Category: Features




LEMONS ARE JUST BEGINNING to get the respect they deserve. In Hawai‘i, we’re fortunate enough to have a large number of varieties to grow, market and use for a massive number of culinary creations. There are almost 14 million tons grown worldwide, with India and Mexico as the largest producers. In Hawai‘i we grow and sell less than 100,000 pounds and import another 4 million pounds still. Pretty shameful considering how lemons go to waste in the state.

Most who study horticulture believe the lemon originated in northern India as a naturally occurring hybrid between sour orange and citron. The lemon made its way to Italy in 200 AD, then Iraq and Egypt by 700 AD. By the end of the 12th century it had spread all around the Mediterranean. In 1493, Columbus brought it to Hispaniola and from there it went with the Spanish to California in 1751. Don Francisco de Paula Marin first brought the lemon to Hawai‘i in 1813 with traders bringing other varieties coming in 1823.

Early territorial reports from 1904 to 1906 (including a USDA Citrus in Hawai‘i publication) listed Eureka and Lisbon varieties. These and other publications mention Villa Franca and Sicily, which I’ve yet to be able to identify in Hawai‘i. The rough Jambiri came as a rootstock in the 1920s and started to produce prolifically by 1934 when the grafts died off. Ponderosa, its seedling American Wonder, and a sweet lemon were all mentioned by 1934.

Often called “local lemon,” Rangpur and Kona are actually orange-colored limes. The Rangpur lime came to Hawai‘i as a rootstock but those grafts also died off. Over the next 175 years, the trees evolved so that Rangpur has a puffy orange skin and very thorny branches. An offshoot of the Rangpur, the Kona lime has a tight skin and very few thorns.

There is also a primitive subgenus of citrus called Papedas, some of which came to Hawai‘i as rootstocks and now produce here. Ichang papeda is often mistakenly called or sold as Japanese Yuzu. Yuzu, however, also fits into this subgenus as does Suidachi, Yuko, Kabosu, Khasi, Melanesian, Kalpi and the popular Kaffir lime.

Top L to R - Pink Variegated Lemon, and Yuzu Lemon, bottom - Ponderosa Lemons
Top L to R – Pink Variegated Lemon, and Yuzu Lemon, bottom – Ponderosa Lemons



Kalpi is arguably one of the most common lemons in Hawai‘i. A natural hybrid found in the Philippines, one could only presume that it came here with the immigrants. The name comes from the Bicol region of southern Luzon. These trees are found all over the state and very prolific. They are often confused with small Italian lemons that are very recent imports and the larger rough-skinned Jambiri lemon. Kalpi is sometimes called Malayan lemon.


This lemon was first found on a fruit-hunting trip by Frank N. Meyer, who was sent to China by the USDA’s David Fairchild. Of the more than 2,500 species Meyer introduced to the United States, this is the only one that bears his name. The Meyer lemon has dramatically increased in popularity over the past 20 years in part due to Alice Waters and Martha Stewart featuring them. They do very well in warmer climates like Hawai‘i where other lemons may struggle with the heat.

The improved Meyer lemon is a selection found in the 1950s that is resistant to tristeza virus. It was released in 1975 as an improved version. Ever-increasing in popularity, it is sometimes referred to as the Sweetheart citrus.


Called sweet lemons and, to a lesser extent, limes, this fruit is found in some areas of Hawai‘i. “Sweet” is somewhat of a misnomer as the fruit is generally insipid with only a very slight taste. A number of varieties were introduced from India, Brazil and Mexico but they have never achieved any commercial value. The fruit is not without fans and there are a few named cultivars.


This rough-skinned lemon, originally from northeast India, was commonly used as a rootstock for citrus coming to Hawai‘i. Those grafts died off and the plant became a popular backyard tree. Recent studies, using molecular markers, show that it is a cross between mandarin and citron. The tree is somewhat resistant to a host of pathogens and extremely resistant to leaf spot although sensitive to Phytopthora and waterlogged roots. It is tolerant of both cold and also does well in Hawai‘i, which is hotter than the average citrus climate. Its unclear if the fruit arrived in Hawai‘i with Marin in the early 1800s or later with the first Portuguese immigrants. The Spaniards are credited with bringing the fruit to Florida and the new World. There are a number of named cultivars; Estes, Milam, McKillop, Nelspruit 15 and Lockyer although it’s not known if these are in Hawai‘i. About 98% of the seeds planted are true to form and the tree is fast growing and early maturing. Some texts list the Volkamer or volckameriana lemon as being a type of Jambiri. Rangpur and Kona lime are also given the Jambiri name at times.


Ponderosa and its protégé American Wonder are among the most popular lemons grown in Hawai‘i. Elsewhere it’s considered an ornamental because of its thick foliage and very large “showy” fruit. It came from a seedling grown in 1887 by George Bowman in Hagerstown, Maryland. It appeared in many nursery catalogs in the early 1900s. Sometimes classed as a citron hybrid, ponderosa fruit is extremely large. It has been confused with pomelo at some of Hawai‘i’s farmers’ markets, although one taste makes it is obvious that it’s a lemon. There are some commercial plantings and the tree is often used as a rootstock for other lemons.


The first Eureka originated from seed in 1858 in Los Angeles and was propagated in 1877 by Thomas Garey, who called it Garey’s Eureka. Its popularity rapidly increased, in part due to the tree being virtually thornless. The University of California lists 14 types of Eureka lemons. Depending on the source, Hawai‘i seems to have a few of these: Old Line, Frost Nucellar, Allen-Newman and the Variegated Pink-Fleshed Eureka. The pink came from a regular Eureka prior to 1931 when budwood was distributed. Pink Lemonade Eureka has become very popular in Hawai‘i over the past 20 years.


Perhaps the most popular commercial lemon next to Eureka, its relevance in Hawai‘i has always been marginal as the trees are more tolerant of the cold and produce much better in cooler areas. The tree is most productive in California. Thick foliage better protects fruit from the sun. The thorns are considerable. The yield is about 25% greater than Eureka.

There is some disagreement as to the origin of Lisbon. What is known was that seeds were sent from Portugal to Australia in 1924. The name Lisbon is not used for the lemon in Portugal. It was listed in nursery catalogs as early as 1843. It was introduced to California in 1849 and again from Australia in 1874 and 1875. Although continuously imported to Hawai‘i, Eureka seems to be more popular. The University of California lists 12 types of Lisbons.

There are hundreds of other lemons around the world, which have not made their way to Hawai‘i. With citrus greening disease (HLB) in many locations around the world, it’s doubtful many of these will ever come to Hawai‘i. Lemons and lemon hybrids like Sicily, Femminello, Genova, Monachello, Perrine, Marrakech, Pear, Galgal, Karna, Sanbokan and Snow could be found in HLB-free areas or could be tissue-cultured and given a chance to thrive in Hawai‘i’s microclimates. Each of these unusual varieties represents a potential for niche marketing as fresh fruit or in value-added products for Hawai‘i’s agriculture entrepreneurs. [ eHi ]

Sliced Meyer Lemons
Sliced Meyer Lemons




FOR THE SURFRIDER FOUNDATION, the answer is “yes.” Case in point: Ocean Friendly Restaurants.


Following a small program launch by the San Diego Chapter, Surfrider’s Hawai‘i Chapter volunteers launched the Ocean Friendly Restaurants (OFR) program in the islands on Earth Day 2016. The goal was to find a new way to focus on legislative reform by helping to reduce the plastic footprint coming from restaurants, particularly take out containers, plastic bags and utensils. The OFR program recognized restaurants leading the way in environmental protection by operating without foam and plastic.

“Some politicians argued that banning styrofoam or single-use plastics would hurt businesses. Consumers vote with their wallets, so we wanted to work with businesses and support the ones who were doing the right thing,” said Stuart Coleman, Hawaiian Islands Manager for Surfrider Foundation.

Within nine months of its launch, volunteers had certified over 100 Ocean Friendly Restaurants across the state. Surfrider has also been instrumental in banning styrofoam on Maui and Hawai‘i Island.


The success of the OFR program in Hawai‘i helped the Surfrider Foundation launch the Ocean Friendly Restaurants program on a national level. Now, Hawai‘i is one of the top OFR states in the country, and there are more than 500 restaurants certified nationwide.

In 2017, Town Hospitality Group, led by Ed Kenney and Dave Caldiero, was awarded the Business of the Year by Surfrider Foundation – Oahu Chapter. All four of the company’s restaurants – Town, Kaimuki Superette, Mud Hen Water and Mahina & Sun’s – earned OFR’s Platinum certification and were among the first to join Surfrider’s OFR Program.

Kenney recently joined Jack Johnson in a promotional video for Surfrider highlighting Ocean Friendly Restaurants, lending their star power to the cause. Kenney is vocal about the plastic pollution epidemic and has lent testimony to support this issue through legislative action.

Several other OFRs—like The Nook, Koko Head Cafe, Mama T’s Umeke Market, Fete, Farm to Fork, and Tin Roof—have also supported plastic-free legislation.

The momentum doesn’t stop at the legislature. Earlier this year, Ocean Friendly Restaurants partnered with The Traveling Plate on a statewide fundraising promotion highlighting dishes from participating OFR restaurants.

The Mill House, Duke’s, Highway Inn, Moku Kitchen, and Pint & Jigger have all hosted Ocean Friendly Pau Hanas, offering special gatherings as a way to build community and celebrate Surfrider’s volunteers.

Outrigger Hotels & Resorts and Kahala Hotel & Resort have become ocean friendly hotels, where each restaurant’s outlets are OFR-certified.


Natalie Wohner, a University of Hawai‘i PhD student studying mechanical engineering and materials science, agreed to co-chair the Ocean Friendly Restaurants committee on Oahu last year. “The ocean gives me so much, so I wanted to find a way to give back to it and really make an impact,” she said. “Surfrider provides a channel for me to do that.”

Wohner has volunteered for Surfrider for the past three years. While she feels a sense of gratification and purpose, she also wishes there were more people to help lighten her load.

“People forget that we’re all volunteers in this very grassroots organization,” she says. “Right now, it’s primarily just me and Anny Barlow certifying all of the restaurants. We have done some great things, but would love to have more help.”

The neighbor islands have similar challenges. On Maui, Lorin Ifkovic serves as chair, and on Kauai, Ruta Jordans serves as chair. Both are actively looking for more volunteers to help identify Ocean Friendly Restaurants, then certify them. Hawai‘i Island currently does not have an active OFR chair for either Kona or Hilo.

“There’s always more work to do,” said Coleman. “But looking back ten years ago, working at Surfrider was a lonely place. Now, we have mainstream awareness of the plastic pollution epidemic and businesses and community members who want to help drive behavior change. Looking back at my time at Surfrider Foundation, Ocean Friendly Restaurants is probably the most impactful thing we’ve done.”


There are five criteria that all OFR participating restaurants must follow: they must only provide paper straws and to-go utensils upon request; they cannot distribute Styrofoam or plastic bags; they must follow proper recycling practices; and they must utilize reusable foodware for onsite dining.

In addition to these core commitments, the restaurant must also choose a minimum of two more criteria from the following list: refrain from the sale of beverages packaged in plastic bottles; offer discounts to customers who bring their own reusable cup/mug/bag, etc.; offer vegetarian or vegan menu options on a regular basis; serve seafood that is designated as “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” by Seafood Watch, or is otherwise certified as sustainable; implement water conservation and pollution mitigation efforts; and put energy efficient efforts in place.

A restaurant that meets all of the above criteria will be recognized as a Platinum Level Ocean Friendly Restaurant.

For more information on the Ocean Friendly Restaurants program and its coalition of partners, the full list of certified restaurants, and how to get certified, go to:



THE WAY WE PRODUCE, consume and discard food is no longer sustainable. That much is clear from the newly released UN climate change report which warns that we must rethink how we produce our food — and quickly — to avoid the most devastating impacts of global food production, including massive deforestation, staggering biodiversity loss and accelerating climate change.

While it’s not often recognized, the food industry is an enormous driver of climate change, and our current global food system is pushing our natural world to the breaking point. At the press conference releasing the Special Report on Climate Change and Land, report co-chair Eduardo Calvo Buendía stated that, “the food system as a whole – which includes food production and processing, transport, retail consumption, loss and waste – is currently responsible for up to a third of our global greenhouse gas emissions.”

In other words, while most of us have been focusing on the energy and transportation sectors in the climate change fight, we cannot ignore the role that our food production has on cutting emissions and curbing climate change. By addressing food waste and emissions from animal agriculture, we can start to tackle this problem. How do we do that?

Livestock production is a leading culprit – driving deforestation, degrading our water quality and increasing air pollution. In fact, animal agriculture has such an enormous impact on the environment that if every American reduced their meat consumption by just 10 percent – about 6 ounces per week – we would save approximately 7.8 trillion gallons of water. That’s more than all the water in Lake Champlain. We’d also save 49 billion pounds of carbon dioxide every year — the equivalent of planting 1 billion carbon-absorbing trees.

What’s more, to the injury from unsustainable food production, we add the insult of extraordinary levels of food waste: nearly one third of all food produced globally ends up in our garbage cans and then landfills. We are throwing away $1 trillion worth of food, or about half of Africa’s GDP, every single year. At our current rates, if food waste were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest carbon emitter after the U.S. and China.

To ensure global food security and sustainable food practices in an ever-growing world, we need to reexamine our food systems and take regional resources, such as land and water availability, as well as local economies and culture into account. To start, the United States and other developed countries must encourage food companies to produce more sustainable food, including more plant-based options, and educate consumers and retailers about healthy and sustainable diets. Leaders must create policies that ensure all communities and children have access to affordable fruits and vegetables. And we all can do our part to reduce food waste, whether it’s in our company cafeterias or our own refrigerators.

Technology also plays a part. Developed countries should support and incentivize emerging innovative technologies in plant-based foods, as well as carbon-neutral or low-carbon meat production.

Developing countries, on the other hand, face high levels of undernutrition, as well as limited access to healthy foods. Many nutrient-dense foods (such as fruits, vegetables and quality meats) are highly perishable, often making prices significantly higher than ultra-processed, nutrient-poor and calorie-dense foods. The high cost of nutrient-dense foods creates a significant barrier to healthy diets, as seen in urban Malawi and many other countries.

By promoting enhanced production of healthy and nutritious foods while also improving markets in low-income countries, we can lower prices and increase accessibility of healthy and sustainable diets. Politicians can also tackle systemic inequalities by redirecting agricultural subsidies to promote healthy foods, as well as investing in infrastructure like rural roads, electricity, storage and cooling chain.

Change must happen at every level if we want to build a better food system. International participation and resource-sharing can spread regional solutions across countries. And working for change at the ground level — among individuals, communities, local and federal governments and private entities — can help fight hunger and food inequality firsthand.

Yes, our food system is broken, but not irrevocably so. The challenges are enormous, but by understanding the problem and potential solutions, we can effect critical changes in the ways we produce, consume and dispose of food.

Kathleen Rogers is President of Earth Day Network. Dr. Shenggen Fan is Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and a Commissioner for the EAT – Lancet Commission.



SUGAR CANE HAS ENTERED A NEW ERA. The last harvest and closure of the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar (HC&S) plantation on Maui in December 2016 marked the final chapter in a bittersweet century-and-a half of large-scale sugar production throughout Hawai‘i. Arguably, no other crop has had the influence and impacts of the sugar trade, changing the economy, water systems, eco-systems, land ownership, ethnic mix and politics of Hawai‘i. 

But sugar cane, or (its Hawaiian name), has a history that pre-dates the plantation era by about a thousand years. As a “canoe crop,” brought by voyaging Polynesians, sugar cane was widely cultivated for hundreds of years, utilized in a variety of manners, and, “played a vital role in the culture and livelihood of Native Hawaiians,” according to ethnobotanist Dr. Noa Kekuewa Lincoln. 

As part of his extensive 2017 study, “Kō: An Ethnobotanical Guide to Hawaiian Sugarcane Varieties,” Lincoln opines that traditional varieties will be vital in developing restorative agricultural systems. “Contemporarily, there is a revived interest in indigenous crops and cropping systems,” states Lincoln on the UH-CTAHR webpage for sugar cane. “If the world is to embrace more resilient farming that utilizes fewer inputs and greater diversity, then heirloom varieties – such as – will be needed in developing new crops that will thrive in diversified, place-specific agricultural systems.”

The post-plantation era of sugar cane in Hawai‘i may indeed embrace cultivation of long-neglected varietals for uses both traditional and innovative. Thus, King Sugar, long the dominant economic and political force, may now assume a more subservient role in local agricultural production and cuisine. At the same time, fallow plantation lands afford prime opportunities to expand local food production of all sorts.


Human taste buds and palette identify six basic flavor groups: Salty; sweet; bitter; sour; umami and savory. Of the six, the widespread coveting of sweets and refined sugar has greatly influenced world trade and colonial expansion for centuries. 

Sugar cane originated in tropical Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. Research indicates it was cultivated in New Guinea several thousand years ago, and spread throughout Polynesia to India, where a crystallization process was developed, making it easier to transport. From there, it migrated with the Arabs, who brought the confection to Europe around 600 years ago. It was grown in the Canary Islands, and brought to the Americas by Christopher Columbus.

The voyages of Columbus and others did not, however, provide a short-cut to the lucrative Spice Trade with Asia. As colonization efforts spread from Europe to the Western hemisphere, the economic potential of growing sugar in tropical regions was realized and exploited. The ensuing Trade Triangle over the next few hundred years brought millions of African slaves to the Caribbean and the Americas, to work on Spanish, French, British, Dutch and Portuguese colonial plantations—all to satisfy the covetous consumption of processed sugar back in Europe.

Across the globe in the Pacific, early traders in the Sandwich Islands capitalized on the native sandalwood tree. Desired in China for making incense and fine furniture, and ultimately sanctioned by King Kamehameha, Hawaiian forests were rapidly plundered in a short period, from 1810-1830.

On the heels of the sandalwood trade collapse, Hawai‘i became a hub for another extractive trade: whaling. In the early and middle 19th century, whale oil was widely used as a source for lighting, heating, and fuel for industrial machinery. As many as 400 whaling ships sailed the Pacific, using Hawai‘i as a port-of-call for provisions. This fostered expansion of farming and ranching, and Hawai‘i also supplied potatoes and vegetables to the West Coast during the Gold Rush and Civil War.

With the discovery of petroleum oil in Pennsylvania in 1859, and the decline of the Pacific whale population, the whaling industry dwindled. In its place arose sugar cane cultivation, the first plantations established in the 1830s. The Civil War shut down sugar production and importation through the South, allowing Hawai‘i to compete in the California sugar market. The Board of Immigration was established in 1866, focused on recruiting plantation workers.

By 1870, dozens of small plantations operated throughout Hawai‘i, spurring waves of immigration from Japan, China, the Philippines, Portugal, Puerto Rico and elsewhere to supply cheap, often indentured labor. As the industry grew, five major plantation hubs gained control. Dubbed, the Big Five, the consolidation of power equated to ownership and management of ancillary businesses—banks, insurance, shipping, utilities—and great influence in the governance of Hawai‘i.

Plantation work was hard, whether in the fields or the wood-powered, steam engine-driven mills. Workers cleared fields, planted and harvested cane, chopped and hauled wood, developed flume systems that delivered water, tended horses and livestock, built plantation camp housing and stores, and performed a myriad of other tasks. Elaborate railroad systems were constructed on O‘ahu, Kaua’i, Maui and Hawai‘i islands to transport sugar from the fields to the mills and docks.

Both Hawai‘i and the mainland United States suffered an economic depression during the 1880s, and King David Kalakaua plunged the monarchy in debt to the sugar planters. By 1890, nearly three quarters of all land in Hawai‘i was owned by foreign investors, the majority of it planted in sugar. 

When Kalakaua’s sister, Liliuokalani took the throne in 1891 as queen, she sought to introduce a new constitution to regain power lost to the “Bayonet Constitution” of 1887, which increased authority of the government while reducing that of the monarchy. 

American-born plantation owners believed they could only secure their business interests by establishing a new government and aligning with U.S. interests. Ultimately they prevailed in deposing the Hawaiian monarchy, which Queen Liluokalani reluctantly acquiesced to in order to avoid bloodshed. The Queen believed the U.S. government would, upon learning the facts, reinstate sovereign power. But her pleas went unheeded and in 1898 Hawai‘i was annexed as a U.S. territory. 

In the early 20th century, sugar and pineapple were the main economic drivers, with rice coming in third among export crops. By 1934, 130,000 acres of sugar plantations yielded 900,000 tons of sugar, quadrupling the output of 30 years before. 

Through World War II, labor disputes, and the transition to statehood in 1959, sugar held its sway. Only with the rise of tourism did sugar begin to topple from atop the economic pyramid. With tourism came real estate interests and rapid urbanization. Hotel and building jobs competed for workers, and the sugar plantations, now with union representation, struggled to compete. Ultimately, plantations sold off their land holdings for profit, as world sugar prices dropped and tariffs rose. 

In the late 20th century plantations shut down, one by one, on O‘ahu, Maui and Hawai‘i islands. Hoping to double their diminishing profits, Kaua’i’s Gay & Robinson plantation launched a last gasp effort into sugar cane-based ethanol biofuel production, which proved unsuccessful. Large tracts of agricultural lands were leased to the seed corn industry, while others were used for urban expansion. HC&S, the final sugar operation to close, recently sold its 35,000+ acres of agricultural lands to Mahi Pono, a California-based entity which has vowed to increase diversified local food production. 


Dr. Noa Kekuewa Lincoln’s extensive research shows that Hawaiians used sugar or , for a variety of essential purposes. It was chewed for quick energy and served as a “famine food,” in times of scarcity. It sweetened bitter remedies in the la‘au lapa‘au traditional healing practice utilizing medicinal plants. As a salve, it was applied to wounds to promote healing. 

Raw cane was chewed to strengthen one’s teeth. Warmed wai kō (sugar water) was a remedy used to treat infants. was also part of religious ceremonies and offerings. The Manulele variety was associated in the practice of hana aloha, to attract the attention of a distant person to induce them to fall in love. 

Cane juice mixed with charred kukui nut shells was used to make ink for tattoos, perhaps because it helped heal the skin. Sugar cane leaves were woven into thatch for interior walls of the Hawaiian hale, or house.

Sugar cane blossoms were utilized in lei making, especially the lei haku, or head lei. The flowers were also used to line slopes for the holua (land sled) tracks, to make them slippery.

Dr. Lincoln’s ethno-botanical expertise is both scientific and anecdotal, and serves to inspire preservation of heirloom species to fill the void left in Hawaiian agriculture in the post-plantation era.


Modern nutritional science and medical studies link over-consumption of refined sugar to a myriad of maladies, from tooth decay to diabetes, obesity to heart disease. William Duffy’s 1975 book, “Sugar Blues,” likens sugar-rich diets to drug addiction, and explicates refined sugar’s numerous risks to human health.

Fresh cane juice, however, contains complex sugars that provide the body with sustained energy and don’t leave behind toxins. Studies show that fresh cane juice, high in minerals and vitamins, has a number of healthful properties. It may improve digestion, possesses laxative properties, can help lower harmful cholesterol, strengthen the immune system, and help regulate blood sugars due to its low glycemic index. And, it tastes good!


Farmer’s Market shoppers on O‘ahu may have run into freshly squeezed cane juice drinks, thanks to the passionate efforts of self-described, “Sugarista,” Sourivahn Sivongxay of Hawaiian Sugarcane LLC. “Vahn,” for short, was born in Laos, is a sugar cane farmer’s daughter and farmer herself, restaurateur, entrepreneur and U.S. citizen, after her family took refuge in America.

Customers are drawn to Vahn’s hand-crafted, brightly colored dragon fruit (pitaya) lemonade, virgin mojita mint, and mango ginger spice, all sweetened to taste with healthy, fresh cane juice. She offers ice teas to those seeking something less sweet, chili lime blends to appeal to spicy-loving customers, and Li Hing Mui to tempt local palettes.

“Never in my wild dream,” Vahn exclaims, did she expect, “to be making fruits, plants or serving juices or beverages for a business.” Her drinks have become so popular that she is looking to expand.

Kōloa Rum CEO Bob Gunter moved to Hawai‘i in the 1970s and worked for ten years on Lihue Plantation. There, he says, he became enamored with plantation life. After a stint with Kaua’i Electric, he moved to Maui, but was eventually lured back to Kaua’i to explore possibilities of designing a rum operation.

Ten years ago, Kōloa Rum launched, and now may be found in 27 states and four countries. “We use the phrase, ‘It all started here’,” says Gunter, noting that Kōloa was the site of the first successful sugar mill in Hawai‘i. They are in the process of moving their distillery into historic Kōloa Town, with a dozen acres to be planted in cane around the facility. By next year they will have exhausted the supply of nearly 200 tons of sugar purchased from HC&S before their closure in 2016.

In “Old Kunia Camp” in Central O‘ahu, KōHana Rum has revitalized the old Del Monte General Store. Using the “Rum Agricole,” method, they produce their unique rums from fresh cane juice of heirloom varietals, not from molasses.

“We wouldn’t be here without Dr. Noa Lincoln,” who helped them select specific varieties, said KōHana brand manager Kyle Reutner. Working in conjunction with UH-CTAHR, they took long-forgotten Hawaiian kō and have out-planted 38 acres, up from just a quarter-acre first grown in 2009.

“We equate the difference to when people first taste an heirloom tomato,” says Reutner. “When you have better starting material, you have a superior end product.” He adds that they strive for minimal processing, hand-harvest with machetes, and says their rum is comparable to an estate-produced fine wine. KōHana rums are found in Whole Foods, specialty liquor stores, and in fine restaurants and bars throughout Hawai‘i.

And thus, with a nod to Hawai‘i’s cultural past, the new era of sugar has just begun. [eHI]

NOTE: The author acknowledges the great contributions of Dr. Lincoln in compiling information used in this article. Authored by: Noa Kekuewa Lincoln.  Lincoln, N. (2017) Kō: An Ethnobotanical Guide to Hawaiian Sugarcane Varieties. Retrieved from: http://cms.ctahr.Hawai‘



MORE THAN JUST THE WHITE SHAKER on the dinner table – salt is a life force. Sure, it heightens the flavors in both savory and sweet dishes, preserves food, and can remedy a medley of health issues, but in addition, our bodies also need salt to live. In Hawai‘i, where it has been used for its cleansing, purifying and healing properties since ancient times, salt takes on an even greater significance. Native Hawaiian households each made their own salt and called it pa‘akai, meaning literally “to solidify the sea.” While table salt is made up of 97-99 percent sodium chloride, ultra-pure Hawaiian red salt is only 84 percent sodium chloride and 16 percent naturally occurring elements. These elements, about 80 in all, are what make Hawaiian salt magical. Potassium, magnesium and other electrolytes as well as iron oxide can contribute to blood pressure regulation, bone strengthening, increased immunity and energy.

Upon European contact, salt became a traded commodity and by the 19th century Hawai‘i was the main salt supplier for the entire Pacific Northwest. Salt production thrived well into the 1900s but became impacted by the industrialization of the islands. Concurrently, “Hawaiian salt” began to be harvested elsewhere and processed to resemble the appearance of true Hawaiian salts. Land used to make salt the old way was sold or lost; all that remains today are the Hanapepe Salt Flats on Kaua‘i.

Across from Salt Pond Beach Park on the arid west side of the island, what appear to be dozens of miniature frozen pools lay well-kept beneath the sun. These are the treasured salt beds, the rights to cultivate passed down from generation to generation amongst about 20 families. Tradition dictates that no one is allowed to farm anyone else’s patch and a new section cannot be started without permission. This salt cannot be bought or sold; it is given only as a gift or possibly traded. The process is done entirely by hand, a labor intensive and intricate operation involving wells fed by underground lava tubes, red mud, lots of stirring and rinsing and at last, three layers of salt. The top layer, the whitest, is used as a table salt. The middle layer is pink and is used for cooking. The bottom layer, red or brown, is used in blessings or given to special recipients.

This is low lying land. The season for salt begins when the waterlogged ground dries and the generations-old beds are once again exposed (usually from May to September, with some luck). Harvests are affected by a multitude of factors including tides, sun and ocean salt. For those highly skilled cultivators, it seems as though the seasons have grown shorter over the years and the harvests smaller. There have even been years where there is nothing to harvest at all.

The salt crop may be threatened by yet another factor: helicopters. The company that operates Maverick Helicopters, Smokey Mountain Helicopters Inc., is seeking permits that would allow them to expand on their existing facility nearby the salt ponds. This causes concerns about the chemical runoff, pollution and noise that the expansion could potentially result. So rare and precious, many in the community feel strongly that the last remaining traditional Hawaiian salt ponds should be protected.

For both those who cultivate it and those lucky enough to receive it, true Hawaiian salt is perhaps more precious now than ever.

Though not yet as prominent as its counterpart, there will soon be a grinder for Hawaiian pepper at the table too.

“We are certainly not the first to grow peppercorn in Hawai‘i, although we may be the first to test and track it as an economically viable production crop in Hawai‘i,” says Paul de Filippi of Mauka Vista Farm in Kula, Maui. The family-run operation places an emphasis on diversity and specialty crops; their harvests to date have included figs, dragon fruit, mangoes and a variety of citrus. Peppercorn is growing, too. Now that most of their plants are full-sized, they hope for a big flowering this year.

Native to India, the peppercorn plant flowers and fruits on long spikes, each spike containing up to 100 corns. About eight months after flowering, ripening begins and the spike is harvested. The peppercorns are separated from the stem, processed, and then dried into black pepper products. “With a local source, there is also the ability to provide the crop as a fresh product which opens the door to a variety of culinary possibilities,” says Paul.

The family has released an instructive video and travelled through the islands giving presentations on how to grow and propagate peppercorn plants, distributing plant material along the way. The plan is to gather growth data and eventually release a comprehensive cost of production model through the University of Hawai‘i’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.

Hawaiian peppercorn’s day has come.Native to India, the peppercorn plant flowers and fruits on long spikes, each spike containing up to 100 corns. About eight months after flowering, ripening begins and the spike is harvested. The peppercorns are separated from the stem, processed, and then dried into black pepper products. “With a local source, there is also the ability to provide the crop as a fresh product which opens the door to a variety of culinary possibilities,” says Paul. [eHI]



IN 2013, ALA‘AMOE KEOLANUI TRADED in the heels she wore in the Kamehameha Schools admissions office for rubber boots to work alongside her husband Troy and their partner Ed Olson at the1,000-acre OK Farms (short for Olson and Keolanui). Nearly a decade before, they’d planted baby spice trees along a dirt path on their land bordering the Wailuku River, just to see how they’d grow. Fifty clove, allspice, curry, nutmeg and Ceylon cinnamon trees lined “Spice Road,” and every one of them flourished. As Spice Road became Ala’amoe’s passion project, the pull to make something happen with the yields grew along with her beloved trees. “I said [to my husband], we need to be doing more than just showing them off to the guests; we should be processing the spices into food.” 

Now Ala‘amoe and her family do all the harvesting and much of the processing by hand. Picking clove buds one-by-one to sell whole may be a fairly straightforward process, but cinnamon processing is a bit trickier. After Troy cuts down the branches with a chainsaw, Ala‘amoe uses a pressure washer to remove the moss and lichen. For dried sticks, she cuts the bark into pieces, leaving the outer bark on, and sets them out to dry. To make ground cinnamon, she pats the branch dry and “goes at it with a hammer” to detach the outer bark from the inner wood, since the inner wood has no medicinal properties. Then she uses a knife to shave the cinnamon off the bark and dries the shavings in thin strips. In the final step, a commercial grinder turns the shavings into a fine powder. 

Today, Spice Road is a highlight of OK Farm’s walking tour. In addition to exploring the verdant coffee, macadamia nut, cacao, heart of palm, lychee and longan trees on the farm, guests are treated to a multi-sensory spice experience. Ala‘amoe invites them to smell, touch and taste the leaves and guess which spices are which. Her mission is to show people how organic spices create new dimensions of flavor in food and heal the body in a variety of ways. She shares that clove is a natural pain reliever, known to help heal cuts and burns, and can also be used as a natural insect repellent. Allspice is an anti-bacterial and antifungal plant with powerful aromatherapy applications. Ceylon cinnamon, she says, is rich in antioxidants and a terrific immune booster.

OK Farms also sells a sixth spice—the lesser-known mace, which Ala‘amoe describes as the “bright red alien webbing” of the nutmeg seed with a flavor reminiscent of cinnamon and pepper. Among other uses, she fancies mace in chocolate chip cookies, granola and Indian dishes. “We sell it in shells, and it’s really easy to open at home,” she says. “You just put your body weight onto the shell and crack it, then grab that little ball of nutmeg in the center. Use a handheld grater to sprinkle it in your dishes, and store it in a sealed jar in your spice cabinet.” 


Two other farms on the Big Island are currently growing and processing spices—Wailea Agricultural Group on the Hāmākua Coast and Adaptations, a local CSA farm in Kealakekua—though Spice Road remains distinctive in its tour experience and diverse product mix. In 2015, Ala‘amoe started turning her spices into “healing mists,” fragrant sprays that combine essential oils and healing water extracted through a slow distillation process using ice water and steam heat. Good for topical and internal applications, the healing mists can be used as a spritz for the face and body, or for a health boost in foods and beverages.

Since adding the spice tour, Ala‘amoe and crew have enjoyed strong support from surrounding communities. “People are amazed at how the spices look in their true, fresh form,” she says. In addition to buying the spices on site or online, locals can taste OK Farm’s homegrown cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice in baked goods from Sundog Bread in Kona, or sample their curated curry while dining at Kamana Kitchen, an Indian restaurant in Hilo. 

At the end of the day, Ala‘amoe hopes her passion to grow organic spreads beyond the farm, along with the spices and knowledge she shares. “Why rely on the mainland when we can grow pretty much anything here?” she says. “The excitement to feed our own community starts from within—try growing something small at home, get the kids involved and see what happens!”

Clove is usually a summer crop, nutmeg is in season during the spring/summer and end of fall, and cinnamon and curry are available year-round. [eHI]



Of course, it is really who is gathered around the table that matters most, but the added element of a well-designed (or improvised!) table setting can help set the scene. An aesthetically pleasing table setting will start to ignite excitement before the food is even served.

With the holiday and birthday season knocking at our door, we invited a treasured friend, Melissa Newirth of Cloth and Goods, to guide us in the art of table setting. Inspired by Japanese culture and modern style, Melissa shows how the use of just a few items can create an easy elegance that your guests will appreciate.

Items on the table don’t need to match or have a color theme. If you love the item- if it catches your eye or sparks your imagination – it could be just the thing to add to your next celebratory spread. May the following pages inspire you to shop, gather, forage and even borrow items to add to your table setting at an upcoming weeknight dinner or holiday celebration. [eHI]




KAHANU GARDEN AND PRESERVE, in Hāna, Maui, is home to Pi‘ilanihale Heiau, a National Historic Landmark and the single largest archaeological structure in the Hawaiian Islands. Plant collections at this powerful Hawaiian place are largely those of ethnobotanical origin; in other words, plants that reflect the agricultural customs, lore, and uses within a culture. Most of the ethnobotanical plants at Kahanu Garden are Pacific Island and Hawaiian heritage plants. 

Prominent among them is Kahanu Garden’s mai‘a (banana) collection, which represents varieties bred from plants that were painstakingly transported across the Pacific. The collection includes many rare varieties that are valued as food, building materials, medicine, and for use in ceremonies such as the annual welcoming of makahiki, which recognizes the rising of the Makali‘i (Pleiades) into the heavens. 

Prior to the 1778 arrival of Westerners in Hawai‘i, a wide variety of Polynesian-introduced “canoe plants” including bananas were planted in some of the most remote, and idyllic locations throughout the islands. These plantings were intended to provide food for travelers on long journeys, or even as sacred gardens reserved for a special purpose such as in times of political instability when one had to flee home for solitude in the forest. These bananas also were reserved for use as a kind of offering presented to ali‘i (ruling chief ) or as a highly regarded gift. 

Unfortunately, since that time, many of these remote indigenous crop gardens have been overgrown by invasive species. With their disappearance come the loss of unique biological material and the stories of their origin. Those losses are akin to removing pieces of the puzzle of Hawai‘i’s early history. 

In recognition of the threat of losing indigenous crop diversity, NTBG recently adopted a strategic goal to collect and curate all extant cultivars of Hawaiian canoe plants. The number of those early varieties is a fraction of what it once was, and research to verify each is ongoing. The current status of many of these rare varieties is debated, and requires much more than simply placing a few new plants in the garden. 

Meanwhile, for all the indigenous crop varieties that still exist, NTBG serves as a safe haven where they can be preserved and shared for future generations. The fact that most of East Maui is still free of the Banana Bunchy Top Virus (BBTV) is an important reason that Kahanu is a safe haven for these Hawaiian banana cultivars. 

Red dwarf or ‘Cuban red’ – Photo by Mike Opgenorth


Walking through Kahanu Garden’s banana collection is a feast for the senses. Standing in rows, vigorous banana plants tower over a mixture of kalo (taro), ‘awa (kava), and wauke (paper mulberry). Growing in multi-layered crop plantings alongside the bananas, the plants recreate a landscape of Hawai‘i’s ancestors where heavy bunches of fruit cascade from above in a multitudinous display of colors, shapes, and sizes. 

Consider ‘Pōpō‘ulu Huamoa,’ the variety that first greets you with its enormous sausage-shaped fruits. Beside it stands ‘Iholena ‘Ūpehupehu’ with deep salmon-purple leaves. Then, perhaps the biggest showstopper of all, a rare ‘Manini,’ the only traditional Hawaiian banana with all variegated leaves and fruit. 

Each of these varieties is unique and reveals the diversity of Hawaiian bananas while underscoring the importance of NTBG’s collections. Bananas belong to the group of plants known as Zingiberales (gingers, heliconias, and related families), and NTBG is an official conservation center for the Heliconia Society International (HSI), which strives to conserve documented living collections of these plants. 

With multiple locations in Hawai‘i, different NTBG gardens will be tasked with piloting different collections. Limahuli Garden on Kaua‘i’s North Shore preserves the main collections of kalo, while McBryde Garden is home to the ‘uala (sweet potato) collection, and Kahanu Garden is home to collections of mai‘a (bananas) and ‘ulu (breadfruit). 

By protecting all extant cultivars of canoe plants within our gardens, NTBG continues to grow as an invaluable resource for researchers, cultural practitioners, and as a place to safeguard Hawai‘i’s ethnobotanical and cultural heritage. As demonstrated by NTBG’s Breadfruit Institute and the collection at Kahanu Garden, NTBG plays a vital role in advancing solutions to global hunger.

Page 52: White Variegated ‘Ae Ae’. Photo by edible Hawaiian Islands


Today bananas are the most widely consumed tropical fruit in the world and, as a result, don’t elicit the same sense of wonder that they did when first introduced to the United States at the World’s Fair in Philadelphia in 1876. Yet, as commonplace as bananas have become, it’s easy to forget it wasn’t always so. What is often overlooked — call it a “banana blindspot” — is how many varieties still exist and why they need protection.

Most commercially grown bananas are of the Cavendish group — varieties like Williams, Dwarf Chinese, and even Hawai‘i’s local favorite, the ‘Hawaiian Apple.’ The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates roughly 47 percent of global production is of the Cavendish group with more than 50 billion tons of bananas produced globally each year. In the United States and the European markets, Cavendish bananas virtually dominate the entire market.

So what is wrong with this picture? Imagine a single plant species represented by just one variety as the only thing growing for hundreds of miles. This type of agricultural system, driven by our demand to produce economies of scale, leaves little opportunity for diverse habitats and ecosystems to thrive. 

With genetic uniformity in such large plantations, one disease can spread like a hot spark in dry tinder, completely destroying entire farms in one fatal swoop. To cite one example, a new Fusarium wilt strain called TR4 is currently an enormous threat to Cavendish banana production as it quickly spreads throughout the world. 

When existing commercial varieties do not exhibit the resiliency to combat these types of new diseases, it is important that other banana varieties are available to preserve irreplaceable genetic diversity that can help feed the world.

How can we counter the negative impacts of large plantation agricultural system failures, the loss of major food crops, and the displacement of ecosystems? One answer can be found in Hawai‘i’s kūpuna (elders) who share an important sentiment — nānā i ke kumu (look to the source) — in addressing today’s complex problems. When considering how to preserve the irreplaceable diversity of Hawaiian canoe plants, in this case, bananas, NTBG will continue to look to the source as we document, collect, and protect the banana varieties that are an invaluable part of Hawai‘i’s cultural and botanical heritage. [eHI]

This article was originally published in the Bulletin of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, a not-for-profit, non-governmental institution. The mission of the National Tropical Botanical Garden is to enrich life through discovery, scientific research, conservation, and education by perpetuating the survival of plants, ecosystems, and cultural knowledge of tropical regions. 

Mai‘a hāpai or “pregnant banana” – Photo by Mike Opgenorth



LETHA THOMAS, owner of Monkeypod Jam on Kaua‘i had been trying to get meetings with O‘ahu buyers for years. Then in January 2018 her company was selected to be in Mana Up, a Hawai‘i-based business accelerator program. 

“I was able to get in front of buyers I had been trying to get a meeting with for years,” says Aletha. “Mana Up has the connections I needed. We’re getting to the point where we think we’ll double our sales [by this time next year] and part of that is due to the connections and education we learned from Mana Up.” 

“You go into it wanting more sales, but it’s also about getting more organized and making sure you are more strategic in your decisions for the future,” adds Kimo Tuyay, co-owner of Maui Nui Venison, which makes venison jerky from invasive Axis deer humanely harvested on Maui. 

These days small business owners like Aletha and Kimo can use all the help they can get when it comes to launching and scaling a business in the aloha state. Last year Hawaii ranked last nationwide for starting a business, according to a 2018 WalletHub study. Local businesses creating agricultural related products, which rely on fishing, ranching, and growing produce, face even greater challenges because their products are subject to the whims of Mother Nature and other external factors. 

Thus, business accelerator programs, typically known for helping tech companies, are a godsend for businesses developing locally made products. 

Launched in 2017, Mana Up was created with the ambitious goal of helping to create Hawai‘i’s next 100 product companies earning more than $10 million in revenue—all based in Hawaii. Mana Up does this through a 12-week accelerator program geared specifically for Hawaii-based companies by helping businesses with marketing, distribution, branding, scaling, and much more. 

Cofounders Meli James and Brittany Heyd both have extensive backgrounds in the venture capital world and bring substantial, high-level contacts and partnerships to the program. Prior to launching Mana Up, Brittany, who is a lawyer, worked in the Obama White House on public policy and was managing director of 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based global venture capital fund. 

Meli previously served as the head of new ventures at Sultan Ventures and program manager of XLR8UH, a nationally recognized startup accelerator run by the University of Hawai‘i. In addition to managing Mana Up, Meli serves as the president of the Hawai‘i Venture Capital Association. 

According to Meli, the accelerator program helps Hawai‘i companies become global companies, while at the same time bringing to the world what really makes Hawai‘i special. 

Companies that apply to Mana Up must meet certain requirements, such as having a minimum of $100,000 in annual revenue, plans to scale beyond Hawai‘i, having a Hawai‘i-based founder and company, and a deep connection to the aloha state. 


Businesses from a range of industries, including apparel, jewelry, packaged food, alcohol, health and beauty, and more can apply to the Mana Up program. Cohorts are typically held twice a year and competition can be fierce. Of the 85 companies that applied to the first cohort held in January 2018, only 10 were chosen. 

When it comes to selecting finalists for the cohort, Meli says the Mana Up team “looks at what the company is sourcing and if they are doing it sustainably.” Equally important she says, Mana Up looks at a company’s story and connection to the islands. “Are they sharing that narrative with both visitors and residents of Hawai‘i who can learn something new?”

Of the 31 companies that have participated in the three cohorts to date, 13 are food related businesses sourcing locally farmed or ranched food in their products. Ag-based companies in the cohorts include Manele Spice company, which sources Hawaiian salt from Moloka‘i, Kōhana Rum and Hawaiian Rainbow Bees, both based on O‘ahu, as well as Hawaiian Vanilla Company and Big Island Coffee Roasters, both on Hawai‘i Island. 

“They are pretty much giving you all the information you need to increase your sales from branding to advertising to online sales platforms to physical meetings with big buyers in the state of Hawai‘i,” says Dawn Kaneali’i-Kleinfelder, owner of Liko Lehua Gourmet Butters and Café. “What you do with that information is up to you.” 

Those entrepreneurs fortunate enough to be selected for Mana Up cohorts are maximizing the opportunities the program provides. 

“Manoa Chocolate has taken on a new merchandising opportunity with DFS Galleria with video and imagery instead of just being on the shelf,” says Meli, adding that more than 17,000 shoppers visit DFS’ flagship Waikīkī store daily where Manoa Chocolate has their new enhanced display. “Voyaging Foods, [from cohort 1], are now on the menu at the Kahala with their gluten free pancakes,” says Meli.

Through a partnership with Mana Up and Hawaiian Airlines, products from other past cohort participants like Big Island Coffee Roasters and Kunoa Cattle are now for sale on the Pau Hana food carts on Hawaiian Airlines flights. That partnership also enables some Mana Up companies to be featured in in-flight videos. Kunoa Cattle is featured in a short video on the Hawaiian Airlines in flight entertainment channel, giving millions of Hawaii visitors a glimpse into a day in the life on the Kaua‘i ranch. 

“With our partnership with Hawaiian Airlines we’ve been able to get these videos on the flights, which is great exposure for the companies,” says Meli.

“We could not have gotten that kind of awareness on our own,” adds Kunoa Ranch co-founder Bobby Farias. Kunoa Cattle has 4,000 acres of ranch land on Kaua‘i and O‘ahu, as well as the largest USDA-approved butchery for beef and pork on O‘ahu. 

Being in Mana Up helped the ranch do more than gain exposure. Before participating in the cohort, Bobby says there was a misalignment between what he thought customers wanted and what products their target market actually wants. “Mana Up helped us with that.”

“Whether you are selling pies or steaks or rubber slippers, business owners are consumed with business problems, they don’t have the bandwidth to deal with branding awareness. 

“I’m a rancher. My business is producing quality local beef in a sustainable way. Mana Up is forward focused on brand awareness. Connecting with them allows me to focus on what I do best.” 

For other businesses involved in Mana Up, it’s not just about marketing, but also helping to scale their manufacturing so their business can grow. 

Sheldon Cho says his Kona-based company Kaimana Jerky, which makes ahi tuna jerky, wants to do national distribution but faces challenges. 

“Working with Mana Up we get to work through our staffing and manufacturing issues,” he explains. “They help us line up all our manufacturing processes so that our products have the highest level of food safety and can be sold nationally and internationally.” 

Then there is the intangible benefit of growing your business in Hawaii. Sheldon’s father first started making fish jerky more than 20 years ago in Kona. Now Sheldon is raising his kids in the same community where he grew up. 

“I enjoy entrepreneurship and building a business,” he says, “but I also enjoy surfing and living in Hawai‘i and enjoying the beautiful place we live in. I love what Brittany and Meli are doing to help Hawai‘i have a more sustainable economy and helping local businesses survive here and thrive.” [eHI]




AKING A HEAP OF RAW INGREDIENTS and transforming them with fire and spice into a creation all your own can make you feel alive, daring and powerful. A few of Hawai‘i’s kitchen magicians extoll the virtues of going “off-recipe.” 

A clean plate and a request for seconds — these are the hallmarks of a win at the dinner table. And when you’ve invited guests to dine, hearing the words, “I simply must have this recipe!” is music to a home cook’s ears. But chances are, there’s much more going on behind the scenes than dutiful allegiance to a set of instructions. 

While recipes can be super useful when you’re aiming for predictability, what’s life without a little spontaneity? In food writer Philip Dundas’ book Cooking Without Recipes, he promises that risk-taking yields great rewards, challenging readers to venture beyond the shackles of scripts and see their kitchen as a playground with great potential. While there’s a certain sense of ease and security that comes with following recipes, relying on them too much can mean missed opportunities to apply your cumulative cooking skills in a creative way. For the home cooks we interviewed, the concoctions that pop out of their oven (or skillet, or crock pot) are usually one part imitation, two parts improvisation. 


O‘ahu’s Dabney Gough rarely follows a recipe on the nights she makes dinner for herself and her husband, usually in the Instant Pot, the plug-in rapid pressure cooker that’s gained a cult following for its convenience factor. Soups dominate her dinner table, she says, since, “They’re super healthy, inexpensive and there’s room for infinite creativity.” 

Dabney’s ideas for soups and other inventive dishes usually come from taking an ingredients-first approach. “I have a minimalist lifestyle, so I don’t like to have too many ingredients on hand,” she says. “Maybe something catches my eye at the farmer’s market, or I’ll just see what I have at home and go from there.” 

A self-proclaimed rule follower, Dabney’s culinary school background helped her to absorb the basics of cooking enough to improvise, but she still relies on the expertise of others when attempting new types of dishes. “If I’m doing a cuisine I’m not familiar with, I’ll stick to the recipe the first time just to get a feel for the ratios of spices,” she says. 

Recently she went on an Indian-food-in-the-Instant-Pot kick, inspired by a Facebook group: “It was my first time doing something like this, so I found a recipe for lemon rice with turmeric, curry leaves and cashews and it came out great.” Instant Pot Lemon Rice:


Conscious of the toll meat production takes on the environment, Alethea Lai enjoys thinking up new vegetarian dishes for her partner and son to serve at their Puako, Big Island dinner table. 

“When I have a lot of veggies I have to go through, I’ll make a super veggie sauce using fresh tomatoes from Kawamata Farms,” she says. “It becomes harder to make food taste good when you’re limited to vegetables, so I’m working with more spices now. We like a lot more garlic and ginger than most people.” 

Though she tends to go by the book when trying something new, “I never follow recipes to a T,” Alethea insists. And while she often swaps ingredients to make her meals more local or customizes the spiciness to fit her family’s tastes, she doesn’t make a habit of skipping steps written into recipes, “… since that’s where you really build your flavor structure,” she says. 

On Taco Tuesdays, Alethea likes to hand-make the corn tortillas, letting texture be her guide: “Once you know what the dough should feel like when you roll it out, you don’t forget that,” she says. For a recent dinner-and-a-movie night with the family, she looked up the Quail in Rose Petal Sauce recipe made famous in the film Like Water for Chocolate and added some fun tweaks: “I substituted the chestnuts for macadamia nuts, and the prickly pear fruit purée for local ‘ohelo berry jam. I also made my own stock from the bones of local organic chickens and sourced the roses from an organic garden in Waimea.” Quail in Rose Petal Sauce:


Ha‘ikū, Maui home cook Barry Frankel had a grand old time during the 12 intense weeks he spent at a California culinary academy in his late 20s, where he felt instantly at home in the commercial kitchen. The experience helped him acquire the techniques and confidence to be able to “wing it” in his daily meal prep today, and when he’s entertaining family and friends.

“I’ll typically look at three or four recipes and then combine them or use my own knowledge to figure out what works,” Barry says, often gravitating to meals that fit with the weather patterns. “My new best friend is the cast iron skillet. I’ve been cooking up a lot of comfort foods during the colder nights — beef stew, jambalaya, sauteéd fish with curry sauce — but as we move into summer, I’ll do much more barbequing. ” He’s also a fan of mixing up his own dry rubs to try out on meat and fish after friends gift him with various exotic spices they find while traveling. 

A big part of Barry’s cooking game is the clever use of leftovers. “I took some leftover chicken soup and dumped it in my cast iron pan and threw an egg on it, scooped it out and set it onto a tortilla with some cilantro and avocado,” he says. “It was actually pretty close to this time-honored Middle Eastern dish called shakshuka. Now it’s one of my go-to meals.” 

His advice for successful improvisation? “We have this natural sensibility to eat foods that are in season at the moment,” he says. “If you combine that with what’s available locally, you’re going to have better results.” Shakshuka:


Yes, recipes are essential, especially when you’re learning the ins and outs of a new dish or testing out an unfamiliar type of cuisine. But if you’ve got visions of whipping up edible masterpieces out of thin air, you might want to invest a little time and effort into reviewing some fundamental cooking truths first. After all, legendary painter Jackson Pollock mindfully studied the principles of representational art so he could go on to literally paint outside the lines and invent a new style known as abstract expression. 

If you’re more of a rule-follower by nature than a free spirit, not to worry. Becoming a better off-the-cuff cook starts with observing how heat affects food — not just learning the difference, say, between baking, simmering and sautéeing, but actually discerning how these cooking styles alter both physical structure and taste. For instance, pan-roasting and grilling are both popular “dry-heat” methods of cooking meat. But since the direct flame of a gas or charcoal grill tends to zap the flavorful fats rather quickly, roasting is often preferable for larger cuts. 

Another step on the journey to freestyle cooking success is understanding the ways in which various ingredients combine to form new flavor profiles — like how garlic and rosemary complement each other nicely, or how adding an acidic ingredient such as vinegar or citrus can help bring something bland to life. 


Before you take off the training wheels, pay attention to the ratios and proportions that work in the recipes you’re making. Then, instead of pulling out your measuring spoons, remember that a tablespoon is about the size of an ice cube and see if you can eyeball it. If a recipe calls for one-fourth of a cup of something, picture a large egg. Estimating measurements can be empowering and help guide you toward inventing dishes with a balanced flavor-profile. (A quick Google search can provide you with a list of visualizations.)

In Season 3 of Netflix’s makeover show Queer Eye, resident food expert Antoni gave viewers a handy “3-2-1 ratio” to nail a pie crust from scratch — three parts flour, two parts fat and one part liquid. Once you internalize rough guidelines like this, it’ll be a cinch to adjust ingredient amounts based on your family’s preferences. 

You can also use your senses and intuition to guide you — evaluating smell, texture, and taste as you go along for results no recipe can deliver. Finally, our panelists offered the advice that adding ingredients gradually, frequently checking for doneness to avoiding overcooking, and “seasoning to taste” are all good anchor practices for creative home cooks. 


Ad libbing a dish is not unlike composing a symphony, with ingredients, temperature and timing as your instruments. As you embark upon adventures in “cooking outside the lines,” remember the words of fantasy writer Erin Morgenstern: “You don’t have to be a chef or even a particularly good cook to experience proper kitchen alchemy: the moment when ingredients combine to form something more delectable than the sum of their parts. Fancy ingredients or recipes not required; simple, made-up things are usually even better.” [eHI]

What’s your cooking style — recipe-follower or rule-breaker? Insightful responses from our recent Facebook poll:

Joanie: I wing it but didn’t in the beginning. I am a super-taster, so I can usually adjust by tasting it!

Linda: I like trying new recipes that look good but I don’t have the confidence to just throw things together. I like having a format that has proportions that have already been tested. 

Julia: I wing it 90% of the time… I like a lot of flavor, and I have found most recipes are boring.

Liana: When you cook often you know your flavors and what you can add take out or would work best for you. Often I will look at several recipes for the same thing and take elements I like.

Andrea: I very rarely use recipes, but it’s because I spent years following recipes, readings recipes and creating recipes as a chef/educator. That gave me the skill set to just “wing it,” even though it’s not really winging it…

Amber: Occasionally I use recipes for more authentic dishes from other places and cultures, but when I’m just cooking at home I make stuff up.

Daniel: Master the gold standard first. Be creative second.

Nia: Most of the time I follow a recipe, just because when I get home from work or the gym I don’t have the brain energy to be creative. I come from a science and lab background, so I feel very comfortable following recipes, and I’m out of my comfort zone when I try to wing it.

Victoria: I usually use the recipe for inspiration and then tweak it with what I think would add more or taste better. Not all recipes are winners, and neither are my tweaks — but this is how I build my own recipes from basic chocolate chip cookies to pasta dishes.

Natalie: I often use a recipe like a template. It gives me an idea of how to measure flavors, especially in new recipes. But I almost always change quite a bit.

Aimee: I usually cook by improvisation. What do I have on hand? How much effort do I feel like making? What sounds good tonight? The exception is when I bake; it requires more precision and I know it’s pretty easy to mess up if I don’t have the proportions and chemistry right.