usually pork) cooked in taro leaves. I was off-guard long enough for a hen to leap on the picnic table and peck a hole in my square of taro mochi cake. But I wasn’t giving up that easily; I’d come too far to throw it away. I cut off the beak-hole and ate the rest. It was delicious.
Last April, my wife and I travelled to Kaua’i, the most remote of the Hawaiian islands, for a different kind of getaway: a quest to eat local in paradise. Among other things it took us to a local taro farm, to the tasting room of an artisan rum distillery, and a luau. We ate miso-dusted ali’i mushrooms at Josselin’s and local vanilla bean custard at Hukilau Lanai— and sampled a very local (and Canadian-influenced) cocktail called the Aloha Mary.
Where the chicken population came from — you see them strutting across the rental car parking lot the moment after you arrive, wandering the roadside shoulder, and pecking the grass even at swank hotels like the St. Regis — is uncertain. Local lore has it that successive hurricanes have torn up coops for decades, allowing imported chickens to escape and breed with the moa, or descendants of “canoe fowl” that were brought to the island (along with pigs) by Polynesians 1,500 years ago. We didn’t see the feral pigs, but Kaua’i’s jungles are apparently overrun with them, black-haired and sharp-tusked—like the chickens, descendants of Polynesian pigs that bred with escaped European imports. The pigs trample and devour native vegetation, so that even genteel conservation groups encourage hunting (eating them is optional) as a habitat recovery measure.
One thing is certain about roadside chickens and wild jungle pigs: they don’t often turn up on local-fare restaurant menus. If you want to eat Kaua’i-raised pork without hunting it yourself, the place to go is the Garden Luau at Smith’s Tropical Paradise. The idea of a luau might reek of kitsch, but Smith’s is run by a local Hawaiian family, and they do it right: their luau pigs are sourced from a local grower, Kaneshiro Farms. They prepare pit-roasted “kalua” pork in the traditional manner. Butchered pigs are rubbed with locally harvested salt and wrapped in the long leaves of the native ti plant (a giant member of the asparagus family), then roasted all day in covered, lava-rock pits called imu.
We arrived at Smith’s Tropical Paradise around 5 p.m. and spent an hour wandering the grounds. The luau takes place on a 30-acre botanical garden located within Wailua Marina State Park, roamed by camera-ready peacocks. After taking too many pictures of plumeria and hibiscus, we joined the crowd circling the imu pit. Walter “Freckles” Smith, the patriarch of the family, is a big man who wears blinding Aloha shirts and has a laid-back sense of humour. “Thanks for taking a chance on a Hawaiian luau called Smith,” he boomed to his guests. “Enjoy yourselves, eat and drink all you want, but watch out for the rum. It’ll put you flat on your okole.”
Eating local meat in Hawaii is not only an eco-traveller’s nod to regional sustainability: for the pleasure-seeking tourist it’s also a self-serving gesture. As Kaua’i food blogger Marta Lane points out, meat from the mainland has to be shipped at least 4,000 km, and often, like most grocery-store pork, the meat is “pumped” with a sodium phosphate solution. Pumping increases water weight (and price per kilo), and can make the meat slimy and less flavourful. “We like to use Kaneshiro’s pork because of the quality, and they’re a local family business like ours,” says the general manager of Smith’s, Kamika Smith. “And they do all the gutting and dirty work for us.”
The lesson also holds for fruit. Mango season runs from late April to September, for instance, and at other times of year in Kaua’i you’re most likely eating Mexican or Filipino mangoes, which is like going to France and eating Wisconsin cheddar. (For when to find fruits in season, check out Lane’s blog; see sidebar.)
After two young men wearing sarongs and palm fronds blew conch shells — they sound like slightly out-of-tune French horns — we watched them dig the roasted pigs out of the sand-covered pits. “This is Hawaii’s answer to the microwave,” said Freckles. This is luau: all spectacle. Smith’s also includes a dance revue complete with fire-dancing, hula and a miniature exploding volcano.
The head-on pigs themselves looked alarming when they were pulled out, but this is part of the point of eating local: looking your food in the face. A few minutes later we were unleashed on the massive buffet along with three hundred other people. The adobo chicken and ono fish were tasty, and the hula dancers a pleasure to watch, but the highlight of the evening was our first few bites of shredded, smoky, salty-juicy kalua pork.
Smith’s Garden Luau, $88 per person (cheaper if booked online). 808-821-6895
WHAT TO DO
Kaua’i’ Artisan Chocolate
Nanea Hawaiian Chocolate produces single-origin chocolate bars in several flavours, including coconut milk (our favourite), alaea salt and macadamia nut. A three-hour chocolate farm tour and tasting is $55/per person.
Cloudwater Tea Farm
Sample organic teas — Twisted Black and Wailani White, to name two — on Kaua’i’s only estate tea plantation. The estate itself is a work of art, with the main buildings and tasting patio designed by resident architect Parker Croft. Tours and tastings by appointment.
Koloa is the island’s first (legal) rum distillery, since 2008 carrying on the tradition of island hooch that started with the sugar industry in the 1800s. Using molasses from Kaua’i’s unique “tall cane” sugar species and water from one of the rainiest spots on earth (Mount Wai’ale’ale, 1,150 cms per year) they make four rums — white, gold, dark and spiced — that have done well at international competitions. Tasting room located on the Kilohana Plantation.
Taro Tour and Hanalei Taro and Juice Co. Stand
Lyndsey Haraguchi-Nakayama and her family have farmed taro — the source of poi and other traditional fare — in the stunning Hanalei Valley for six generations, defying hurricanes, flash floods, taro blight and invasive apple snails. Haraguchi-Nakayama leads tourists on a harrowing and enlightening tour of the realities of wetland taro farming, as well as a very, very detailed visit to the family’s antique rice mill. Stay to the end for the hand-pounded taro balls dusted with coconut—or to sample her wares without the tour, seek out the Hanalei Taro and Juice Co. Lunch stand in Hanalei for laulau, taro smoothies, mochi cake and other deeply local treats.
The Aloha Mary
The signature cocktail at the St. Regis Princeville hotel is not a mai tai but a twist on the Bloody Mary. The “Aloha Mary” is made with Ocean brand organic Hawaiian vodka, the world’s only sugarcane based vodka — and given added local cred with guava-wood smoked sea salt and sea asparagus. The Canuck-influenced bartenders use Clamato instead of straight tomato juice, so it’s more of an Aloha Caesar. If you love it, they’ll give you the recipe.
Hike the Napali Coast
Work off the local calories with a hike along the breathless cliffs of the Na Pali coast: a sweaty and rewarding way to see part of the 90 per cent of Kaua’i that is inaccessible by road. Hikes run to Hanakapi’ai beach (two to four hours return) and to the waterfall beyond (six to eight hours return).
Best Foodie Advice
Local foodie Marta Lane runs the essential resource to local food, Tasting Kaua’i, with inside advice on all things edible—including a handy schedule of the Farmer’s Markets that pop up in various locations.
The Ultimate Kaua’i Guidebook by Andrew Doughty. Written and updated constantly by locals (changes of chefs, hotel rates or services are often posted days later on their website), the guide is an honest, funny and occasionally biting review of the island’s attractions. Available in print or for iPad.
WHERE TO EAT
This may be the best restaurant on the island. Once named “Best Chef of the Northwest” by the James Beard Foundation, Jean-Marie Josselin works closely with local farmers— his restaurant is tucked into a shopping complex, but views are beside the point here. We were treated to Makaweli Ranch short ribs, organic beet ravioli, and smoky, slow-cooked butterfish — all washed down with great wines and lychee sangria.
Kaua’i Grill and Makana Terrace, Princeville
At the Kaua’i Grill at the St. Regis Princeville hotel, Chef Garrison Price serves up local tastes like local shrimp with watermelon radish and lime yogurt, and grilled black-pepper octopus with tarragon pesto. Skip the underwhelming Wagyu filet mignon in favour of the local Kipu Ranch short ribs — and if available, don’t miss the basil ice cream. If you’re staying at the hotel, have breakfast on the Makana Terrace, with its sweeping view of Hanalei Bay surrounded by the cloud-wisped jungle peaks of the Halelea Forest Reserve.
Hukilau Lanai, Kapaa
Takes pains to emphasize local — their online menus use RealTimeFarms.com show the direct source of ingredients — and offers an early-bird five-course tasting menu with wine pairing for only $40. We tried both the gluten-free menu and the regular menu and were blown away, in particular by the locally caught, coffee-spiced ahi with chipotle coconut sauce, paired with Portuguese vinho verde.
WHERE TO STAY
Waimea Plantation Cottages
This is a taste of old Hawaii, on the west side of the island where the locals stay. The Waimea River makes for turbid and branch-strewn waters, but the spacious grounds and historic cottages — former living quarters for sugar plantation employees in the early 1900s — are charming, affordable and perfect for families. Rates start at $179 for one-bedroom cottage; three-bedroom oceanfront cottage for $470.
Centrally located in Kapa’a, the Outrigger has new, well-appointed condo units with air-conditioning, a rarity on the island. There’s also a two-acre, heated river pool that snakes around the property, with waterslides and three sand-bottom hot tubs. Rates start at $235/night for a one-bedroom, $285 for two-bedroom.
The St. Regis Princeville
The St. Regis is a beautiful resort from bow to stern, and the level of service may spoil you for any other hotel. Located on Hanalei Bay with swimming and snorkelling right off the resort beach. Rates start at $460 for “mountain garden view” room to $660 for premium ocean view; suites run from $775 to $4,500.
Note: Rates are in American dollars, don’t include tax and can vary with season, senior discounts and length of stay.