Monday, April 4, 2011

FoodTrek: Avast Ye, Wasabi -- a Feast by Sea

Despite the pirate-themed title, there was no walking of planks, nor were there any shivering of timbers. There wasn't even a pegleg. Yarrrrr. But for my last post chronicling the most recent visit to the land of Hawai'i, I had to devote the final Aloha oi to the deep blue seas that surround the tropical islands. The beaches and crashing waves of the surrounding seas is what brings most people to the islands, so let the saline spray of  days spent on the water (and hearty meals to fuel the day) be the sendoff for this exotic escape.

Starting the day at Kamakahonu Bay in Kailua-Kona -- Photo by Wasabi Prime

I'll be the first to admit, I'm not the most responsible eater. My breakfasts generally tend to include coffee, coffee, and maybe a side of coffee. Oh, more coffee? Yes, please. I know, it's the breakfast of computer jockey champions, right? But when you've got a big day of activities planned, it's fine to go for the gusto and have hearty breakfasts to energize your gut for the rest of your day. Hawai'i is the only place where I can use the somewhat weaksauce justification that fruit or cream-filled malasadas is the right way to start the day.

Malasadas from Tex's in Honoka'a and some keen finds at Kona's Lava Java - Photos by Wasabi Prime 

Wilford Brimley had no idea what he was talking about when he was crowing about oatmeal. Fried, sugar-dusted pillows of pastry dough stuffed with Bavarian cream or guava jelly is, as the wisdom of Bat Country-fried Charlie Sheen would say: Duh...winner. On the drive over to the western side of the island from Hilo, I stopped off at Tex Drive In, in Honoka'a, where the food is truly Ono Kine because the sign clearly states it. It's a little unassuming coffee shop clearly favored by the locals for pleasantly lazy breakfasts, as the outdoor tables all have coffee mugs full of Trivia Pursuit cards, a sign that they want you sit for a spell. It's gotten national attention for its filled malasadas; I think spiky-haird Guy Fieri from Food Network descended upon this place at one point and bequeathed his backwards sunglass-wearing mojo upon them. The malasada pastry itself isn't anything new -- you can get these beignet-like doughnuts originally brought over by the Portuguese from just about any local bakery. The addition of a thick, pudding-like chocolate or vanilla cream or local fruit jelly is a Tex's thing, because I don't think most bakeries do this. It may seem like gilding the lily, as it's already sugar-coated fried dough, and while I personally am a malasada purist who prefers it the un-filled way, this breakfast was purely in the interest of food reasearch. Which of course means the calories from that rich vanilla Bavarian cream-filled malasada totally didn't count. But all research trials must be repeated to fully determine its results... so repeated visits Tex's to further such studies is most certainly warranted. Food research, people! Get with it.

Monster cinnamon rolls for monster appetites at Lava Java - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Another breakfast-with-gusto spot that totally hits the spot is Island Lava Java, right along Kona's Ali'i Drive. It came with the recommendation of both visitors and locals, and it did not disappoint. They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, but I used them as my go-to for breakfast, as well as a souvenir shop. I picked up a few necklaces with painted ceramic charms made by a gal who used to work there and sells her jewelry right on the counter. It's nice to find things that are locally crafted and with a sense of discovery about them, and unlike most of the little trinkets you pick up in souvenir shops, I knew for a fact these weren't made in Taiwan. Hawai'i-made, yo -- keep it local. As for Lava Java's food, they serve up big meals and most notably, cinnamon rolls so massive, they'd make the state of Texas green with envy. The cake-sized rolls literally take up a dinner plate, all buttery and cinnamon-sugar filled, drizzled with icing, looking like a coiled snake ready to strike you with carbohydrate deadly force. It's got a bit of a caramelized sugar crust, likely a result of the filling oozing out during the baking process, but it gives it a nice, unusual texture that you're not used to in a cinnamon roll. They have a coffee drink menu to rival any Starbucks, of course serving only local Kona coffee, so be sure to indulge in the java from Lava Java. If you're brave or in need of a high-octane jolt of caffeine, try their Depth Charge coffee drink, which is a shot of espresso in Kona coffee. The fuel food I particularly enjoyed was their Waipio Stack Breakfast, which was sort of like an open-face breakfast BLT -- two over-easy eggs served over bacon, fresh avocado, and thick slices of toast smeared with a chipotle mayonnaise. For something sweet, but not as intense as their cinnamon rolls, their Island Style Pancakes offer a couple of large pancakes covered in macadamia nuts, bananas and drizzled in coconut syrup. True, these are not meals for those with a timid appetite, but for a day filled with seaside activities, you need to feast with boldness!

Breakfast to fuel the day on the water with The Kona Boys - Photos by Wasabi Prime

So what activities are worth burning off such kingly feasts? A day on the water, paddling the waves with The Kona Boys, or hanging on for dear life on a fast-moving boat before snorkeling in a sealife-rich bay with the adventurous team at Captain Zodiac. I think one of the best ways to enjoy the ocean is to explore it using your own power of motion, without the aid of a powered motor, at least the first time you spend a day on the water. You get a sense of the current's force, you're fully immersed in the waves and feeling of its natural ebb and flow, and as my scuba-diving aunt would say: welcome to the food chain. (Enter John William's score from Jaws here.) I kid! I kid!!! Don't worry, the shores of Kona are safe. Despite its deep waters being a favorite haven for deep-sea fishermen, the life it's teeming with is about as fierce as dolphins and sea turtles. Sure, there's animals like sharks around, but hey, it's their 'hood, they're not looking for trouble and think of swimming in the ocean the way you would camping in the woods. You know there's lions, tigers and bears (oh my!) out there, but it doesn't stop you from roasting up some s'mores on an open campfire, right? In the ocean, as on dry land, if you don't go looking for trouble, trouble will not go out of its way to find you, so swim happy.

Some of the best guides for these crystal-blue waters are the surfer dudes from Kona Boys, whose beach shack is right on the beach of Kamakahonu Bay, right by the Kona pier. It's a pretty awesome place to call your "office," with a shallow bay perfect for practicing kayaking or stand up paddlesurfing, with the backdrop of King Kamehameha's heiau right in the background. I have to give them a lot of credit because they got me upright and (sort of) paddling on a surfboard, out into the open sea. It's almost like standing on the water and you feel each wave rise and fall beneath your feet, while working every muscle to try and stay balanced and constantly paddling to stay on course. I feel like it's an activity akin to golf -- when you're really good at it, you feel at peace with the world and are overcome with a sort of zen feeling while doing it, but when you first learn it, it's a little daunting, overwhelming, and afterwards you'll discover muscles you didn't know you had before. That's not to say stand up paddlesurfing (SUP, as it's called) is unpleasant -- far from it, as it's an exhilarating experience that makes you acutely aware of how small you are in the world when it's just you on a surfboard and a little paddle in the middle of the ocean. Another activity that's really good to take advantage of is the guided (and self-paddled) outrigger canoe tours that the Kona Boys offer. They have a beautiful traditional wood canoe or wa'a that seats about six to eight people, which everyone does their part in providing the propulsion needed to send it along its merry way up and down the Kona coast. It's good to do this first thing in the morning, as the sun's heat isn't as intense, not as much activity out on the water yet, and the currents aren't as strong. Our guide for the wa'a tour was Kawika, who explained the history of the Kailua-Kona area, the traditional Hawai'ian people and the influence of the British settlers. When you're out on the water, it brings home that connection between people and nature that remains an indelible presence even in modern day times.

Dolphins showing off and gekko taking a break - just another day in paradise - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Even with the fast-paced excitement of a monster engine hurtling you through the waves on a zodiac raft, you still keep that connection with the ocean. Even if it's quick bumps against the waves between feeling like you're nearly airborne. You sort of turn your brain off, don't think about how fast you're going and just hang on for the ride while doing one of the zodiac tours by the aptly-named Captain Zodiac. They offer raft tours where you can stay above the water and watch whales, or they'll take small snorkel groups to Kealakeua Bay, the site of Captain Cook's arrival and invariably his final departure off the mortal coil on his final visit to Hawai'i; it's a protected bay of calm water that's full of reef sealife where you can snorkel for hours, just watching everything swim around you. They've been doing tours for almost twenty years, taking groups out to get an up-close and personal introduction to Kona's wild underwater wonderland. Unlike other tours where it's you and two hundred of your most random acquaintances, their captains take small groups of less than a dozen people, zipping everyone around on a military-grade zodiac, and they know all the choice spots to catch schools of pilot whales and show the local spinner dolphins a good time, providing a wake for them to surf on (so amazing, by the way). The captain we had was fantastic -- he was a fisherman himself, and he knew to follow the food chain, seeing where other fishermen were, which would attract other animals like whales. We were able to see several dolphins and an incredible family of pilot whales in their natural habitat, just swimming alongside our small little boat. Again, out on the open water, you're reminded how tiny you are, and that in Mama Nature's house, you show your respect or expect to get a righteous spanking. We minded our p's and q's and were rewarded with a beautiful afternoon snorkeling in Kealakeua Bay, seeing all the tropical fish swimming around in the calm bay water. You can usually see turtles, but there was only one sighted that day. I've snorkeled here before, and going for a second time, you're reminded that patience is a virtue, and while it's tempting to swim all over in the hopes of finding something interesting, sometimes you just have to float quietly and just see what passes you by. I apologize for not having photos of this experience, as I didn't have a waterproof camera, but sometimes the best things just need to be experienced, so if you find yourself in Kona, looking for a way to spend the day, definitely look up The Kona Boys and Captain Zodiac.

The only way to come off from the high of a day spent on the water is a tall frosty glass of... kava. No, not beer or an umbrella-topped fruity beverage. It's pau hana done local style, drinking a traditional Native Hawai'ian beverage that I won't say makes you drunk, but it does provide an oddly mellowing sensation. So what is kava? It's a drink that's been used as a natural relaxant for thousands of years by Pacific Islanders, an extract made from the root of a pepper plant. It's not fermented, so there's no alcohol in it. The natural flavor of kava is quite bitter and is often mixed with fruit juice or coconut water to help balance it out. People describe kava's effect as being pleasantly relaxing to almost a punchy, goofy drunk sensation. Are you technically drunk? Not in the legal sense. But I wouldn't recommend operating any forklifts anytime soon after having a cupful of the stuff. I'd heard about it plenty of times, but had never tried it before, so with a few travelmates, we sought out a kava place one night. Sort of tucked away between all the other shops and restaurants on Ali'i Drive is Kanaka Kava. It's a funky little kava and local food spot, sort of nestled further back from the street-facing storefronts, and if you're familiar with the area, you're within sight of the Outback Steakhouse, so let that be the "as the crow flies" guidepost. We all got a coconut shell cup of kava, mixed with fruit juice to sweeten the taste. The best way to describe it was, it numbed my face, but in an awesome way. Maybe it was the combined effects of a busy day on the water, but kava totally slowed my roll and was a pleasant way to come down from a busy afternoon, without the magically regrettable effects of my typical go-to, boozejuice. And maybe it was the kava talking, but those conga drums listed on the bulletin board sure sounded like an awesome idea.

Move over, Miller Time, it's time for kava and conga drums at Kanaka Kava - Photos by Wasabi Prime

So at long last, this brings my latest Hawai'ian adventure to a close. Picture a sunset. The sway of palm trees. Me passed out on too much kava and time spent in the sun. Fun times had by all, to be sure. It had been a while since I'd had a real adventure on the Big Island, so this was a long time in coming and it just made me love this place that much more. I look forward to my next visit, as there's always new adventures to take a bite out of. Mahalo and Aloha oi.

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  1. i miss tex's malasadas!!! All doughnuts are delish, but something about eating guava filled doughnuts with the scent of plumeria in the air is just so indulgent!

  2. I'm drooling over those malasadas (especially as bavarian creme donuts are my favs). I completely agree with you regarding food research - we must engage in some soon ;)

  3. My (Portuguese) Grandmother makes malasadas all the time! I remember when I first had one freshly made in Portugal, it was still warm and I fell in love. What an interesting variation to fill them with things, I bet it's really good!!

  4. I would live to try the Island Style pancake. Each place has a typical dessert that one has to taste. When I travelled to Argentina, I was staying in a buenos aires apartment near Miramar, a coastal city. Their typical sweet dish is the chocolate volcano. Amazing!

  5. wow the food looks great. i'd love to try a fruit malasada.


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