Eating Locally in Kauai

—by Naomi Jackson

This summer I took my interest in eating locally to Hawaii. On Kauai, Hawaii’s westernmost inhabited island, we celebrated our niece’s wedding, then turned our attention to Kauai’s cuisine. This included frequent stops at farmers’ markets, roadside stands, and two health-food stores that looked a lot like our co-op apart from the piles of unfamiliar fruit. Being a fruit fan, that’s where I started my exploration. (And stopped a week later, when my stomach rebelled.)

Bananas were everywhere, but they weren’t the Cavendish variety that we’re familiar with. Bananas are one of the “canoe plants” brought to Hawaii by ancient Polynesian settlers. Early Hawaiians developed around 70 varieties of bananas; we found two in the markets: Cuban and apple bananas.

Apple bananas, smaller than the Cavendish, are said to taste like apples, but I didn’t find that to be the case. They do have an excellent flavor, and, should the Cavendish succumb to disease (as is likely), I would happily switch to the sweet and tangy apple banana.

The larger, red-skinned Cuban bananas, on the other hand, I found to be rather dry and uninteresting. Perhaps I left them on the counter too long before eating them.

The Weird Fruit Award goes to the soursop. You may have encountered its juice, known by its Spanish name, guanabana, in a Latin-themed restaurant.

The size of a small melon, the soursop is green and bumpy on the outside and white inside, with a texture like a soft pineapple. The pulp is full of black seeds like a watermelon. It tastes somewhat like a cross between a coconut and a pineapple, and is said to be full of essential nutrients. Because this tropical fruit is highly perishable, you are unlikely to find it on the mainland. You’ll have to settle for guanabana juice.

Like the soursop, the guava is not native to Hawaii but is widely grown in tropical climates. As we toured an ancient Hawaiian village, our guide spotted a ripe guava on a tree and pulled a branch down so I could pick it. I’d never tried one before, in spite of its availability on the mainland. This one had a yellow skin and pink flesh dotted with small seeds. I’d expected to like it but after a few bites decided that guava is an acquired taste.

I was thrilled to find lychees at a farmers’ market—both the red-skinned that we sell seasonally at HPC and a smaller, yellow-skinned variety. Under the thick skin, both have a grape-like pulp surrounding an almond-sized seed. I was surprised at the difference in flavor. The red lychees have a grape/kiwi flavor, and the yellow was reminiscent of the guava.

The mountain apple is also a canoe plant. The fruit looks like a very skinny apple, is red like an apple, and the inside is white and crunchy
like an apple. This similarity was a set-up. I expected apple flavor when I bit into it, but it was more like the guava and the yellow lychees.

Pineapples originated in South America and were spread around the world by Spanish explorers, arriving in Hawaii in the 16th century.

We had a hard time finding a pineapple that wasn’t grown by Dole, and there's a reason for that. In the late 19th century, the U.S. government illegally overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy and approved as governor a man named Sanford B. Dole. A century later, the U.S. government apologized, but that was too late to undo the social and environmental damage done by wealthy owners of pineapple and sugar cane plantations, including Mr. Dole.

Most Hawaiian pineapples still carry the name "Dole," but one day we found a few small, organically grown ones in the nearby market. Think of the best pineapple you’ve ever eaten. Then imagine a better one. This one rated a 12 on the 1–10 scale. This makes two good reasons to buy only organically grown pineapple: ethics and flavor.

As we tried to eat locally, we learned a lot about efforts to restore native Hawaiian plants (most of which are endangered) and to recreate ancient Hawaiian lifeways. The pineapple symbolizes for me just how important it is to choose one’s food wisely, with both people and environment in mind.

We also learned how hard it is to eat locally, not just on Kauai, but around the world as a few large corporations, for the sake of profit and ease of shipping, ensure that all of us are eating just a few varieties of a limited number of plants, whether we're in Minnesota or the middle of the Pacific Ocean.


[Naomi Jackson works at HPC and believes everyone should have access to locally grown fruit.]