Ola Pono Series Part 3: Island Flavors
Our executive chef Lee Anne Wong shows you how she sources fresh local ingredients in Hawaii.
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Kanekoa Kukea-Schultz, Executive Director of Kāko‘o ‘Ōiwi Farms in He‘eia
Kukea-Schultz has served as executive director of Kāko‘o ‘Ōiwi Farms since 2009. The Aiea native graduated from Kamehameha Schools Kapālama and furthered his studies at Occidental College (B.S. Marine Biology) and the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa (M.S. Botany, Phycology – also known as “limu-ology,” the study of seaweed.). In addition to his work with Kāko‘o ‘Ōiwi, he serves as Kāne‘ohe Bay Marine Coordinator with the Nature Conservancy of Hawai‘i.
Kāko‘o ‘Ōiwi Farms in He‘eia on O‘ahu’s windward side is a nonprofit, charitable organization with a mission of perpetuating the cultural and spiritual practices of Native Hawaiians. The organization aims to restore agricultural and ecological productivity to the alluvial wetlands of He‘eia within the Ko‘olaupoko region.
With the recent shift in the culinary world toward using more locally sourced, sustainably grown products, how has Kāko‘o ‘Ōiwi Farms benefitted?
We offer a wide range of Hawaiian produce, and while we grew other products, environmental shifts from heat and flooding helped us realize the Hawaiian crops and produce seemed most resilient. We have restaurants that purchase our products, but there are also many families that buy our produce directly and one focus is to get families to eat healthier, which makes our overall community healthier. We hope that as more members of our community become aware of the available options, there will be a greater demand for our products in restaurants and in the home.
Can you describe the connection between the ‘āina (land), people and food when it comes to your approach to sharing produce and knowledge with both kama‘aina (locals) and malihini (newcomers, visitors)?
We live on an island with finite resources. If we can’t look to each other for support then we can’t survive. So we must be able to share and live together. If we all value our native grown resources we will be able to survive here in Hawai‘i and be at balance with nature. When kāko‘o (support, assist) is part of farming taro within our agriculture fields, and we have native systems thriving, we believe that Hawaiian agriculture is an important contribution to being resilient to the changing climate and being connected to ‘āina. Traditional Hawaiian agriculture can actually create and provide an ecosystem service – improving the land and providing habitats for endangered species – and is one of the best contemporary connections between ‘āina, people and food.
We usually see the final product, whether it’s freshly made poi, or cooked ulu (breadfruit). From a behind-the-scenes perspective, how much time and intense labor does it take to prepare the field, nurture and harvest produce before it is ready for consumption?
We still don’t see the true value being added to crops grown. People think twice about paying $5 per pound of poi, but have no problem buying a $5 mocha. We are farming and have great partners like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, The Nature Conservancy, Hawai‘i Community Development Authority, Kamehameha Schools and private foundations that help to offset these labor costs. We are grateful for their kōkua (help).
With so many of the “canoe” crops that were used for generations by early Polynesian voyagers and explorers, what are some of the health benefits of preparing meals with fresh items grown locally without any additives or preservatives?
From a multiplier effect, just spending money on local food and purchasing raw products from Hawai‘i keeps money circulating through our economy. As we can increase the value of our canoe crops and create a value added product from them, we will also be able to increase our revenues but also help our community. Traditional Hawaiian food and diet is very healthy, and following a traditional diet can improve one’s health and the health of the overall family.
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Lee Anne Wong, Hawaiian Airlines Executive Chef
Chef Wong is the chef and owner of Koko Head Café in Honolulu. A native of Troy, New York, Wong graduated from the International Culinary Center and began her culinary training at Marcus Samuelsson’s Aquavit before helping to open Jean Georges Vongrichten’s Chinese cuisine concept, Restaurant 66. Wong has also been featured on multiple food-themed television series including “Iron Chef America,” “Chopped,” “Chopped Junior,” and as a regular commentator on the series “Unique Eats.” She has starred in her own web series “The Wong Way to Cook” on bravotv.com and in a Food Network special “Food Crawl with Lee Anne Wong.”
After making your way to Hawai‘i from New York and continuing your career here as a chef, how crucial was it for you to learn about the local culture and food growing and preparation customs before incorporating the Islands’ unique ingredients in your dishes?
Hawai‘i is a special and unique place and the historical and cultural aspects have everything to do with the state of food today. As a business owner and community member, it’s important to me to not only support our local partners, but to educate our customers on why we choose to showcase local ingredients in a state that imports 95 percent of its food supply. There is a current renaissance in the food and agriculture scene in Hawai‘i today that is bringing attention to just how special it is here, with the year-round growing season, and community efforts to help create a more sustainable and food-secure Hawai‘i. More and more businesses are choosing to support local and are embracing Hawai‘i’s culinary legacy through nods to the traditional foods and cooking techniques while showcasing ambitious new ideas on their menus. For me, learning about the food history and what is happening in the food community today was an essential building block to establishing my credibility as a newcomer to the island. Koko Head Cafe’s menu pays homage in many ways to some of Hawai‘i’s best culinary traditions, while highlighting the cultural diversity of the population, with influences from Japan, Korea, China, and the Philippines, to name a few.
How important is it for you as a chef to understand the process involved with gathering the various items utilized throughout your cooking, including the difficult process of harvesting and cleaning wet taro?
Kalo (taro) is Hawai‘i’s most culturally significant food. We have it on our menu in a couple of different forms not only because it’s delicious, but it’s also a true local flavor that our customers love, even if they are experiencing it for the first time, and I love the idea of using all parts of the plant! Kalo is both time consuming to grow and difficult to harvest, but its ability to propagate and lengthy shelf life once processed makes it one of Hawai‘i’s most important resources. We utilize all parts of the kalo plant at the restaurant in the forms of koena (the starchy outer layer of flesh of a cooked kalo root), pa‘i‘ai (the hand-pounded korm (center of the kalo plant), poi (pa‘i‘ai with water added), and lū‘au (cooked kalo leaves). Understanding where our kalo is grown, who is processing it and how, and then adding our creative and technical skills to the ingredient help us to keep kalo culture alive.
The farm-to-table experience adds a “hands-on” element to cooking that goes beyond simply buying items from a store or vendor. How does that experience translate to the dishes you come up with and prepare?
We are focused on seasonality and freshness through good relationships with our farmers and producers. Mother Nature is one of the world’s greatest artists – the beauty of food through, taste, color, texture, and symmetry. Hawai‘i has a unique and broad selection of flora and fauna because of the climate. For food lovers and cooks, Hawai‘i presents a bounty of choices when thinking about what to create in the kitchen. We have a lot of fun because we are a brunch restaurant, and get to be super creative for the first meal of the day. Daily specials like our seasonal vegetable plate and eggs give us the chance to highlight what’s fresh from the farm that week!
With so many farmers markets coming to fruition as diners seek out fresh, healthy ingredients, what advice do you have for attendees as far as selecting the freshest items, and potentially pairing flavors such as those found in fresh fruits and vegetables that you enjoy?
Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t know what something is. Many times a farm will offer samples of a fruit or vegetable. And you can always ask a local! Most people at the farmers markets are avid home cooks and have tons of suggestions on how to cook or use a particular ingredient. And lastly, that smartphone you have in your hand can answer many, many questions, so don’t be afraid to pull over to the side and use a search engine to discover more facts and recipes surrounding a particular ingredient.
Can you please share your recipe for the Alohi Cakes with viewers, and provide some mana‘o (thoughts, ideas) around the process involved with crafting this dish?
This dish was introduced to me by a woman named Alohi. Quite simply it is cooked koena flesh mixed with mashed ripe bananas (about a 2:1 ratio of koena to banana). The mixture is formed into cakes and then pan fried until crispy. For an extra luxurious flavor, the cakes can be fried in virgin coconut oil. We garnish the cakes with sour cream and guava jam for a sweet, savory element to the dish. I fell in love with this dish the first time I tasted it, both for its simplicity as well as the idea that this is a dish that could’ve been eaten hundreds of years ago, and now a friend was feeding us, sharing her good mana through her kōkua.
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Eric Oto, Hawaiian Airlines Featured Chef
Born and raised on the island of O‘ahu, Chef Oto grew up spending most of his time outside the kitchen. From a young age, he learned the philosophies of respecting and appreciating Hawai‘i’s food ecosystem from his father, a lifelong farmer and fisherman. Oto’s passion for the culinary arts began at the age of four, when he caught his first fish with a bamboo cane pole. He still enjoys shoreline and offshore fishing, as well as free diving; often preparing the fish he catches with techniques including drying, smoking and pickling. He is committed to supporting Hawai‘i’s next generation and serves as a chef-mentor for local high school students with the Hawaii Culinary Education Foundation and the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs Jeune Chef Competition.
Prior to being named chef de cuisine at The Kahala Hotel & Resort’s Hoku’s, he served on the opening team of the Four Seasons O‘ahu at Ko Olina’s Fish House restaurant. He also spent more than a decade at the Halekulani, including Orchids restaurant and the hotel’s events and banquets culinary program. Oto is a graduate of the Leeward Community College’s Culinary Program and a recipient of the Kapa‘a Rotary Club Alan Wong Scholarship.
With Hawai‘i’s unique location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, how do chefs benefit from the incredible access to so many types of fish that create memorable flavor profiles?
Chefs benefit from the uniqueness of being located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean because we have access every day to so many types of fresh fish and seafood. We have the privilege of having boats arriving daily and delivering fresh catches as landlocked locations don’t have this privilege. Hawai‘i has fairly consistent water temperature and although we have “seasons” where some species are more prevalent, we are fortunate to be able to have access to almost all pelagic species all year long.
As an avid fisherman, how does your experience with gathering fish that you cook with translate to the finished product that diners enjoy?
Fishing while growing up has taught me that each fish is different: each one has a different texture, fat content, bone/muscle structure and feeding habits. It also has thought me that although a fish can be of the same species, it can be very different. The area (current) where you catch it, depth of water, abundance of food in area can make one fish different from each other even though they are the same type.
What are some local varieties of fish that you recommend that visitors to the Islands try, and what makes these types of fish so ‘ono (delicious)?
I grew up eating and catching mostly reef fish. Most fish you find in restaurants will be pelagic or deep water species. Hawai‘i is known for having great ahi. We are fortunate to have lots of food and bait fish that keeps our fish nice and healthy. One of my favorites is moi (Pacific Threadfin). Moi usually live in rough water and their diet consists of lots of crustaceans and small fish. It has a soft, moist texture and the skin gets nice and crispy. My favorite fish to eat steamed Chinese-style would be kumu. This fish is one of the fatter species of the goatfish and has an amazing flavor. Both of these fish have important significance in the Hawaiian culture.
For someone who is looking to prepare some fresh fish at home, what preparation styles and techniques do you recommend? Is it best to pan fry and sear fish to create that contrast of texture and lock in the flavor that fresh, raw fish provides?
I personally can’t recommend just one style of preparation. I grew up pan frying, steaming, broiling, drying, smoking and of course making poke and sashimi with all types of fish. I would need to see the fish and instincts will tell me how to prepare it.
Can you please provide an easy-to-make recipe for our guests, perhaps your Easy Inamona with Limu Poke?
To create this easy-to-make dish, start with: one pound of Aku diced in ½-inch cubes; one teaspoon of Alae (Hawaiian rock salt); one teaspoon of Inamona (chopped and roasted Kukui nut); a ½-cup portion of Limu (roughly-chopped seaweed); and one tablespoon of sesame oil. Place the diced fish in a medium mixing bowl, and add the remaining ingredients. Give the concoction a quick mix (without over-mixing the poke), and place the dish on a serving plate, and present it chilled for family and friends to enjoy.