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The Real Flavor of Maui Is Found at the Farmers Market

Food & Wine logo Food & Wine 11/25/2021 Chaney Kwak
Take a delicious and scenic road trip that supports local farmers, producers, and communities in the island’s Upcountry—or get a taste without ever leaving home. © Bailey Rebecca Roberts Take a delicious and scenic road trip that supports local farmers, producers, and communities in the island’s Upcountry—or get a taste without ever leaving home.

Bailey Rebecca Roberts © Provided by Food & Wine Bailey Rebecca Roberts

At the bustling Upcountry Farmers Market on Maui one Saturday morning, a silver-haired man serenaded shoppers with his raspy violin. At his booth, Fong's Organic, were salad greens, scallions, and ... what looked to be the offspring of an heirloom tomato and an apricot?


"That's an egg fruit," said the violinist, noticing my confusion. "It'll take one more week to ripen." I'd be gone in a few days, before this fruit that tastes of mango custard and has the texture of sweet potato pie would be ready. And that was the dilemma at Maui's oldest farmers market: A lot of the stuff is not for casual blow-ins. 


When you're visiting Maui—especially if you never leave the beaches, packed with wobbling palm trees and equally tipsy revelers—it's easy to mistake the 727-square-mile isle as a playground created for tourists. But before it became America's favorite vacation destination, the archipelago of Hawai'i had done just fine without visitors. These isolated landmasses in the middle of the Pacific Ocean had been fully self-sufficient since the first Polynesian settlers landed as early as around 400, loaded with pigs and chickens. The staple plants they brought, like taro and breadfruit, immediately took to the fertile soil and created bounty plentiful enough to sustain a thriving population.


RELATED: How Spam Became an Essential Part of Hawaii's Cuisine

Today, about 90% of Hawai'i's food supplies are imported. That's why I was buoyed to see this thriving farmers market where most of the goods were grown on Maui, by people on Maui, and for the people of Maui. There was a pile of Maui onions, golden and sweet. There were bunches of marigolds wrapped in sun-bleached pages of MauiTime. Vats of sauerkraut lined one booth, while another sold moringa pesto and mason jars of chutney. Still, there was plenty for interlopers like me, too, no cooking or ripening required: seaweed crisps, vegan miso ramen, and poisson cru, the Tahitian ceviche of raw fish marinated in coconut milk and citrus, from Maui Cones. 


Reflecting the islands' history of migrations, Hawai'i's cuisine today is a wonderfully layered parfait of world cuisines, borrowing techniques and flavors from Korea, Portugal, the Philippines, Japan, and wherever else people arrived from to join the Native Hawaiians. And the arrivals haven't stopped.


"As clichéd as it may sound, farming in Maui feels like a piece of heaven," said Michael Marchand at Lapa'au Farm, 15 minutes up a hairpin road from the farmers market. The 29-year-old transplant from California supplies the island's celebrated restaurants like Lineage with wild arugula, as well as a variety of mushrooms such as lion's mane. "Working the land here, I've learned the value of pono," he said, "that Hawaiian notion of integrity, honesty, and kindness."


Curious to learn about what else was growing, I spent a week driving around Maui's mountainous heart, collectively called Upcountry. Two-lane roads lined with purple jacarandas and sandalwood wound through farms and ranches. There was O'o Farm, where visitors can take a farm tour with lunch on the slopes of Haleakalā, the larger of the two massive volcanoes that form the island. At the sprawling Ali'i Kula Lavender Farm, paths winding through fields of blooms offered a calming self-guided tour. At Surfing Goat Dairy, I petted some baby goats before sampling a platter of award-winning, tangy goat cheeses. Lookout points between farm stops gave bicoastal panoramas of the land. Rolling down the window, I'd get buzzed on the sweet scent of plumeria. And don't ask me how often I got a sugar high from the fluffy flakes of shave ice doused in tart passion fruit syrup made in-house at Ululani's. OK, so I might have stopped at their Kīhei location driving from the farmers market to West Maui and again in Lahaina after slurping ramen at Star Noodles. (See "Where to Eat," below).

RELATED: Chef Kiki Aranita on Her Hawaii Heritage

Bailey Rebecca Roberts © Provided by Food & Wine Bailey Rebecca Roberts

One evening, I snagged a reservation at Kiawe Outdoor, a roaming alfresco dinner pop-up run by Maui-raised chef Yeshua Goodman. On a green slope in front of a private home, I settled with a group of strangers at a picnic table and enjoyed a multicourse feast that started with charred carrots and pea shoots accompanying goat cheese from the dairy I'd visited earlier in the week and peaches from just down the hill. As the darkening sky became one with the sea, Goodman served smoky taro leaves blended into a rich coconut emulsion topped with candied saffron—his take on native Hawaiian food with a touch of the Mediterranean. By the time stars outshone the flickering lanterns, he was pouring yuzu broth with a flourish into shallow bowls of freshly caught ono.


On my last day, I made my way to Kahului, Maui's main town. As is the routine for those in the know, I went to pick up my in-flight lunch at Tin Roof, an unpretentious takeout joint by Top Chef alum Sheldon Simeon and his wife, Janice. With its fried chicken sandwiches, ocean-fresh poke, and wok-fried noodles, this one-counter operation embodies the laid-back and combine-everything ethos of Hawai'i's multicultural cuisine.


RELATED: Sheldon Simeon Wants to Change How You Think About Hawaiian Food

Bailey Rebecca Roberts © Provided by Food & Wine Bailey Rebecca Roberts

"Each island is different, but I'd say Maui has a unique blend of more outside influences just by the sheer amount of tourism," said Simeon on the sidewalk just outside his business. He'd recently learned more about differences among the islands while researching for his cookbook, Cook Real Hawai'i. But lately, he'd become concerned for his home island and its food. "We need to welcome travelers and guests," he said. "But they also have to understand we have limited resources, which should go to the community first." 


To give you an idea: While there are 167,417 people who call Maui home, nearly 1 million visitors touched down on Maui in the first half of 2021 alone. At that rate, each year, a dozen tourists come to Maui for each full-time resident. Yet tourism is also a lifeline for locals, directly and indirectly accounting for 80% of the island's economy. 


When I originally set out to take the ultimate culinary road trip on Maui, I imagined I could simply write odes to the island's multicultural flavors, wide-open pastures, and a few food trucks. But the tensions arising from overcrowding—tensions heightened by the pandemic—have shown that tourism can't go on as before. 


At the same time, Maui can't exist in a vacuum. Perhaps, then, it's more crucial than ever for visitors to learn about where the food comes from and to support more local growers and businesses, strengthening the local ecosystem in a sustainable way. All it takes is one meal at Maui's table to tell you that we're living in one connected world after all.

Bailey Rebecca Roberts © Provided by Food & Wine Bailey Rebecca Roberts

Gas Station Grinds

Maui takes its gas station grub—or grinds, as food is called locally—very seriously. Here are some standouts.


After cutting his teeth at the Relais & Châteaux property Hotel Wailea, Zach Sato opened his first solo project at an unassuming gas station in Kihei in December 2020. Havens serves up just-greasy-enough burgers smashed and seared on the grill and saimin dunked in three-day-boiled bone broth. 


Housed inside an original midcentury building, Uptown Kitchen & Food Mart is no ordinary gas station, with its own retro diner–style grill dishing out daily specials ranging from yakitori chicken to grilled salmon salad. 


With its cult following on the island of Hawai'i, Manuela Malasada (243 Lahainaluna Road, Lahaina) arrived on Maui and settled in the parking lot of a Lahaina gas station, frying and filling fist-size doughnuts to order. Get them rolled in li hing mui (salty-tart plum powder) and stuffed with emblematically Hawaiian liliko'i (passion fruit) butter or ube (purple yam).


Now a local chain, Minit Stop has been a hometown darling since opening in 1982, noted for its fried chicken and chunky potato wedges breaded in the same secret spice mix.

Bring Maui Home

Here's how to get a taste of Maui and support its producers­—no plane ticket necessary.


Maui Ku'ia Estate Chocolate makes delicate squares of dark and milk chocolate using the fruits of its 8,000-some trees on an arid slope near Lahaina. You can also take a virtual farm tour that goes with tasting boxes (starting at $70) or mail-order gift sets of chocolate flavored with locally harvested fruits like mango and calamansi. 


Home bakers can get creative with Voyaging Foods, which ships flour made from original canoe plants such as taro and sweet potatoes.


Since its humble beginning as a family operation in 1981, Kumu Farms has grown to over 200 acres of farmland, from where you can order fresh papayas and pineapples.


A staple in the Polynesian diet, breadfruit adds smooth richness to the icebox Pono Pies from Maui Breadfruit Company, shipped frozen in fours.


The government of Maui encourages hunting the axis deer, an invasive species that's currently devastating the endemic flora. Maui Nui Venison offers subscription boxes of the wild meat, processed according to FDA and USDA regulations. The company also ships venison bone broth, meat sticks, and dog treats.

Where to Eat

Sam Sato's


The originator of dry mein, Maui's soup-less interpretation of saimin, is now in the third generation of family ownership. The thin noodles are simply tossed with sweet char siu (roast pork), scallions, and a sweet-and-salty secret sauce and are well worth the detour to an industrial part of Wailuku, the non-touristy county seat of colorful wooden storefronts. 1750 Wili Pa Loop, Wailuku

Star Noodle


The other end of Maui's noodle evolution serves hand-pulled noodles in creative combos, like chile-lime dashi with smoked prosciutto and Thai basil toppings. The open-air oceanfront restaurant also excels in made-to-share dishes inspired by every corner of Asia, like crispy Vietnamese crêpes and shrimp tempura.


Papa'aina

Enjoy an excellent brunch by chef Lee Anne Wong tucked away in a courtyard under a giant baobab tree in historic Lahaina. The menu includes macadamia nut pancakes, cornflake-crusted French toast, striped marlin Benedict with miso hollandaise, and ramen, made breakfast-ready with poached egg and bacon.


Bailey Rebecca Roberts © Provided by Food & Wine Bailey Rebecca Roberts

Lineage


Dishes like perfectly crispy twice-fried chicken in sweet gochujang glaze and Wagyu kalbi served with finadene, a chile sauce from Guam, draw on the Korean-Guamanian heritage of former Lineage chef MiJin Kang Toride. 


Moku Roots


Despite its strip-mall location in Lahaina, this is a decidedly nonconformist joint with creative vegan dishes. Take the taro burger or the brined eggplant Reuben to go; they come wrap‑ped in the island's plentiful (and very compostable) ti leaves.

Getting There

As of press time, proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test was required prior to departure to Hawai'i. While travel is not restricted, there are some capacity restrictions still in place in restaurants, rental cars can be hard to come by, and the island's hospitals are stretched due to the delta variant. Consider visiting when cases go down; visit gohawaii.com for updates.

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