It’s no secret that I love to visit Farmers Markets. When I am at home you are sure to find me most Sundays at the Hollywood Farmers Market searching for something fresh and local to feature in my weekly Market Matters post.
It’s a hard habit to break. Even on vacation. I am on the Big Island of Hawaii and thought I’d do my Market Matters post from here. I know that this is the farm belt of these islands. Much of the local produce for all of Hawaii is grown right here. So it was not hard to find a Farmers Market. In fact, there are many, many Farmers Markets on this island.
We chose to make the 3‑hour drive from Kona to Hilo with the sole purpose of visiting one of the best of the markets in all the islands. The big market happens every Wednesday and Saturday and it’s worth a stop when visiting Hawaii.
We decided to sneak in a volcano hike while we were on the road. We chose the 4‑mile Kilauea Iki (little Kilauea) trail. It follows the rim of the smaller crater on Kilauea which was created in 1959 by a very dramatic blast of lava that shot 1900 feet into the air filling the new crater with molten lava and forming a hot lava lake. The lava has mostly cooled now and it’s safe to walk across the crater. So we did!
I liked this hike for its diversity. The hike takes you through rain forests engulfed in gigantic ferns, flowering ginger and lots of orchids. But it also crosses dry rocky lava beds with intermittent steam vents and sulfur banks. There are some steep parts along the trail as you descend and ascend into and out of the crater, but the whole hike took less than 2 hours.
We arrived in Hilo by late afternoon and checked into a waterfront hotel. We enjoyed a fun dinner at the very local Ken’s House of Pancakes where most of our party ordered the Saimin. I was a bit spammed out so I opted for liver and onions. Maybe that is a strange choice in Hawaii, but hey I’m a strange guy! Besides I needed fortification for the market, which was on our agenda for early the next morning.
As the sky begins to brighten over the edges of historic old Hilo town the farmers market begins to come to life. Trucks, vans, and cars converge on the stalls, as farmers, fishermen and crafts folk begin unloading boxes, buckets and bags of the goods for sale.
In Hawaii, there are still lots of small farms. This is family agriculture at its very best. Many grow their fruits and vegetables on small plots, or in raised beds using sustainable and organic farming techniques.
We from the mainland might not recognize half of the fruits and vegetables offered at this market. And that’s half the fun. The multifarious mix of produce reflects the seasonal availability as with most Farmers Markets. But in Hawaii, the wide range of produce also represents the many different ethnic groups that have contributed to the eclectic mix of foods that have come to represent what’s known as ‘local food’ here.
You might find ferns for Chinese specialties, Japanese daikon, eggplants, cucumbers, and edamame. The indigenous Hawaiian chili pepper is a market staple. But so are the more exotic Thai basils and multicultural curries. I saw Peruvian sweet potatoes, Portuguese sweet bread, sausage and no-hole donuts called malasadas.
I was most impressed with the fruit and all their amazing shapes and sizes. If I did not know better I’d say half of the stuff came from Mars. They’re so unusual and alien looking compared to the fruits I am used to seeing. Guava, lilikoi, dragon fruit, rambutan, mangosteen, lychee… The list goes on and on.
Oh, and bananas! I never saw so many bananas. Bananas sold in mainland supermarkets are usually Cavendish– a tame, slow-ripening sort that can handle the rigors of long-distance travel. But here on the Big Island the wide range of bananas will thrill you. They come in all sizes. Some are delicately flavored; others have a bold banana taste like the robust Thompsons. There are apple bananas, vanilla-flavored bananas, red bananas and several types of plantains for cooking.
I find bananas fascinating. Bananas and plantains are cultivated in over 100 countries in the tropical and subtropical regions of the world where they constitute a major staple food crop for millions of people, as well as providing an important income source though local and international trade.
But more importantly bananas are the developing world’s fourth most important food crop after rice, wheat, and maize in terms of gross value of production. The vast majority of producers are small-scale farmers growing the crop either for home consumption or for local markets. I hope that gives you a little respect for this ubiquitous little fruit.
The flowers at the market are every bit as exotic and diverse as the fruit. They are also culturally significant to most Hawaiians and appear as important elements in many aspects of daily life. I am not just talking about vases either. Flowers are used as adornment. They can be symbols of spiritual enlightenment and they are just so darn pretty too. They come in amazing Technicolor hues and are sold as cut blossoms, live growing plants, or strung into leis of stunning color and design. Gorgeous bunches of orchids, anthuriums, and bird-of-paradise jump from their buckets demanding your attention.
If you are looking for a delicious Hawaiian experience, look for a coconut vendor. Choose a green coconut, not a hard brown one like you see in the grocery store. The vendor will usually open the coconut for you by attacking it with a machete, lopping off one end. You may then insert a straw and drink the sweet and clear liquid. This is coconut juice, not coconut milk and it is a little frothy with a delicate, slightly fermented coconut flavor. They call it a “champagne” coconut. For an extra treat scoop out the meat inside. It will be almost baby-food soft and quite sweet. Very different from the dried coconut flakes that adorn your favorite cakes.
I had a great time exploring the market. I plan to bring you a few more recipes using some of the local produce I found on my trip. But there are only a few more days left in this series, so I better get cooking!
Hilo Farmers Market
Wednesday and Saturday
6:00 am — 4:00 pm.
Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday
7:00 am — 4:00 pm.
SERIOUS FUN FOOD
hilo farmers market