Kauai is nicknamed the Garden Island for its lush, fertile land; but you might be surprised to learn that at least ninety percent of the food consumed here -- and in the state of Hawaii -- is imported.
The reason: As the plantation era came to a close in the mid-twentieth century, land that had been devoted to large-scale sugar and pineapple production was reverted back to the original owners in disrepair. The local cuisine had largely been reduced to staples like rice, meat, and -- of course -- Spam (if you can call that local); and the state sourced most of everything else from the mainland or abroad.
But that is changing. "In the last five years, Kauai has seen a growing demand for homegrown food,” says Marta Lane, founder of Kauai Food Tours, which teaches people about traditional Hawaiian food, farming, and the plantation history. As Hawaii invests more in the islands' small-scale farms, people are taking advantage of newfound access to incredible local produce and seafood.
Here, five places to sample some of Kauai's incredible local flavors:
Monkeypod Jam Cafe
Situated next to the Post Office in Lawai, this tiny, easy-to-miss eatery specializes in homemade fruit preserves, like lilikoi curd, to go along with fresh pastries -- ideal for breakfast or brunch. Monkeypod Jam Cafe works with more than twenty-five Kauai-based farmers to create fifty-five seasonal preserves, deriving a passion from preserving the season’s harvest and making sure none of the island's fruit goes to waste.
For something different, Lane recommends trying a slice of quiche, smeared with the spiced tomato jam.
After training in San Sebastian, chef Justin Smith opened Kauai Ono -- a food truck that serves meals three nights a week under a large canopy at Princeville Ranch. He creates an open, inviting atmosphere with candle-lit communal tables made from reclaimed wood. Diners bring their own wine and enjoy a four-course meal with twenty strangers, who by the end of the evening become new friends.
Don’t let the food truck title mislead you -- this is refined food. Expect dishes like smoked and brined uku (grey snapper) with kale salad made with greens grown in Kilauea (less than seven miles away); braised grass-fed beef from cows raised on-site, with luau stew (made from taro leaf, a local staple), and a mocha cake topped with a chunky salsa made with local honey, kaffir lime, ginger, and papaya.
Hanalei Taro & Juice Co.
While it may not be new, Hanalei Taro & Juice Co. -- a food truck permanently parked along the Kuhio Highway at the entrance to Hanalei -- is a favorite among locals. Best known for its uber-local farm-to-fork model, Hanalei Taro & Juice Co. serves traditional Hawaiian food, such as laulau and kalua pork, with taro grown on their own thirty-acre farm and pigs that are raised in nearby Lawai. We recommend taking the half-day farm tour to see their taro fields and rice mill first hand and learn more about this sacred Hawaiian crop. The tour includes lunch.
Nom Breakfast & Burgers
Another food truck -- this one parked on the beach in Kapaa -- Nom Breakfast & Burgers serves highly touted breakfast sandwiches, fried chicken, and burgers.
“This is where I go when I want something that's super tasty, affordable, and has a view,” says Lane. All of their burgers are made with grass-fed beef from cows raised five miles away, and they are served on fresh baked taro brioche buns. Try the Ranchero Burger with cheddar, jalapeños, and a fried egg; or the fried chicken and waffles with pineapple bourbon butter.
If you’re staying in a condo or renting an apartment with a kitchen, you might want to do as the locals do and cook dinner for yourself one night. If so, pick up your groceries at Hanai Grocery in Kapaa. According to Lane, this is the only grocery store that sells 100-percent local produce, fish, and meat.