Sustainable Kauai: A Visitor’s Tasting Guide
Anybody who’s lived in Hawaii long enough will eventually hear themselves referred to as kama‘aina. The moniker, which literally means “child of the land,” describes someone who has lived on the land long enough to have deep familiarity with it.
Pre-contact Hawaiians were cosmopolitan people. While stratified into a caste system like many other parts of the globe at the turn of the first millennium, Hawaiians considered their bonds to be to the land itself, rather than to the ali‘i (chiefs), who were charged with kuleana (responsibility) for it.
When commoners traveled, deference was paid to the kama‘aina, or the people who lived and worked whatever land was to be visited. And protocols were followed to announce one’s identity and purpose, and ask permission to enter waters and lands that were the kuleana of others.
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Kama‘aina who had worked the same land for a long time would know what was pono (correct or balanced) for their kuleana—whether drought was imminent or its resources were being overtaxed. Elders who had lived on the land the longest could share the most valued perspective, for they had the most experience.
The tradition and outlook continues today. Some years ago, while traveling on Hawaii Island, I chatted with a lady of Hawaiian ancestry who shared a story about a local elder that she commonly sought advice from in her role as a cultural advisor at a resort. One day, the elder asked her why she kept asking so many questions. She responded that she simply wanted advice on what was pono for the land.
“Don’t ask me,” she responded. “Sit for a while, with the land and the ocean, and you’ll know.”
It’s that same sense of stewardship that pervades life on the island of Kauai today, from the lady taking time out from selling baked goods from the back of a truck to direct parking lot traffic at Wailua Falls to the Kauai Community College, where continuing education students are set to revitalize agriculture on the Garden Island.
Having spent much time on Kauai in my youth, I still feel a sense of stewardship for the island, and as such, I’m careful about who I recommend visiting. Each island has its own personality, and each island is best suited for a different visitor profile. I find the visitors who find Kauai most rewarding are those who seek to gain a sense of understanding and belonging to the land and sea.
Understanding Kauai as a visitor means understanding the island’s kama‘aina and the challenges they face in stewarding this magnificent island, not only as a vibrant community that supports local residents but one that is welcoming to visitors.
Food security is a concern here, as it is with most remote communities that rely on food imports. Luckily, Kauai is as bountiful as she mysterious, and many island residents are taking up the mantle of food security as a way of strengthening both the local and visitor communities. Luckily, many of these efforts also yield interesting visitor experiences, and travelers vacationing on Kauai can learn firsthand how the island’s residents are working to secure their own food security, and in many cases also yield top-quality foods for export.
Before the island’s first resorts were developed in the 1960s, Kauai was almost entirely agricultural, with sugar being the primary cash crop. Cheaper imported sugar spelled the end of that industry in the state by the end of the 20th Century, but sugar production has recently restarted in small boutique fields near Koloa to supply sugar cane for the production of Koloa Rum Company’s products. The company also operates a gift shop and tasting room on the grounds of Kilohana Plantation immediately next door to Kapi‘olani Community College (KCC) where visitors can learn about rum production on Kauai as well as sample rum and rum cake.
Travelers can set aside Saturday mornings or Tuesday evenings to explore the farmer’s market at KCC. Out of several on the island, it’s one of the most centrally located. In addition to locally grown produce (the variety of which can be surprising to many visitors), there are plenty of stops for food, from vegetarian banh mi to popsicles made from local fruit juice.
Tasting Kauai does a guided tour of the market as well as some other out-of-the-way spots in Lihue on Saturday mornings. In addition to the popular tastings, the guides also discuss some of the island’s food security issues, such as the fact that 75 percent of the state’s food supplies are imported, even though the islands produced enough food to support a similar-sized population before European contact.
Many island residents have fruit trees in their back yards that yield fruit faster than their families and neighbors (who have their own trees) can eat. Some years ago, island resident Aletha Thomas felt a good way to preserve this bounty from small backyard farmers would be quite literally to make preserves, and Monkeypod Jam now operates a store and bistro on Kaumuali‘i Highway between the entrance to the tree tunnel and Koloa Road, in addition to operating a booth at the KCC Farmer’s Market.
Visitors will find jams from island fruit harvests in the form of whatever’s in season (popular recipes sell out quickly). It might be Lilikoi (Passion Fruit) Curd, Strawberry Guava Jam or other concoctions made from Calamansi (a sort of lemon-lime crossover), Tahitian Lime, Mango, or Papaya (which combines with vanilla for the world’s best jam). The jams are thickened with agar, a vegan alternative to pectin.
There are also pickles! Hoio (fiddlehead ferns), ‘ulu (breadfruit) and local green beans find their way into jars in the shop, or into sandwiches and salads in the café. Monkeypod also does a popular-with-locals Saturday brunch in addition to a monthly prix fixe dinner and periodic canning, jamming, and pickling workshops.
Also in the food business on Kauai is Kauai Coffee Company in Kalaheo. Situated on former sugarcane fields near the south shore is the largest coffee producer in the United States (Hawaii is the country’s only coffee-growing state). Visitors can get a ride through the fields with the new farm tour to see the over four million coffee trees in various life cycles, which vary by the time of year (the harvest begins in October and runs through December).
Guides cover all things coffee, with fun factoids such as how coffee trees produce just one crop of exactly the same yield per tree before they have to be pruned back to the nubs to start the growing process over. Guests also have a chance to take photos among the trees, contrasting a deep evergreen color against the backdrop of red Kauai clay and the sapphire blue Pacific, and plant their own coffee tree.
Kauai Coffee is distinct from its perhaps better-known cousin Kona Coffee in that it’s an estate coffee, which means the beans are grown and roasted in the same place (Kona Coffee is typically sold to roasters in small lots from small farms on Hawai‘i Island).
The company was long a subsidiary of the original landowners from the sugarcane era, but some years ago was sold to Massimo Zanetti, one of the world’s largest coffee producers. The employees I spoke with were encouraged with the transition from a real estate-focused owner to a coffee-focused owner, who encouraged the Kauai Coffee away from full dependence on bulk sales and further into the realm of direct branding and selling.
Before Western contact, the inhabited islands of Hawaii produced enough food to sustain a human population estimated to be roughly equivalent to that of the state today, and the Polynesian settlers did that with well-developed aquaculture and agriculture without the use of stone tools, and with only the foods endemic to the islands, plus the few they introduced from the South Pacific.
It’s encouraging to see these well-tested practices returning to life as kuleana for island residents, and in turn, a high-quality experience for visitors.
Some travel and accommodations were furnished by the Kauai Visitors Bureau in preparation for this story.
The author recognizes the importance of Hawaiian Language diacritical marks such as the kahako (macron), some may have been omitted for web browser compatibility.