Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Eating Locally on the Puna Coast ~ Part 1

Eating Locally on the Puna Coast

Yes, it is possible, and preferable to eat locally even when on vacation in Hawaii. Toss the cans of Spam and stay away from hotel and chain restaurants. Take the high road and you will discover some amazing and wonderful things

Because we love to go to unusual locations, and experience things as the locals do, not as traditional tourists might we choose to spend a week on the big island of Hawaii along the Puna Coast. Just as when we go to Italy and avoid the typical Tuscan Tour Buses, here we are living in what is proclaimed to be the last Hawaiian frontier. No hotels exist here and neither does most cellular phone service.
The coast is rugged and beautiful and the home we are staying in is exquisitely decorated. It is a contemporary masterpiece full of light and fantastic art. It is built for two people and looks out upon the southern coastline of the big island. You too can stay at Halle Balleja, our new friends Craig and Joel have a web site that you can learn more about the house on. It is . That said, everything outside of our beautiful accommodations is very much on the rugged side. The lava once flowed here and in fact, the roads are closed in much of this part of the island due to the lava flow. Many hundreds of acres were consumed by the mighty rivers of lava, some recently and some ages ago. While it makes some land unusable for quite a time, it also creates new land. The island is growing as I write and seeing it is nothing short of amazing. The flora and fauna here are incredibly sturdy and in even the most forlorn spots, things take root among the lava stone and land begins to form.

This is our first day on the big island, our first trip to Hawaii ever. We have been to tropical locations all over the world before, but always resisted Hawaii, thinking it to be like the pictures you see of Honolulu, giant hotels and mega shopping malls along a once pristine coast. As someone told me before I came here, “Hawaii is Californian’s paradise, if you have been to other islands and tropical destinations, it may seem less exotic.”. I understood her then, and yet as I see what we discovered in just our first day, I have to say, it has a lot going for it. Just five hours from California, sits a beautiful chain of islands where you do not have to get your passport stamped or go through customs. Our money is the same (though a little less valuable over here) and everyone speaks English. There were still forms to fill out on the plane last night though. As an agricultural state and one that is isolated because it is made up of islands they are a necessary evil. It is a gentle paradise though, one where we are welcomed everywhere with the already familiar “Aloha”.

Because of the remoteness of where we are staying and knowing that the country roads that lead here are curvy with nothing but the moon for illumination,, we decided we would eat and cook locally as much as we could this week. Driving home a long distance on these roads from a restaurant after having wine is a recipe for danger. So, we are going to do things differently on this vacation and it is already proving to be interesting.

This morning (Sunday) we went to the small town of Pahoa, the last outpost on this frontier. Pahoa is filled with non-conformists, many sporting dreadlocks, beards and tie died tank tops. It is a great place for people watching and also getting to know some of the local culture at warp speed. We first went to the Sunday Farmer’s Market which sits behind the Akebono Theater, built in 1918. The theater has been restored and they show vintage movies on Saturday nights. There is even a vegetarian snack bar called the Huna Ohana. The farmer’s market is on Saturday and Sunday mornings. While I was calling my house sitter after being “out of touch” for 18 hours, Wes made his way to the Kava Tent. Instantly, he became good friends with the Fijian selling kava drinks and powder, coconut cups, home rendered coconut oil, Cocoa fruits and organic free range eggs. We were married on a remote island in Fiji and have a definite affinity for all Fijians. By the time I made it to the booth, eyeing the cocoa fruits and eggs, the “Bula! Bula!” (Fijian hellos) had been said and then started up again when I got there. Wes sipped the potent herbal tea, made from smashing the Kava plant’s roots into a powder that looks (and tastes) like dirt. Kava has some interesting affects on the human body, ranging from tongue numbness to complete relaxation. I bought some of the Fijian’s coconut oil, a cocoa fruit and a dozen beautiful eggs ~ passing on the kava.

At the next booth a woman was selling beautiful blooming bare root bromeliad plants for $1. each. I wished that there was a way to get them home, but there was not. Next I stopped at a booth selling produce and bought several of the Japanese purple yams that I have recently learned to love. I also purchased some beautiful tomatoes, fresh basil, fiddle leaf fern heads, some green onions, Maui onions, garlic, baby lettuces, some coconut rolls and a few interesting fruits which I cannot even remember the name of right now (pictures and ID to follow). Net: 2 large bags of groceries (local and organic) for $ 12.00

Next stop, Pahoa Natural Groceries on Nanawale Homestead Road. It is a nice clean good sized natural foods market. There is also a deli and an excellent salad bar. While the selection was decent and the produce was beautiful, the prices were steep. I needed just a little olive oil and even the teeniest bottles were all $10 and up. I laughed when I saw the Brianni olive oil from California that I usually pay $13 for selling for $29. OK… it is organic and wonderful… but that seemed like highway robbery. I decided to really go local and use the coconut oil I had just bought instead. We needed just one stick of butter and was not even planning on using the whole thing in the course of a week. I always wondered who bought those single serving packages of butter! Well, they didn’t have them and I drew the line at paying $12.95 for a pound of butter that I would be leaving behind. Still, because we want to eat organic whenever possible, I bought some organic range free chicken breasts, sprouted whole wheat sourdough bread ($7) made locally, snack items and two bottles of wine. $165. later we were out the door.

On to the *big* grocery in Pahoa, Malama Market for the last of the items we needed. They not only had wine, but also Gin and diet tonic too! I got some beautiful little pears, limes and macadamias. Prices here were far more reasonable. You just have to remember that this is an island and if it is not grown here, it is going to cost a lot. This is another good reason to eat locally grown and produced items.

After all of that shopping, we were famished and since Wes wanted to see if the Golden State Warriors were playing, we went to the only place in town where we could eat and watch the game, Black Rock CafĂ©. This was not the kind of place I would have chosen, but in the end, it was perfect for our first day. We went in, saddled up to the bar and met a delightful and very pregnant waitress. We ordered drinks and food and while waiting for it, started talking to the only other customer in the bar. This guy was a hoot. He was wearing a tie died tank top and a cowboy hat that had seen better days. When he found out where we were from (naturally in a town like Pahoa, everyone not from there stands out like a sore thumb) he proceeded to tell us that his grandmother had been born in Hawaii and about 1930 moved to the tiny little ranch town of Danville, CA (where we live!). Not only that, she had one of the few houses then on the very mountain ridge where our house is. Her home was part of a larger ranch on the mountain. His grandmother had fled Hawaii because of the discrimination that was aimed (most likely with reason) against families of missionaries, especially those generations who had done well financially in Hawaii. This guy, easily in his late ‘50’s had grown up in Santa Clara and then moved to the island as an adult to escape traffic and “rules”. And there he flourishes as an extended hippy. Talk about full circle!

For lunch, Wes had a grilled fish sandwich and I had the special of the day, Chicken in Adobo, a Filipino inspired dish. Wes had amazingly good local potato fries with his sandwich and I had a mixed green salad with tomatoes and house made ranch dressing. The salad had baby greens, romaine, tomatoes, maui onions, a local kind of sweet red pepper that I saw at the farmer’s market and was topped with macadamia nuts. While we were eating, we noticed several Chicago Bears items around the bar and asked the owner if he was the fan. He was indeed, having come from the south side of Chicago many years ago. It seemed to be a confirmation that we were in the right place. Wes and I met and lived in Chicago for many years and the men that own the house we are renting are from there as well. As it turns out, they live around the corner from our house there. I digress…

From there it was time for a little sight seeing. We drove along highway 132 till we came to the Lava Tree State Monument and made a swing through there. Here we found “lava trees” that formed when fast flowing lava encounters wet ‘ohi’a trees. As the flow drains away, it leaves a thick coating around the dying tree. Most of the free standing tubes are moss covered now.

Back on highway 132 heading to the sea, we enjoyed the thick canopy of trees and vines. Many of these vines were giant versions of philodendrons with leaves as big as 2-3 feet long. As we looked up from our convertible the sight was even more amazing with the blue sky as back ground. Where highway 132 ends, you come out of the forest again and can clearly see the 1960 lava flow, where fountains of lava 3/10 of a mile high produced enormous amounts of lava that wiped out the town of Kapoho, leaving only two subdivisions. We took the dirt road to the sea at the point where 132 and 137 converge and followed it to another dirt road to the left, there we drove in to the gate of a Japanese Cemetery where the lava took over some graves and spared a good many of them. We hiked in past the gate to find a well maintained grassy knoll, beautiful frangipani, red ginger and other plantings amongst a multitude of coconut palms. There is a memorial there for those whose graves were lost to the sea of lava. We saw many well maintained headstones with jars of flowers sitting in specially made blocks with holes for the jars. There were also some charred headstones and some partially covered by lava. Beyond the cemetery, in the ½ mile or so to the sea was nothing but mounds and mounds of lava rock..

We went on to the point, where at the end of the dirt road is the Cape Kumukahi Lighthouse which was spared in the lava flow. It is interesting, as the lava flowed directly to it and then went around it on both sides and then met up again. There is a local legend about the lighthouse. The lighthouse tender had a woman come to his door the night before the volcano erupted and he invited her in to dinner. Many people believe that that was Madame Pele in one of her many aberrations and that because the lighthouse keeper was kind to her, she spared the lighthouse.

It was at this point that we took a few deep breaths of some of the most pristine air in the world. This is the eastern most point of the island and this is where “virgin air” comes across the pacific, traveling over water for many weeks before reaching land at last. The air here is analyzed by scientists from around the world and is used as a benchmark for clean air when determining pollutants and pollen counts.

We had to get our groceries home and in the refrigerator, but we plan on returning here again and making the 1.5 mile hike to Kapoho Bay so we can swim and snorkel in the lava heated Champagne Pond, a calm and protected inlet of crystal clear water where turtles and fish abound. Here fresh water percolates from the ground, heated by the volcano and maintains a constant temperature of about 90 degrees on the top and changes with the tide.

On the way home we traveled down a narrow, but beautiful road under another canopy of huge trees covered with gigantic philodendron vines. On the left was the sea, usually pounding upon lava rocks and occasionally forming tide pools and “lava swimming pools”, some as large as 250 feet long and as deep as 5 feet in some spots. We will be exploring these and taking along a picnic tomorrow. This area is known as the Kapoho Tide Pools. A few of the westerly pools here are even heated by the volcano.

At the house, we unloaded the car and put on our hiking sandals, then trekked across the street to the lava cliffs and took in the spectacular views a little closer. We can see much of this from the house, but on the edge of the cliff it is even more spectacular as the spray makes it’s way to you and there were also some beautiful flowers and ferns growing here, some right up through the lava. We made it home just in time, as the evening rain started to fall. Nature has a way of washing everything clean here most every night. It is enough clean clear water to fill the cisterns and water the glorious flora.
More soon...