“EAT YOUR VEGETABLES!” WAS THE MANTRA THAT I MOST ABHORRED AS A CHILD. WITH NO PETS UNDER THE TABLE TO EMANCIPATE ME, I HAD LITTLE CHOICE BUT TO SIT AND FINISH EVERY VERDUROUS MORSEL REPLETE WITH PHENOLS, FLAVONOIDS AND EVERY OTHER ODIOUSLY ASTRINGENT COMPOUND. But that epiphany of a day arrived when my taste receptors reached maturity and the once cruciferous abomination finally became somewhat edible … all thanks to butter and ranch dressing.
Unlike the crudité party platter, whose popularity seems hypothetically hinged on the accompanying tub of creamy dip, inspired recipes devised by Hawai‘i’s chefs have undoubtedly exceeded the provincial standard of the plant-concealing, soy sauce-mayonnaise dressings. Some have actually earned critical acclaim, even among veggie-averse patrons, via thoughtful main dishes, sides and accents, while others intrigue diners’ culinary curiosities with the seemingly myriad, but less commonly anthologized, leafy greens sourced within the Islands.
One of the first chefs to heighten my cognizance of “exotic” ingredients was Chris Kajioka, who originally helmed the kitchen at Vintage Cave. His use of salsify—a long, thin root with a white flesh that bore a slight semblance to a turnip—intrigued me as I Googled to learn about the twig-like display encrusted with crispy quinoa. And although the Belgian-sourced ingredient was abandoned when Kajioka branched off (slight pun intended) with Anthony Rush to establish Senia, another unusual vegetable, the conical caraflex cabbage, stole the spotlight as it emerged to be one of the restaurant’s signature dishes. Grown by Hirabara Farms exclusively for Kajioka, what would normally be a mundane side slaw or garnish was transformed into an awe-inspiring entrée comprised of tender charred leaves dressed with shio-konbu, green goddess, butter- milk dressing and a dusting of moringa powder.
Another culinary ambassador that curated a few scarce produce from farms on the Island is chef Jeremy Shigekane, who recently took over ownership of Mavro. With the founding chef still collaborating in the kitchen, Shigekane started to infuse his concepts into the menu, including the recently inaugurated vegetarian incarnation of the grand degustation. He took celtuce—also known as stem lettuce, celery lettuce or asparagus lettuce—from Bear Claw Farm in Waimanalo, and shaved the ex- tended stalk of what resembled a lanky adolescent version of romaine lettuce. Also charring the leaves of this nutty and already smoky cultivar, Shigekane dressed the celtuce mixture with a light vinaigrette, balancing the richness of the garlic cauliflower purée on his lobster course.
Shigekane also shared that he was contemplating the use of chaya spinach—leaves from a perennial shrub that the Mayans regarded as a miraculous superfood because of its vitamin-rich qualities and purportedly healthful properties, among which include improved blood circulation, glucose metabolism, digestion, vision, memory and cholesterol levels. He suggested that the foliage of this “tree spinach,” braised similarly to taro leaves, possibly makes for a nice pairing with lamb.
Perhaps the most prolific use of exotic vegetables was evidenced in the cuisine by Brian Hirata, founder and chef of Na‘au, a series of pop-ups on the Big Island that aim to reconnect locals with their Hawai‘i roots. Hirata integrated “hidden ingredients” that he foraged in Hilo and neighboring areas, proving that the seemingly foreign ingredients were ironically hyper-local in nature. For example, while most at the table were familiar with ho‘i‘o (also referred to as pohole, pako, fiddlehead fern, or warabi), most did not initially realize its difference from the starchy young shoots of hapu‘u, another fern native to Hawai‘i, which was used to top a wild prawn fish cake wading in a delicate prawn broth. Then there was the wild sheep sorrel—tiny herbs found at high elevations—which brightened his wild Maui venison tartare with tinges of citrusy herbaceous-ness. Ki nehe (or Spanish needles), traditionally used for medicinal purposes, were blended as young shoots and leaves with their mild, spinach-like flavors into a sauce vert that accented a slow-cooked egg yolk cradled in cauliflower egg whites with garlic-creamed mallow. Even in his dessert, Hirata used ‘ihi, or wood sorrel, which resembles a clover with heart-shaped leaflets, to impart a pleas- ant lemony note into his Hamakua chèvre cheesecake with an ‘Ohelo berry compote.
Hawai‘i’s lush milieu is a true Arcadia for the offbeat—a playground invariably augmented by the boundless creativity of chefs and culinarians, who are changing the dining dynamics for everyone––and not just vegans and vegetarians. With Hawai‘i’s bounty encompassing a plethora of native flora, as well as an ever-escalating roster of foreign plant life spurred by chefs collaborating with farmers seeding new discoveries, there is enough verdant material to terrorize children for generations to come.