INNOVATION IS IN THE DOUGH ACROSS THE ISLANDS
HIDDEN IN OUR CAKE, chips, crackers, crust, cookies, and cereal, flour has found a calling. One of the most important cuisine ingredients in many of the world’s cultures, and for some the defining ingredient, flour has become a staple. Many say that humans first became civilized when we began raising food instead of hunting for it, storing grain for later use and preparing it in different ways. There is evidence from 6000 B.C. of wheat seeds having been crushed between simple millstones and flour was made. Grains were traded for other necessities, a system of commerce was put in place, and eventually, crops from very distant fields could provide food for cities (or in our case, islands).
Flour is inexpensive and plentiful and is commonly made from wheat grown across huge swaths of midwestern America. In Hawai‘i however, flour in the traditional sense will most likely never be produced. Land here is far too limited and expensive to devote to a crop such as wheat on the commercial scale. Taking into account the warranted concerns over Hawai‘i’s food security, sustainability, and the questionable nutrition of conventional flour, pioneers across our islands have begun experimenting with turning nontraditional crops into unique forms of flour.
THE SHORT OF IT
Something smells sweet in Hilo. Maria Short has always had a passion for baking. A student of the culinary arts and a former pastry chef for restaurants, catering companies and patisseries, she met her husband, Dien, as a pastry chef instructor, teaching Merchant Marines how to bake. Together they endeavored on Short N Sweet Bakery, opening in Hāwī on Hawai‘i island 15 years ago then moving to a larger facility in Hilo in 2010.
“Several years ago, a friend started producing macadamia nut oil. He came to me with the by-product of the oil production, macadamia nut ‘cake’ and because I don’t like to waste food, especially macadamia nuts, we started making the flour in small quantities,” Maria explains. “Since then, Dien has been able to source enough macadamia nut cake that we need a commercial mill. It’s amazing to me that what we are producing now would have been used as compost or worse yet, thrown away.”
The macadamia nut flour has a warm, toasty flavor and a hint of sweetness. It was successfully used in her shortbreads, pie crusts and puff paste. Maria’s resourcefulness was kindled.
“Once we got the mill we started thinking about all the other agricultural by-products that are considered waste and we came up with the Okinawan sweet potato flour. The sweet potatoes that we mill are the ‘offs.’ They are normally undersized, or not pretty enough for the retail market, so they were just being tilled under.”
Short N Sweet’s now famous Hawaiian sweetbread is made in the Portuguese style and utilizes their hydrated sweet potato flour for a soft texture and an earthy yet sweet taste. Maria has plans to experiment with ‘ulu, green papaya, coconut, kalo, and banana flours in the future.
Less than an hour away, on the slopes of Mauna Kea Volcano, Ahualoa Farm’s macadamia nut trees sparkle under the sun. Parallel to Maria Short’s technique, they take their mac nut pieces and press out the oil (which they also bottle and sell); flour is the result. The culinary possibilities are then endless: panko crust on fish, pesto, an addition to smoothies, pie or pizza crusts. The flour is made every week and is sold at farmer’s markets and retail stores across the islands to allow for the creative home chef to experiment with macadamia nut flour too.
A BUG’S AFTERLIFE
Lourdes Torres calls them her “star ingredient,” though they’re a bit jumpy. For the last four years, she has run Sustainable Boost on Kaua‘i, producing nutritionally dense flours and powders that are low impact and high yield. Among less eyebrow-raising flours such as green banana, turmeric, ginger and pacific spinach, Lourdes also produces a cricket and taro blend.
“I want to bring back some incredibly nutritious and delicious foods that have been living in obscurity,” says Lourdes. “The United Nations has been talking about insects as viable crops for decades. They should not be seen as only a food for famine, but instead as a super sustainable crop which provides the highest quality protein of any food on the planet. They utilize only a tiny bit of natural resources and produce a ton of nutrients.”
The concept of insects as food tends to be misconstrued, especially in America. While our precious lobster, shrimp and crab get a hefty price tag and a quality of indulgence, they are actually closely related to insects, just the sea-dwelling variety. Crickets are the most easily digestible protein on the planet, provide ten times more Omegas than salmon and an incredible amount of B12. Lourdes raises hers on a rich, plant-based diet and the final product is almost undetectable in foods, save for a mild, nutty flavor. She adds the flour to guacamole, oatmeal, hummus, soups, and calls it “magic dust” for smoothies.
“Some are predicting that insects will save the planet and I share that belief,” Lourdes says. If edible crickets could lose their stigma, it would mean more people eating eco-friendly, high quality protein, produced using less water and space, and resulting in less greenhouse gas emmissions than beef, chicken or pork farming by a long shot. There’s nothing “icky” about that.
Kiawe is not native to Hawai‘i, in fact it’s quite invasive. Originating from South America, the tree was first introduced in 1828 and over the years has proven to out-compete many native grasses and woody plants, and has been a literal thorn in plenty of bare feet. However, it also fights to control erosion, provides a fantastic wood to cook over, and, in Wai‘anae, can even be made into gold.
In 2006, Vincent Kana‘i Dodge met a couple from Arizona who were taking a farm tour on the west side of Oahu. They shared that mesquite trees, a cousin of kiawe, were edible. Not only could their bean pods be ground down to a sweet, nutritious flour, but they are diabetes-friendly and growing in throngs on the Wai‘anae Coast, where the obesity epidemic is more apparent than anywhere else in Hawai‘i. So began Vincent’s quest to educate himself on how to turn kiawe into quality food for his community.
In 2009, he traveled to Tuscon, Arizona to take a Desert Harvesters mesquite milling training. Three years later he visited the Wichi people of Argentina who have been eating kiawe daily for a thousand years. Vincent acquired a small mill and began grinding kiawe bean pods into flour. He calls it Wai‘anae Gold.
Although kiawe has only been in the Hawaiian Islands for 200 years, it is an ancient, nutrient-dense food. Vincent finds it no coincidence that the trees paint the Wai‘anae Coast so abundantly today. He believes they are a gift from māmā ‘āina, growing in the driest conditions, providing shade, and waiting to be recognized for their benefits.
“Eat what your land and your ocean provide for you. Eat what is in your front yard and what is in your backyard. Eat the plants and animals, fish and creatures that you have a relationship with. They know you and they will be your medicine,” says Vincent.
Wai‘anae Gold as well as ‘Āina Bars, a no-bake power bar made with kiawe flour, are sold online and in select stores across the islands. Vincent loves making kiawe banana pancakes with Wai‘anae Gold; recipes also include corn bread, mochi, crepes and banana bread, and can be found on the website.
Also known as breadfruit, ‘ulu is “super” in many ways: super-sized (picture a spiky basketball), super versatile, and a highly nutritious superfood.
On Maui, where the four waterways of Wailuku, Waihe‘e, Waiehu, and Waikapū all converge and encourage lush growth is Noho‘ana Farm. Hōkūao Pellegrino’s family has owned the two-acre property in Waikapū since 1848. Along with over forty varieties of kalo growing in his fields, Hōkūao is also producing small batches of nutrient-dense, naturally gluten-free flour made from ‘ulu.
“The process is a lengthy and tedious one. You need a lot of ‘ulu to make a small amount of flour,” says Hōkūao. But it’s worth it. ‘Ulu maintains its nutritional value through the process of becoming flour. It’s loaded with fiber, antioxidants, iron, protein, and Vitamins A and C. Also, unlike some other nontraditional flours, ‘ulu can be used at a 1:1 ratio. “We predominantly mill our flour at the finest grade, or what we say in Italian as doppio zero (00). We find that when the ‘ulu flour is ground [this way], it holds better in comparison to wheat flours.”
‘Ulu’s versatility is one of its shining points. In its green state, ‘ulu is much like an artichoke in flavor. When ripe, it’s starchy and cooks like a potato. When over-ripe, ‘ulu is sweet. Made into flour, ‘ulu can be used in endless recipes and has more flavor than traditional wheat. “We have made flat bread pizzas and different pasta noodles but have found greatest success in making an ‘ulu gnocchi with garlic,” Hōkūao says. “One of our favorite things to make with Palaoa ‘ulu or ‘ulu flour is a Tahitian lime and vanilla banana bread.”
Hōkūao is also an educator and advocate of traditional Hawaiian agriculture. With ‘ulu having been brought to Hawai‘i as a canoe crop, its history in the islands is long, yet we are still learning to utilize it in different ways.
Hōkūao explains that if Hawai‘i is to be a model for global food security, we should be striving to grow crops with a high nutritional index such as ‘ulu. “As Hawai‘i moves towards being a sustainable archipelago once again, it is critical that we expand the cultivation of traditional food crops such as ‘ulu and kalo and the knowledge of our kūpuna as our foundation.”
The first people to reach the islands that would one day be known as Hawai‘i did not come alone. They brought with them the seeds of the plants which sustained them, plants that would eventually become known as canoe crops. Kalo, or taro is perhaps most notable of them all. Rich in fiber, iron and B Vitamins, taro is a superfood and a culturally cherished staple in Hawai‘i.
Brynn Foster is the mind behind Voyaging Foods, an artisan milling company based on O‘ahu. She produces canoe-crop flours made of taro as well as breadfruit and sweet potato.
One of Voyaging Foods’ core values is to support farmers and food-growing land in Hawai‘i. “We believe working with local farmers involves an interdependent relationship rather than purely transactional. We want to see more examples of partnerships that provide a livable and thriving system for our farmers,” Brynn says. “Sourcing Hawaiian-grown taro is a non-negotiable for us.”
As with any taro product, cooking should always be involved, as the plant is toxic in its raw form due to calcium oxalate, which is also a natural pesticide. Brynn soaks her taro, then steams, peels and slices into chips. Once the water is removed, the taro is shelf stable and can be milled into flour. The finished product can be used for baking or as a thickener in stews, smoothies or oatmeal. It can be bought at Whole Foods Market as well as online where cookie and “Tarocake” mixes are also for sale.
“Hawai‘i is starch dependent and food insecure. We grow only a few varieties of taro commercially. To protect our islands from introduced bio hazards, pests and viruses, we need to grow and process our own food,” says Brynn. “Biodiversity is a solution to climate issues and food security. Taro has more than 80 varieties highly specialized to these islands. This indigenous knowledge is important for our modern diet […]” Canoe crops such as taro are as synonymous with Hawai‘i as big surf and hula. They will continue to be a fixture in the diet of the islands even as the methods with which we utilize them evolve and adapt with Hawai‘i’s food security in mind. [ eHI ]
We understand that after reading the story about Unique Flours in Hawai‘i, you’ll want to know where you can try tasting and using the flours mentioned. Here are some resources for you.
Note: Please contact them before visiting. Supply in demand and very limited amounts make some of these products seasonal.
AHUALOA FARMS KITCHEN AND GIFT SHOP
45-3279 Mamane Street
Honoka‘a, HI 96727 808-775-1821
Visit or shop on-line. They also have locations on Oahu and Hawai‘i Island at selected farmers’ markets. Selling macadamia nut flour and other products.
HAWAIIAN HERITAGE FARMS
P. O. Box 970
Wailuku, HI 96793
Limited supply of seasonal products. Best to order on-line or send them an email.
SHORT N SWEET BAKERY & CAFE
374 Kino‘ole Street
Hilo, HI 96720
Visit the bakery and buy baked goods using sweet potato flour and roasted macadamia nut flour.
Taro powder and taro mixes.
On-line store. Some retail locations.
Kauai based farm not open to the public. Some retail locations at Farmers’ Markets on O’ahu and Kaua’i.