By Alyssa Schwartz
Between the twinkling lights criss-crossing the evening sky, picnic tables strewn across the lawn and wooden food stalls sheltered with straw roofs, there’s a country carnival feel here at the Ka’anapali Fresh Food and Wine Festival, on the west coast of Maui.
Happily, the morsels being dished out bear little resemblance to state fair food: tiny, greaseless clams fried in tortilla powder, a tangy slaw of shredded tomatoes on the side, flatbread swathed in smoky baba ganoush, cubes of grilled eggplant and peppery arugula, and zingy summer rolls which cut the creaminess of Boursin cheese with watercress and perfect, sweet strawberries. To name but three of the 24 plates on offer. Hawaii’s food is finally earning more well-deserved recognition.
While locavore dining has reached peak trendiness, in Hawaii it’s an ancient concept called ahupua’a.
This is a centuries-old system for dividing the land into sections that cut through the diverse landscapes from mountain to sea, so people could fish, grow or hunt everything they needed.
Despite Maui’s rich, fertile soil and excellent growing conditions – and their ancient traditions – more recent times have seen food imported from the U.S. mainland, thousands of kilometres away. It’s chef-farmer partnerships like the ones being celebrated at Ka’anapali Fresh that are slowly bringing back ahupua’a, and changing the flavour of Maui’s culinary scene in the process.
You don’t have to attend a food festival to taste the results – they’re on menus everywhere. At Hula Grill in Ka’anapali, inaugural winner of the Mayor’s Friends of Agriculture award, Chef Bobby Masters serves up a “Localicious” salad which includes Waipoli greens, farmed hydroponically in Upcountry, and pohole ferns, green shoots similar to fiddleheads which grow wild in the rainforest. You’ll find them served with kelp, dried shrimp and Maui onion in the perfectly umami signature salad at Star Noodle in nearby Lahaina; some Maui foodies consider the presence of these greens on a menu to be a sign of a chef’s commitment to using local ingredients.
Even better is to drive to Upcountry to tour the farms, meet the producers, and discover the flavour of Maui-grown whilst standing on the soil it comes from. My second morning on the island, I stand on a patch of rust-coloured dirt 1,100 feet higher than the nearest beach, savouring a whiff of just-picked Maui Gold pineapple straight off the knife. The butter-coloured fruit is paler than the deep lemon pineapples we buy in Canadian supermarkets, and it bursts with notes of coconut and a sweetness that is more nuanced than we’re used to. (Darren Strand, one of Maui Gold’s owners who leads my tour says the number one question he’s asked is how to pick a good pineapple. His answer: “Eat it here.”)
From there, I wind higher into the foothills of Haleakala to Kula Country Farms, a produce stand with spectacular views of the north and south coastlines, and even more spectacular strawberries (plus – gift alert – shelves lined with made-in-Maui salts, jams, syrups and salad dressings). At Kupa’a Farms, former Calgary residents Gerry Ross and Janet Simpson take me by golf cart around the 14 acres on which they grow everything from mangoes big as footballs (!) to longon – lychee-like fruit which taste like cantaloupes – and, coffee beans. The pair have a uniquely symbiotic relationship with local restaurants – whose kitchens provide 30,000 pounds of food waste a year for composting – and say chefs can’t get enough of their carrots and potatoes in particular (I’o restaurant in Lahaina serves them with Kula rosemary, shallots and Molokai sea salt).
Back on the golf course, sated with local fare including chocolate truffles made with cheese from Surfing Goat Dairy, another farm I visited, and cocktails spiked with Ocean Vodka, distilled from organic sugarcane, I chat with Ryan Luckey, another featured chef. He sums up the scene before us in one distinctly Hawaiian notion: aloha.
“People think it means hello and goodbye but aloha is more than that. It’s love. It’s showing compassion and understanding and caring about what you do and the people around you. This is something people here really want to be part of.”