Friday, June 19, 2009

Oh Wow Laulau! It's Weird Vegetables: Hawaiian Tropics Edition

All right, produce people, listen up. Get ready for some summertime surf and turf veggie action as Weird Vegetables hangs loose and goes traveling. My little niece Zooey says "Aloha! Eat more vegetables. Weird ones! And weird fruit too." How can you say no to such a cute tyrant? Last week, about twenty members of my extended family gathered together near Waikiki Beach on the island of Oahu to celebrate my mom's 60th birthday.

Always in search of weird vegetables, I took the opportunity to snoop around one of Honolulu's best farmers' markets. Led by our fearless local guide, my friend Janice, who just opened a super cute and tasty Vietnamese restaurant there called Ha Long Noodle House (tagline: "Are you a phở-natic?"), my mom, my cousin Binh, and I went on a free-sample frenzy at the Kapiolani Community College or KCC Saturday Farmers' Market, while most other sweaty tourists continued up the road to hike the landmark Diamond Head crater. Whew! Take a breather after that last crowded sentence and then grab a salty mouthful of this:

Yum! That's Kahuku sea asparagus, delicately crunchy and rinsed until it retains the perfect amount of saltiness. This vegetable competes with the rutabaga for best aliases: pickleweed, glasswort, sea bean, sea pickle and marsh samphire. The ones here are grown in salt water ponds on Oahu's north shore by a company with the futuristically dystopian name Marine AgriFuture, LLC. They were also selling sea asparagus inari, the rice-stuffed tofu skins many know affectionately as "football" sushi.

Alongside the succulent sea asparagus was ogo, a crunchier reddish-brown seaweed used to make poke, that most delicious of ahi tuna salads (pronounced "po-keh," though I like saying "Pokey" like Gumby's little horse friend).

These Japanese ladies were very excited by the seaweed selection. Ogo can be hard to find in the States and was overharvested (overfished? overweeded?) for awhile before more sustainable aquaculture techniques were developed, according to this article. Here's a recipe for ahi poke and an interesting-looking one for sea asparagus ahi and tofu poke.

Now that you've had a taste of surf, let's go in search of turf...

Oops, that last one is out of our jurisdiction, maybe a job for Weird Meat.

But here we are with some hula corn, dressed in a husk skirt, butter, and sweet-salty-sour li hing powder (which I associate with the dried Asian plums or mui that I used to suck on absently while watching cartoons as a child):

And--oh wow, laulau! It's kalo! Mmm, ono and so pono!

That means: Oh my gosh! It's taro! Mmm, delicious and so right!

The "Oh Wow Laulau!!!" is also one of the signature offerings at the Taro Delight stand. Laulau is a Hawaiian dish usually made with pork and butterfish wrapped and steamed in luau, or taro leaves, but this version is made with salmon belly and taro root chunks. My human belly said it was too early in the morning for laulau, even this lighter kind, but I did try a flavorful bite of the taro poke that owner Tom Purdy and his be-lei'd companion were handing out:

I also dipped some chips into their taronaise and assorted creamed taro concoctions. Taro plays a starchy supporting role in Vietnamese and other tropical cuisines (I especially love che khoai mon, a Vietnamese dessert made with taro root, sticky rice and coconut milk, recipe here), but the Hawaiians claim the taro crown, with early Polynesians cultivating over 300 varieties for their large, flat leaves and hairy ovals of edible corm (but you can still call it by the less alarming "taro root").

A lover of all things taro, I feel a little guilty for never getting that excited about poi, the traditional Hawaiian dish of taro root mashed into a bland, goopy, lavender-hued mass that acts as a complement to salty meats and fish. But if you're ever in Honolulu, you should try some with the kalua pig, laulau, or lomi salmon at Ono Hawaiian Foods, a restaurant that makes some "broke da mouth" good food. More on kalo, the Hawaiian word for taro, here and here.

The beads of perspiration dotting your upper lip tell me you're getting a little fatigued walking around under this hot sun, so let's get some dessert and then scoot you under a palm tree in the sand.

Wait, moms has to stop for some fresh papaya to go along with her growing pineapple, lychee, mangosteen collection back at the condo.

And now I take a plastic knife, and carefully divide this delectable work of culinary art from Made in Hawaii Foods's Saturday Grandma. Behold the strawberry mochi, a sticky rice flour pocket of sweet red bean paste and a perfectly ripe strawberry from Kula Country Farms on Maui.

And try some of this one too:

The filling is Okinawa sweet potato (purple) and haupia (white), Hawaiian coconut pudding that has a consistency like Jell-O.

Wash it down with some fresh coconut water, hacked open by a nice man at the end of the Vietnamese bakery stand, Ba-Le. Meanwhile mom talks shop with the other Vietnamese ladies and buys a rosemary baguette and monkey bread even though we're leaving in two days.

Okay, now it's time to go play in the water.

Back at Nana's room, baby Alexa, Zooey's evil twin, says, "Forget that weird fresh stuff, gimme another Dorito! Mahalo!"

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