Chefs Justine and Esteban spend their days asking what’s happening to good food. They rail against the loss of seasonality, foodies who treat food as too precious, and taste buds that don’t remember simple, elegant flavors.
Aloha from Hawaii! We are relaxing at a lush resort on the Big Island (the biggest one at the bottom of the Hawaiian chain), and wow, is it beautiful. The dried lava flows are everywhere, making for an eerie landscape of rugged blackness as far as the eye can see. The beaches of white sand and aquamarine water, dotted with palm trees, and juxtaposed with the lava are reminiscent of every tropical-island movie you’ve ever seen. Paradise is the word that comes to mind, a land of food abundance, which is why we’re annoyed (again).
The Big Island has a vibrant agricultural scene that produces a wealth of local fruits and vegetables, as well as grass-fed beef raised on acres of nutritious grasses high on the plains of the spent volcanoes. The crab, ahi, pollack, and farm-raised lobster and shrimp are plentiful and mostly served raw in what the locals call poke (pronounced POH-kay). Poke is made by using all the ends or small pieces of fish or shellfish left from the prime pieces and mixed with different concoctions consisting of soy, teriyaki, lime, fruit, and/or other fantastic fusions.
Why, then, in this American Shangri-La is the food at this resort so appalling? Why, for example, is there not a single Hawaiian papaya on the menu, while the local markets are brimming with them? Papaya trees produce year-round, and the fruit is just about the sweetest, most nutritionally packed nectar of the gods on the planet. Why have these luscious things been replaced with hard, sour strawberries, unripe, tasteless melons, and get this – punky, unsweet pineapples – on every menu and banquet table? The same is true for the vegetables – tasteless and uncompromisingly not in season. Where’s the much-heralded local grass-fed beef? Why is the high-end beef on the steak house menu only Kobe (listed with a trademark) from Japan?
Call us a broken record, but come on, it’s just plain insane, right? As chefs who care about good ingredients, we are continually astounded by this American phenomena of not caring about where our food comes from, or (perish the thought) how it tastes! Visiting various themed restaurant in this huge resort, we’ve watched one tourist after another order mega-portioned meals and then proceed to dump loads of sugar and/or ketchup and/or soy and/or salt and/or tabasco and/or gobs of salad dressing and/or the ever-ubiquitous Worchester sauce on everything they eat – literally everything – in an effort to get some flavor out of their meal, instead of eating the real food that actually has flavor. It appears that the American palate now associates the flavor of say, lettuce, with the flavor of ranch dressing. Instead of eating the tender leaves of seasonal Bibb, Romaine, Boston, Mache, Butter, or Iceberg, the lettuce has been replaced with industrially produced imposters. We’ve gotten used to our food being flavor-impotent, with the sugary/salty condiment as the dysfunctional supplement. Crazy, huh?
Hawaii and the other 49: Rise up and stop the madness. Don’t let your food look like food, but not taste like food. Eat seasonally, know where what you’re eating comes from, and most of all, taste—really taste—your food.
Hawaiian Poke with Papaya Stacks
1 lb ahi tuna, cut into ½ inch chunks
1/3 C soy sauce
1 T of sesame sauce
3 scallions, white and green separated, sliced thinly on the bias
1 tsp pepper
1 tsp ginger, grated
1 tsp each white and black sesame seeds
1 Hawaiian papaya
Cilantro, coarsely chopped
1 C VT cream, whipped
2 T Sriracha sauce
Local lettuce for garnish
Slice the onions and set aside. Cut one pound of ahi in one-inch pieces and set aside. Combine everything up to the sesame seeds and toss with tuna. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Peel and seed the papaya, avocado, and cucumber. Cut the papaya and avocado into thin slices. Cut the cucumber into ½-inch pieces, then quarters. Place each into separate bowls.
Whip cream into a small bowl, add Sirirachi, and whip to combine. Pour into a squeeze bottle.
Line a plate with lettuce leaves. Top with 1-inch ring mold and start the process of stacking.
Press a quarter of the ahi poke into bottom, then a quarter of the papaya, then a quarter of the avocado. Press down into the mold to hold its shape. Top with a quarter of the cucumbers.
Pull the mold off and make three more.
Drizzle with the cream and sprinkle with sesame seeds and some chopped cilantro.
Serve immediately or refrigerate until serving.