Kaui Hart Hemmings is the Hawaiian author of The Descendents, a sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, yet always very real view of life that was made into a Golden Globe winning movie starring George Clooney. She recently explained a Gallup Poll that indicated residents of Hawaii have the highest level of well-being in America. “In Hawaii”, she says, “everyone can have paradise. No one is missing anything.” As Hawaiians, we don’t lounge in the beauty. Foodies and just-plain hungry folk alike flock to food trucks and ‘plate-lunch’.”
I was happy in Hawaii….of course, I was in paradise—who wouldn’t be happy? I sat in the parking lot of busy Waipouli Town Center, literally inhaling an Ahi Tuna wrap from Mermaid’s Cafe, located across the street. Laced with potent wasabi and brown rice to sate the belly and temper the fire, the wrap had just enough kick to oust me from my vacation haze. I looked around at the rental cars, the hassled tourists, those folks who were simply living out their typical American strip-mall lives, but in a different place. You would be surprised at how unhappy one can apparently be in Paradise. It came to me then, as I lazily licked an refreshingly cool OnoPops Pineapple La Hing paleta found at hip Java Kai: the essence of what makes one happy when in Hawaii is indeed, the spirit of “Aloha”.
Trite? Stereotypical? Cliched? Not really. Aloha means so much more than hello. Aloha is a ray of calm yet steady tropical sunshine: a natural, unpretentious, heartfelt expression that slowly spreads its message of warm welcome, care and inclusivity.
The tradewinds are strong on Kauai. They push a continuous parade of clouds across the sky. A hot sunny day is made instantly cooler (always carry a jacket!) by spontaneous and tropical rainstorms.
If you let it, that first rainstorm can wash away your worries, your inescapably and inherently uptight mainlander-ness. When the sun comes out again, when you spot your first Hawaiian rainbow, when you view that first spectacular waterfall tumbling from the sheer cliffs of Kalihiwae or Hanalei—it’s as if you’ve been washed in Aloha.
What does this have to do with food? Well, simply everything!
If you are willing to leave your all-inclusive resort, you will find a world you never knew existed. Mike Stewart, better known to locals as “Uncle Mikey” is the owner of …Uncle Mikey’s Dried Fruit , the best snack you’ve probably never tasted. Typical dried fruits will be forever banned from your pantry the minute you taste his hand cut, sugar free, “No Weird Stuff” in it pineapple, banana, mango, papaya, Hawaiian Mountain Apple, star fruit and wild guava delicacies. Mike orders fruit from wholesalers or goes with his daughter to pick it from large commercial orchards and even friends with back-yard trees. He hand-cuts the fruit, about 1500 pounds per week, and dries it at low temperatures to retain all the nutrition, color and most importantly the flavor of the fruit. To taste Uncle Mikey’s is to taste the very essence of a tropical fruit. Literally. 90% of the weight of fruit is lost in the dehydrator: 400 pounds of cut pineapple become just 32 pounds of dried fruit. The fruit Mike uses, with the exception of mountain apples, is always in season. Star fruit, mango, banana and pineapple grow all year. In fact, star fruit and guava are so ubiquitous on Kauai, they are practically considered weeds and folks beg Mike to pick their crop before the fruit flies set in.
Mike arrived on the island in 1970 when his father bought him a one way plane ticket to Lihue as a graduation present. Although he posted a brief stint on the mainland to go to college and get married, he’s been on Kauai ever since. When Mike arrived, what is now Princeville- a strip mall of local businesses and groceries that support a huge Hyatt resort and sprawling timeshares priced according to their distance from the golf course–didn’t even exist. The land was a privately owned ranch extending from Kalihiwai to Hanalei.
Despite a surge of development since the 1980s, Kauai, known as the Garden Island, remains primarily agricultural. As you drive away from the beach, toward the mountains, verdant rolling hills are shadowed by steep mountains.
They are green, lush and productive, studded here and there with wild streams, roaming cattle and orchards of mango and nut trees. The landscape is stunning and surprisingly reminiscent of the Mid Atlantic piedmont farm country in spring.
If you leave Princeville or the ocean view rentals of Kilauea, you’ll have the chance to meet Kauai farmers, many of whom grow mango, pineapple or avocado trees as edible landscape which they sell alongside the road, at small fruit stands or at Farmer’s Markets.
Sativa (first name only) is just one of the naturally gorgeous, fit, sun-kissed and also business savvy, enterprising young natives to take advantage of Kauai’s bounty of natural resources and surge in tourism. She started out selling coconuts on the beach. Eventually she took over The Coconut Experience, a roadside stand (located at mile market 24 off Kuhio Highway), which she has turned into a profitable and popular spot. The coconuts at her stand are ice cold, and she slices them precisely if not a little forcibly with a machete almost as big as she is. All that’s required is a straw, and really, you don’t even need that. After you’ve dispensed with the healthy and delicious coconut water, Sativa will machete the coconut in half so you can spoon out the soft insides.
Sativa sells a variety of organic produce at her stand, all procured from friends, family and farmers who drop by spontaneously to offer her a look at their harvest. All produce is local. Some is familiar while others are exotic, such as longan (also known as dragon eyes), lilikoi, guayabana, dragonfruit, spiky soursop, cream apple, white sapote and huge meaty avocados. Kale and greens are very popular on Kauai- they are native and prolific, and Sativa sells large bunches at reasonable prices. She also sells local Powerhouse Creamery ice cream. The smoked cardamom ginger with spiced bananas is addictive and perfect after a day on the water.
Farmers Markets are popular here on this remote island, especially amongst the locals. Most markets allow a browse to preview but absolutely no buying prior to opening, which is marked by a bell or honk and a mad rush to favorite stands. Given its proximity to the West Coast, the island is pervasive with lovers of all things natural, organic and of course, grown with Aloha, so the markets are located conveniently and frequently along the highway.
The Hanalei market has perhaps the most beautiful setting on the island. It is large and situated in a picturesque field at the base of massive mountains pierced by cascading waterfalls. It is full of produce, artisanal foods and handmade art. A friend from Annapolis once bought a $15 pineapple from there. I advise approaching vendors with interest, curiosity and whatever Aloha you’ve acquired since your arrival if you don’t want this sort of resort fee. On the other hand, that $15 was a small up-charge for a trip to this astounding place and was probably a boon to the farmer, who most likely is struggling just like farmers across the entire United States.
If you drive along Kuhio Highway, turning east for a lazy trip through the backroads around Kapaa or if you drive north past Anahola, you will see that life for the native Kauai islander is far removed from that of the tourist. Poverty is rampant. And yet the natives remain, year after year, on the list of happiest and most content in the country. Maybe it’s because their outlook on life doesn’t value acquisition. they keep it simple. After all, even if you’ve seen it one hundred times, the plasma color of a rainbow, the shimmering gold of a Pacific sunset is priceless. That fresh taste of a coconut is everlastingly refreshing and unforgettable.
A visit to Black Pot Beach in Hanalei or Anini Beach just south of Princeville, showcases the locals’ reverence for communion with family, friends and the ocean. Families back their pickup, jeeps and even bicycles to face the ocean, light a ‘cue and celebrate the ebb and flow of everyday life.
Black Pot Beach happens to be the home of Pat’s Taqueria, where every day, sometime around noon, Chef Pat Grenz, onetime chef at small plates wonder Bar Acuda in Hanalei, opens his truck to tourists and locals veritably salivating for his tacos. The menu is simple: fish, pork, beef or bean tacos and a couple easy foods such as quesadillas for the little ones. But while the menu is simple, the tacos are insane and not to be missed!
Pork kalua is sweet and savory and rich. The fish tacos are light and the accompanying mango salsa adds sweetness to the seafood. Burritos are huge and perfect for post-surf or kayak replenishment. There are only two small tables in front of the truck, so take advantage of the park alongside the Hanalei River to grab a picnic table or stake a place on the sandy crescent of beach overlooking the famous Hanalei Pier.
Although Kauai’s North Shore is renowned for its winter swells, real life on Kauai is not a surf culture. Rather, it is defined by a shared pride and affection for a community-owned slice of paradise.
Make no mistake: from the poorest Hawaiian selling avocadoes from their front yard, to the most market-savvy (and counter-culturally pretentious) hippies I’ve ever seen at Common Grounds— “The North Shore’s Farm to Table Experience”, to simple folks like Uncle Mike, the average people of Kauai are trying to make a living just like everyone else, and are doing so with pride and diligence.
Mike began selling his fruit in 2004 with just one dehydrator but a healthy dose of “faith and laser-like focus”. Nine years later he has shipped his fruit to more than fifteen countries, is in the Whole Foods Market Global Library (that means DC area folks can beg their local Whole Foods for this amazing taste of Kauai and it can be on the shelves in days), and counts as his fans folks as disparate yet discerning as Mathew McConaughey, Willie Nelson and President Obama. He is building an international brand name on a shoestring budget while he raises three kids, enjoys his 10 month old grandson, supports his wife in her massage therapy business, works a second job and manages to squeezes out a moment or two to catch some seasonal swell.
Jack Johnson, the professional surfer turned folk-rock-pop voice of Hawaii croons in “Breakdown”
I hope this old train breaks down
Then I could take a walk around
And, see what there is to see…
And though my windows got a view
The frame I’m looking through
Seems to have no concern for now
So for now…Oh please just
Let me please breakdown.
Kauai is just the place to breakdown. It’s a place to leave your rental house, your hotel room, your resort, even the beach to discover a magic and allure that has held natives captive for thousands of years. Go find Aloha: bare yourself to a rainstorm; brave the trail to Queens Bath for a glimpse of sea turtles battling the surf and rocks; say a mindful prayer at Kauai Aadheenam Hindu Monastery; enjoy a slice at Hanalei Pizza; join locals at the Hanalei Bay Canoe Club’s annual luau fundraiser for some sexy Tahitian hula. Whatever you do, enjoy a bite of paradise, then bring that Aloha home with you!Feel free to share...