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The Tastes Of Hawaii, And Going Organic
by Fred Ferretti

In the mornings, early, the fishing boats, their hulls low in the water from the weight of their catch, east alongside the Fisherman's Wharf piers in Honolulu's Kewalo Basin. Awaiting them are the trucks of the United Fishing Agency, Ltd. which will carry their fish — tons of 'ahi, ono, moana, shutome, opaka-paka, onaga and aku, fish non-Hawaiians know respectively as yellowfin tuna, wahoo, red mullet, swordfish, pink snapper, red snapper, and skipjack tuna — just a few blocks away to a concrete-block building on Ahui Street, where they will be sold at auction to Hawaii's restaurants, sashimi parlors, hotels, and neighborhood markets.

It was during an Ahui Street fish auction one morning that we found Don Leong, a young man in a brightly patterned red shirt and rubber shoes who spends his mornings, and often his afternoons, as well, darting about the hosed-down floor of the auction house, buying fish for the kitchens of the Halekulani hotel. I had come to the auction with George Mavrothalassitis, the man from Marseilles who is to watch Don Leong pick through the tons of fish stacked high on wood pallets like so many silvery logs. The fish market was to be the first stop in a day, a splendid and fascinating day as it turned out, devoted to seeing and tasting various of the foods of Hawaii.

"The 'ahi and the ono are wonderful for sashimi," Don Leong said as he bent over pyramids of fish. "And the onaga are perfect. Buy," he suggested to George. Each tuna, wahoo, and the red snapper had a notch cut into its body just above its tail fin. Don reached two fingers into the cavity of a yellowfin tuna and scooped out a bit of fish. "Red. Firm. See? The more red, the more oil. Red is best for sashimi. If the color pink you cook it. Buy this one, George."

George nodded. "When I come to this market I feel as if I am in France," he told me. "In Provence, where the fish were so wonderful when I was a boy, where the sun is like this. I buy here two or three times a day. Don knows just what I need and what I like."

"No, I do not," I replied, and Peter Hewer looked to the ceiling of his dining room with the suffering eyes of one who knows he must once again undertake a bit of remedial education.

Later, along North King and Kekaulike streets, in Honolulu's historic Chinatown, Don and George walked me through the markets and counters, and I watched as they hefted clumps of salty, still wet seaweed and inspected tanks of live shrimp and the roasted ducks, and pigs dangling from hooks. Each of us ate a hot malasadas, a Portuguese hole-less doughnut favored as a breakfast pastry in Hawaii; then it was into George's car for a run to Sumida Farm Inc.

Sumida, an urban oddity, raises watercress, only watercress, on its ten acres. Its owner, Masaru Sumida, a stubborn man, continues to refuse, as he refused years ago, to sell his farmland to either of the two huge shopping centers that flank it. Fed by a natural underground spring, the deep green watercress grows continuously in running water and is harvested patch by patch on a thirty-five-day rotating basis. The spring bubbles up in a corner of the farm surrounded by water lilies, and white egrets pick among clumps for snails. Masaru's son, David, walked us along the concrete paths within the patches so that we could reach down, pull up, and taste the watercress. Its leaves and stems were intense and pungent, both sweet and bitter, quite unlike any that I had tasted. I told this to David, who grinned and said "It is our water."

Back in our car, we drove along the curving northern edges of Oahu. High mountains, covered with trees, slope downward to the beaches. Everywhere was green; there are fewer buildings here than along the beaches of Waikiki, and the land, the growth, the mountains , and the cobalt waters glittering in the sun induce the feeling that this is the Hawaii about which its chambers of commerce boast.

Our next stop was inland from a cove of this coast, at Hawaii Marine Enterprises, where on a sandy flatland behind a ridge of reed-tufted dunes Rick Spencer has created a seaweed, oyster, and clam farm. Deep and very cold ocean water is pumped into a network of huge oil drums cut in half lengthwise; forced air is circulated into the drums, and the sun shines directly into the water, circumstances that combine to produce tons of red, green, and brown ogo, Hawaii's seaweed. This ogo is an important food, for it is an ingredient, along with raw fish, sweet Maui onions, and scallions, in poki, a traditional island passion.

George makes his own version of poki, but he frequents the farm for its clams, Pacific oysters, and — one of its unexpected growths — "pourpier, which I use in salade Provençal." This is the fleshy herb purslane, its leaves like miniature oars, that Rick Spencer found growing among his tanks and thought was a weed until George identified it as a valued herb. Along with sorrel it is a prime ingredient in soupe bonne femme. Now Rick harvests it only for George.

The next of our tastes was fine, fat, and long freshwater prawns raised on another water farm called Kido Farms, Inc. Roy Kido has been raising these big prawns, each of which is at least an eighth of a pound, in fiberglass vats and in ponds set into twenty acres of a small, muddy valley of the north coast. Their ancestors had been brought as seed prawns from Malaysia to Hawaii more than a decade ago, Roy Kido told us, then asked, "Would you care to taste them?" Indeed.

He scooped a fistful from a tank, and George spread them in a single layer on a wood-burning grill. They cooked and browned almost immediately and were utterly delicious, pure, tasting of the water in which they lived, firm to the bite.

So good were they that they had almost taken the edge off our appetites by the time we stopped at a surfing beach called Malaekahana for a picnic of cold roasted chicken; cornichons in vinegar; breads from the Halekulani ovens; tiny sweet Hawaiian "apple bananas;" and bottles of cold white Hermitage.

Almost.

George's restaurant, Chef Mavro in Oahu, is a beacon of intelligent cookery, one that weds the foods of Hawaii to the cookery of Provence.

Trained in the L'Archestrate kitchen of Alain Senderens in Paris and by the brothers Troisgros in their Restaurant Troisgros in Roanne, George was chef-proprietor of Restaurant Mavro, his own small place in the hills behind his native Marseilles, before coming to Hawaii. He brought with him his years of work behind the stove as well as his skills and love of the fruits of the sea and the sun, producing dishes that, due to their depth and happy chemistry, their virtuosity and tastes, force comparisons with those of some of Hawaii's current chefs, who do nothing more than ape the excesses of California cuisine.

In fact France coexists well with Hawaii in his kitchen. He once cooked for me Moana, or red mullet, and served them with tapenade-topped croutons, and bone marrow that he had smoked over Hawaii's aromatic kiawe brushwood. There was a salad of broiled sea scallops surrounded by lightly blanched watercress from Sumida Farm, with fiddlehead ferns from the island of Hawaii and a puree of the eggplants he had had flown in from Molokai. His grilled shutome, or swordfish, was dressed with a light curry based on apples and Maui onions. Marvelous!

Hawaii — that island string of culinary exotica; of sugarcane and Kona coffee; of Maui onions and macadamia nuts; of papayas, mangoes, and the passion fruit Hawaiians call lilikoi. Yet, I have discovered one cannot lay claim to being a proper Hawaiian unless one recognizes the gastronomic primacy of Spam. The tinned oblong mix of chopped pork shoulder and ham trimmings (the "luncheon meat" that during World War II was often — with crushed pineapple adorning it and cloves stuck into it — our Sunday "baked ham") is the closest thing that exists to Hawaii's official state fast food.

Since those war days, Spam has lingered — and how — in Hawaii, whose citizens eat Spam and eggs for breakfast, Spam stuffed into turkey, Spam fried with diced tofu, Spam and fried rice, cubes of Spam in barbecue sauce served as hors d'oeuvres, Spam sandwiches of infinite variety. Mostly, however, Spam is to be found sliced and fried and served with boiled rice in Hawaii's unique version of the bento, the Japanese box lunch.

At every railroad station throughout Japan, bento are for sale; a quick lunch in a box that includes, usually, a piece of fish, beef, chicken, or perhaps slices of fish cake, always boiled sticky rice. In Hawaii the bento is more likely to be a "beach pack" with rice balls, ume (preserved Japanese apricots), and Spam omusubi. This last is a rectangular cake of boiled rice paired with a slice of Spam, either fried or cooked with soy sauce and sugar and wrapped together in thin sheets of nori, or dried seaweed.

The Spam omusubi is universal. There are even omusubi-making kits that allow one to press out cakes of boiled rice to precisely the dimensions of a slice of Spam. One of these was sent as a gift to me recently from a Spam addict who contended that the tinned meat mix has received a bum rap.

Occasionally I make Omusubi as a tactile exercise, fashioning my sandwichlike construction of rice and Spam and nori. Then I slice it and eat it, my American sushi, with cups of green tea, for atmosphere. I think, however, I'd rather have macadamia nuts.

Table For Two

"I'm going organic," I told my wife the other morning.

"There are mornings I feel the same way," she replied. "But once I have my tea it goes away. Here, sit, have tea."

"You're making fun of me again," I said. "You always make fun of me. Why do you do that? I don't want tea. Here I am, about to change my life as I know it and all you do is laugh. I'm serious. This is the year I am truly going organic. I made a resolution."

"Uh huh," my wife said.

"Uh huh what?" I said.

"Uh huh, you've made another resolution. Every New Year's you make resolutions. Last year you resolved to be a 'healthy eater, with organic overtones.' And you persuaded me to overstock the cupboard. Remember? And what did you do? That sunflower-flour pizza mix is still unopened, and so are those bags of mugwort mochi. Texas-Indian hybrid rice, that bio-dynamic coffee, your brown rice crackers, and your seitan wheat cutlets. That Tofu mayonnaise hasn't been opened either; nor has your jar of dried barley juice. And I had to put your wheatgrass sprout bagels in the freezer on top of your antique apples. All I heard for months was your talk about becoming biocatalytic, and there I was, watching you watch the soil in our herb pots to see if it was flocculating. Now you want me to believe you're serious about going organic. I say 'uh huh' and, further, I say 'bah'".

"Well, I . . . ."

"Remember how we were going to drink only sulfite-free wines from organic chateaux? That lasted until you read in the Very Important Paper that there is no such thing as a sulfite-free wine, only wines that are free of added sulfites. Then it was amazake, the drink made of brown rice, enzymes, and rice cultures that you said was going to taste better over your tofu as cream than carob. You never drank any. How about that potato tomato soup mix, made with what they say are organic potatoes as well as "tomato powder" and "butter powder'" that you asked me to get for you? Never ate any, remember? Don't you talk to me about organic when Washington can't even make up its mind about what is organic!"

"Will you please permit me to speak?" I interrupted. "You never let me speak. Last time what I resolved to do was think about going organic, and those foods were for ambiance. This time I am serious. First. I intend to devour all those pre-organic, semi-organic foods you mentioned. Then I am going to plant organic things, grow them organically, and protect them with ladybugs, lacewings, and predatory mites. Do you see what I mean?"

"You intend to put bugs in your garden?" my wife asked.

"They are not bugs, they are beneficial insects." I said. "Organically correct predators. And I want to get some rock dust for our garden. Between the insects and the rock dust, I bet I could raise some terrific gnarled tomatoes."

"Stop," my wife pleaded. "Stop. Please. If you stop, really stop, I'll cook you some egg noodles with yellow chives and pork."

"Will you?"

She nodded.

"I guess I can wait until next year to resolve to go organic," I said. "I will have matured by then."

"Uh huh." my wife said.

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