Wednesday, March 23, 2011

FoodTrek: Farmers Market Finds and a Picnic with Pele

Where else but Hawai'i can you do a brown bag lunch with the gods? I was fortunate to visit the Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park on the big island of Hawai'i, to experience the powerful mood of the Native Hawai'ian goddess Pele, within her fiery home in the active Kilauea Volcano. But one can't show up to Pele's house empty-handed. A visit to the Hilo Farmers Market yielded a big lunch of fresh local finds and ono kine grindz to power a full-day's trek through the national park, plus a later trip to the Kona Farmers Market was like another adventure in fresh food finds.

Fantastic view of Halema'uma'u Crater, home of the goddess of fire, Pele - Photo by Wasabi Prime

When you're faced with a full day of walking through a geological history of the Hawai'ian islands, you better be prepared. And by prepared, I mean know how to get your grub on. I've written about how fantastic the Hilo Farmers Market is in previous posts, and it's one of the best ways to supply you with fresh energy for a full day. Located right in the historic downtown area of Hilo, on the corner of Mamo Street and Kamehameha Avenue, it's a large open market that has a combination of crafts, prepared foods and fresh produce. Bring cash, as most of the vendors won't be able to handle credit cards or check -- don't worry, you don't need much more than $10 worth to gather a good amount of food. Little box lunch bento of teriyaki chicken with musubi rice balls, Filippino style noodles called pancit, or fried cutlets of pork tonkatsu can range from three to five dollars, and fresh fruit like whole bunches of apple bananas are as cheap as a dollar, easy snacks that travel well and come individually wrapped. There's sweet treats like butter mochi, a chewy rice cake dessert, and there are vendors that now offer things like herbed goat's milk chevre and fresh-baked breads. Get a little loaf of bread and a bottle of local honey or guava jelly and you've got the makings for a delicious sandwich lunch. Don't be shy about trying something unique like fresh starfruit which can be sliced and eaten as-is, having a kind of bright pear flavor, or the scaly dragon-skinned soursop, which once split open, the pulpy, custard-like fruit has a subtle citrus/banana like flavor. Bunches of red-maned rambutan are easily found, where all you need to do is break open its red skin, peel it away, and eat the grape-like fruit that tastes similar to lychee --  just eat around the seed. Don't forget to try the small pear-shaped mountain apples, or Malay apples, waxy red-skinned fruit that have a lightly sweet flavor and contain a lot of liquid, acting as a good hydration fruit during long hikes.

Dragonfruit, mountain apples, apple bananas, orchids, rambutan; not your average market - Photo by Wasabi Prime 

Having a cooler packed with the farmers market finds, it's less than an hour's drive to the Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. I've been visiting this park for as long as I can remember, going at various times when Kilauea was both sleepy and especially active. While the idea of visiting a national park may induce snore-worthy memories of family vacations gone horribly awry, the best thing about visiting the house of Pele is that she is a fire goddess that does not disappoint and it's a park who can boast that it's always in a state of flux -- what you see today, you may not be able to see tomorrow. Pelehonuamea is the legendary diva of record, featured heavily in local myths, known as much for her beauty as for her power and fury. When you come to her house, come with respect and a desire to learn about the natural history of the island. Kilauea is is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, but one of the youngest among the island of Hawai'i's family of active volcanoes, which include Mauna Loa, the largest volcano on Earth, and Hualalai, the third most active on the island. The park is set up in a way that makes it easy for people to tour the area by car, or if you choose to tour by bike or foot, there are backcountry planners and bike guides available. You can do overnight camping on the park grounds as well. The main thing is to plan accordingly -- read up on the Things to Do page of the Volcanoes National Park site, as they will have suggested supply lists, weather and air quality conditions, and the need to check in so rangers know where to locate you in case of emergency. For the $10 price of entrance into the park, it's quite a lot of activities available for the outdoor enthusiast.

Exploring the geologic and mythic history of Hawai'i with Ranger Dean - Photos by Wasabi Prime

OK, so maybe you're not ready to get down with your Bear-Grylls-Man-vs-Wild-bad self -- I spent just a day at the park, on a ranger-guided tour of the park. This was a great thing to take advantage of, as it's included in your park fee and you can call ahead and arrange for a ranger to guide you for the day. I was very lucky to be paired up with the fantastic Ranger Dean Gallagher, who pretty much knows everything about the park and its fantastic ecosystem, explaining how the park is in a constant state of activity to preserve the indigenous and endemic animals and plants of the island. I'm sure all the rangers have this incredible amount of information, I just have to give props to the awesome Ranger Dean who made the day absolutely magical. We started out at the Kilauea Visitor Center, where you get the latest weather and air condition reports (good to check with if you have any health/respiratory issues), then taking the Crater Rim Drive that takes you around the massive Kilauea Caldera that includes the Halema'uma'u Crater, the legendary home of Pele. Along the overlook of Halema'uma'u is the breathtaking view of the crater, and during this especially active time, you could hear explosions of rock from within the crater every few minutes. It sounded like thunder and was a stark contrast from previous visits I've had to the same overlook where it's been such a peaceful view of a sleeping goddess. While the active lava is unable to be seen during the day because the crater is so deep, the park is open 24 hours and you can drive out there at night; if the conditions are right, the rangers said you could see the glow of the lava reflecting off the constant billows of steam coming up from the crater. For the day I was there, I was able to see the natural steam vents where rainwater is transformed into constant fresh billows of steam, Kilauea Iki Crater, the site of a 1959 lava flow, and take a tour through an old lava tube, the Thurston Lava Tube, including a flashlights-are-a-must tour of an unlit lava tube that was as mysterious as it was sacred, as Ranger Dean described how these tubes were used for both sanctuary for the Native Hawai'ians and burial areas, to protect the mana or strength of a person's spirit that remains within the bones.

The best restaurant and menu in the world -- Chez Mother Nature - Photos by Wasabi Prime

It's a lot to take in for an afternoon, you build up a volcano-sized appetite, so that cooler full of farmers market goodies is a welcome sight. And having a ranger with you to point out all the choice picnic spots is pretty rockstar. Ranger Dean guided us to a little covered picnic area -- there's several around the park, but it's nice when someone can guide you directly. A tablecloth was laid out and all the fresh foods were spread out for what was probably one of the best picnic lunches you could imagine. They say food eaten outdoors always tastes better, and food that locally grown and produced, eaten on the edge of an active volcano is pretty outstanding. Along one of the walks, we passed by a few 'ohelo berry bushes, a fruit endemic to Hawai'i, found nowhere else. They're edible berries, tart and tiny, somewhat labor intensive to pick, but often made into jams and pies -- highly recommended if you're lucky to get a hold of a jar or baked treat.

Kona Farmers Market and fresh cacao pods!! - Photos by Wasabi Prime

It's hard to totally kick the farmers market addiction when you're in Hawai'i. Not that we don't have farmers markets where I live, it's just hard to let go of the abundance of such exotic items. Even when I was in Kona, the siren song of their farmers market located right on Ali'i Drive couldn't keep me away. Open Wednesdays through Sundays, I got a chance to do a quick walk-thru before I had to catch my flight. If I was there for a few days more, I'd have bought more of the addictive Maui Gold pineapples, which are sweeter than anything you can get on the Mainland, or fresh mango that were being sold for a pittance of what you'd pay at home. One of the Kona market vendors was selling fresh cacao pods, explaining that if you wanted to make cocoa powder from scratch, you just have to remove the seeds, dry them, and then roast them before grinding into pure cocoa powder. It sounded similar to how coffee is produced and I'm now inspired to try it, if I plan my next visit to Kona accordingly and can take over my mother's kitchen for a few hours. Another good thing about visiting this market is that it's where the locals shop. Granted, there's plenty of inexpensive souvenir stuff that's probably made in Taiwan, but look past the trinkets and you'll see an abundance of fresh flowers like anthurium, live orchids, and spiny huge protea blooms. You're literally surrounded by walls of fresh flowers. There were handmade ti leaf leis, plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, and probably the item of most interest, Kona coffee. Everyone sells Kona coffee, but the pricing can vary, based on the percentage of pure coffee harvested locally. While I'm no Kona coffee stock market ticker, comparing the prices from the different shops along Ali'i Drive, the prices in the farmers market was probably the best, ranging from $13 to $15 a pound, whereas other stores were selling their coffee at $18 to $20 per pound. And again, we noticed this is where the locals were buying their coffee, and that's a good indicator of where you'll find the best prices.

I find myself back in the chill of the Pacific Northwest, dreaming of warm farmers markets and picnic lunches, but it just reminds me what's waiting for me on my next visit back to the island of Hawai'i. Don't think this tropical blog adventure is over; I still have more tales of Aloha to come, so stay tuned for eating guides meant to fuel busy days on land and sea! To continue the spirit of Aloha, please visit the American Red Cross site and donate to help the relief efforts to aid Japan's recovery in the wake of the recent earthquake and tsunami disaster.

Fun and funny stuff at the Kona Farmers Market - Photos by Wasabi Prime

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  1. What an amazing adventure. Yes, I'm with you on the farmers market point- I can't get any rambutan in Melbourne's farmers markets! No one grows them so I need to go hunting around Asian grocery stores hehe

  2. I love the Hilo Farmer's Market!

  3. Hi - awesome post and what you did on Honest Cooking. Love your writing. Also I am going back to try Columbia winery based on you write up. Thanks for that or I would have not gone back. From a fellow honest cooking contributor and blogger in Seattle. Nice to meet you!!

  4. The ohelo berries bring back such memories! I remember picking those as a kid and throwing them into the crater as an offering. Then we would picnic at the park and the moms would go home and make ohelo jam. Good times!

  5. Your pics are lovely, these look so good!
    Thank you, it's very interestingly.


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