Hawaii is not all about pineapples and ‘lei-leis’. I had travelled to Los Angeles then on to Oahu, a journey taking 22 hours. Whilst everyone refers to it as simply ‘Hawaii’, it is a conglomerate of eight islands, once called the Sandwich Islands.
Hawaii is a multi-cultural group of islands. Such is this diversity, that it makes for interesting mealtimes if you stick to traditional Hawaiian food – the locals can make even the most exotic dishes with beautiful presentation, out of fruits, vegetables, fish and seafood. Meat features, but never as much as our fish friends.
Of course, there are other influences from China, Japan and India, along with the ubiquitous Italian and ‘all-American’ fare, but do eat as the locals do, off the beaten track, or from one of the best market set ups I have ever visited, in Honolulu. Called ‘Simply Foods’ (no connection to Marks and Spencer in the UK) it is far from that – the mix of fresh food is incredible, but it is joined by a smoked section, as well as everyday normal canned produce – it’s a Hawaiian shopper’s paradise and run ethically. Students are employed in exchange for tuition fees, and some profits also go to local farmers and growers. Upstairs you can buy handmade goods, again all ethically produced. Ever seen bath towels made from bamboo? Sounds an ideal world.
This market is huge, and I mean huge. I wondered with such a selection of fresh foods (the fish is always delivered that day, fresh from the boats), how the smaller Honolulu fish market coped with such a competitor. I found out – it is almost like a co-operative scheme. The fish market supplies the Whole Foods giant with the daily fresh fish, so everyone gets a share of this lucrative industry.
Alani, my delightful guide (and somewhat of a Hawaiian food guru), convinced me to stop and try some of the delights of the hot food bar, where some 60 dishes change daily, but others are popular (think mac ‘n’ cheese in various forms). This was no ordinary mac bar – you could have tomato and spinach versions, jalapeno versions, and well goodness knows what else!
I declined the mac and cheese, wanting something, shall we say, a little more Hawaiian! I sampled the non-GMO papaya and corn drink (delish!) and some fresh squeezed sugar cane juice. Hmm…not so keen on the latter, I am not a sugar freak, and to me it also seemed alcoholic, but I was assured it was not. After all, I had a lot of eating to get through in the next few days!
Let us talk ‘proper’ food. I wanted to try ‘poke’, one of the most traditional Hawaiian dishes. I have tried ‘an excuse for a ‘poke’ in London, and remained unimpressed, probably as I knew that the raw fish that is part of the ‘ahi-poke’ offering, was far from fresh.
We were joined for lunch by two of Alani’s sisters (big families in Hawaii) for a meal at what they determined as the best ‘poke’ in the business. They were not wrong. I was not sure what I was expecting, but as we drove down a very narrow track, and got closer and closer to the ocean, I could smell the sea – fresh and inviting.
It was a relatively small house, nothing ostentatious, but with a large terrace outside with an awning to cover it. There must have been over 20 people, all in groups, tucking into aloha bowls and various ‘poke’ dishes. The menu is printed, and apparently does not change from month to month, as the produce is always readily available. You must choose from six sections to make up your bowl – a base (noodles or various different rice), a protein (usually fish or seafood), salad, other vegetables, dressing or marinade, and other side dishes. The beauty of this is you can have as little or as much of a portion as you want!
However, the poke was only part of it. We had an array of other dishes (complimentary) that included he’e (octopus), asparagus shrimp, a delicious, spiced mango dish, ono (also called ‘wahoo’), and mahi-mahi (probably the most widely favoured in Hawaii). Grilled or raw, both were stunningly cooked or prepared.
No room unfortunately, for dessert, although I understand that shaved ice is extremely popular to clean up a ‘fishy mouth’! ‘Tiger’s Blood’ flavour is a go-to shaved ice, with a combination of strawberry and watermelon, with just that hint of coconut. You can find elaborate shaved ice stalls along the roadside too.
I was only spending a night on the main island and leaving to visit some of the other Hawaiian delights. My next meal was breakfast – could not manage Portuguese eggs and rice, so opted for a nice fruit bowl, an ‘acai’, at an old surf club on the beach. Alani used to be a professional surfer, so I discovered. I would be amazed if she could stand up on a surfboard, if she ate like we had every day!