Photo Friday: Tasty Hawaii

Right near the top of my list of reasons I love to travel is the opportunity to eat local specialties. This is true of whether I’m going to New York or New Delhi. Everywhere in the world, as far as I can tell, has its own special cuisine—something they do better than anywhere else. Hawaii, of course, is no exception. Here, in words and pictures, are my favorite Hawaii eats.

(Please note, I am not much of a food photographer. This is primarily because I am a top-notch food eater, and I either get so excited about my food that I forget to photograph it at all or I get so anxious to eat my food that I fail to take a good photo. I’m sorry.)

No trip to Oahu is complete without a trip (or was it three? or four?) to Leonard’s, home of the island’s most famous malasadas. For all of you sad souls have never had one, malasadas are Portuguese donuts. Best eaten straight from the grease and piping hot, traditional malasadas are served covered in sugar, though at Leonard’s, you can also opt for malasadas stuffed with chocolate, custard, haupia (coconut milk custard), or the flavor of the month (it was pineapple in February, macadamia nut in March). Expect lines out the door at Leonard’s, but don’t let them deter you. The malasadas are totally worth it.

Another Hawaii must-have is shave ice (note: it’s called shave not shaved ice). To be clear, shave ice and snow cones are completely different things. Shave ice is about one million times better than snow cones, because of the way that the ice is shaved very, very finely with an incredibly sharp blade so that the ice actually absorbs whatever flavoring is added to it unlike with a snow cone where it all drops to the bottom. It’s very common in Hawaii to eat your shave ice with ice cream or red beans at the bottom. I’ve never tried the beans, but the ice cream is a fun choice because it gets all the leftover syrup and thus makes for a tasty treat. As for flavors, I like to stick with the tropical choices, including liliko’i (Hawaiian for passion fruit), mango, and pineapple. Probably the most popular shave ice shack in Hawaii is Matsumoto’s on Oahu’s North Shore. I’ve had it and can vouch for it, though this time we tried Aoki’s and I would rate it just as highly.

I’m a big fan of seafood, especially when it’s served in a casual atmosphere, and it’s hard to get much more casual than the shrimp shacks and trucks dotting the islands. The biggest collection of them that I am aware of is in the vicinity of Kahuku on Oahu. These “restaurants” keep things simple with a small menu that basically consists of shrimp served in a couple different ways (with butter and garlic sauce, with cocktail sauce, with a hot and spicy sauce). They’re delivered in a styrofoam container with the common two scoops of rice, and there’s really nothing to do but dive in and get messy. The shrimp are ridiculously huge and delicious. The only negative is how long the wait can be. This is not fast food; waits of 40 minutes are not uncommon. But, hey, you’re in Hawaii. This is island time. Get used to it. As for recommendations, I’ve tried both Giovanni’s Aloha Shrimp Truck and Romy’s Kahuku Shrimp Shack and can vouch for both of them, though if you’re a fan of spicy, I’d suggest Giovanni’s. Their spicy shrimp live up to the billing.

I’m a sucker for farmer’s markets, so of course, I made it a point to seek one out in Hawaii and I’m definitely glad I did. We happened to arrive in Po’ipu on Kauai on the day that the farmer’s market was being help in nearby Koloa. As we pulled up, I thought that there must be something else going on in the park where it was held, because of the overwhelming number of people, but nope, people just take their farmer’s markets seriously on Kauai. (There was a gate keeping people out until the designated start time, and there was a huge crowd waiting at it, so to get the good stuff, get there early.) The market wasn’t huge, but the offerings were delicious, with a special emphasis on the tasty fruit grown on the island. We loaded up with apple bananas (my favorite!), oranges, grapefruit, papaya, pineapple, starfruit, and tomatoes, all of which were awesome. I highly recommend seeking out a farmer’s market while in Hawaii. Each island seems to have a near-daily farmer’s market, though they rotate locations (every Monday in one town, every Tuesday in another, etc.).

Sadly, I didn’t get photos of the other food we enjoyed in Hawaii, but on our list of favorites was the ahi tuna (just barely seared; so good), Kalua pig, saimin and other noodle soups, the Korean barbecue, and the sweet bread rolls.

Other restaurant recommendations include:

Nico’s on Pier 38 (Honolulu): Casual seafood right on the pier. Get the ahi.

Pizzetta (Koloa): The pizzas are really delicious. Pasta servings are large and tasty as well.
Scotty’s Beachside BBQ (Kapa’a): The brisket sandwich was really good, and I loved the baked beans. Nice view as well.
Duane’s Ono-Char Burger (Anahola): We only had the milkshakes were (nice and thick), but I’ll go back for the burgers next time.

Kona Inn Restaurant (Kona): If you’re looking for a splurge, I enjoyed the classic Hawaii atmosphere here. The view is good too, and the ahi was excellent. If you opt for the mud pie, share it with the whole table. It’s ridiculous.
Kona Brewing Co & Brewpub (Kona): Fun atmosphere, good beers, and good pizzas.
Bite Me Fish Market & Grill (Kona): Right in the marina, Bite Me does the seafood proud. Picnic-table eating with a view of the water is teh way to go. (Don’t opt for a salad here. They’re very sad.)
Thai Thai (Volcano): Food options in Volcano are extremely limited, so if you’re staying in Volcano bring food with you or be prepared to drive down to Hilo. Or you could just eat all your meals at Thai Thai, where we found excellent curries and stir fries.

*Be sure to check out other Photo Friday fun at Delicious Baby.

Seven International Foods (and Drinks) I Miss

I love food. All of it. Or at least almost all of it. There are very few things my mouth has met that it has not liked. Many of those foods are foods I’ve first tried in foreign countries and immediately fallen in love with. Sometimes I can find those foods (or close replicas of them) at home. Sometimes, no matter how hard I try, I come up short. The dishes simply cannot be replicated. Though this list contains only seven international food and drinks that I miss, I’m sure it could be longer. I know it could be longer. But in contrast to what I do when I’m eating, I showed restraint. I didn’t include foods that I’ve found pretty good versions of at home–like some of my favorite Thai and Indian dishes–and I eventually quit thinking about it, because seriously, my stomach is about to eat itself. Oh how, I wish my lunch contained the following seven items.

1. Fanta Passion

We discovered Fanta Passion in Uganda, which unfortunately was too  late, though we didn’t know it then. This passion-flavored soft drink is simply awesome. Sweet and tart and fizzy all at the same time. It blows away all other Fanta flavors, but for some reason it is available in only a very limited sphere, and the United States is not part of it. To our great dismay, Americans do not share our love affair with passion fruit, that funny fruit full of seeds and oh-so-yummy juice. Not only can we not get Fanta Passion here, simply trying to find passion fruit anything is nearly impossible (unless you want it mixed with other tropical fruits), which means that passion fruit lemonade and passion fruit shakes–ubiquitous in much of the world–are also out of the question. After a long, hard, sweaty (okay, not really) search, I did manage to locate passion fruit syrup, which we mix with fizzy water and drink, all the while longing for a cold Fanta Passion, straight from the bottle.

2. Gallo Pinto
So, yes, gallo pinto is in fact about the most basic food in the world. Nicaragua’s national dish, gallo pinto is simply rice and beans. I swear, however, that they do something special to it there that transforms it from one of the world’s simplest dishes into something that is crave inducing. I will admit that while there I did, sometimes, get tired of big plates of gallo pinto, but man just thinking about it right now is making my mouth water.

3. Cambodian Barbecue
While in Siem Reap, our friend Maryann, who lives and works there, lead us across the bridge, away from the touristy Tex-Mex and Italian restaurants to a local barbecue joint filled with nothing but long plain tables and plastic chairs. She ordered a plate of beef with a pepper lemon (or maybe lime?) sauce. The meat was cut into tiny pieces that you dunked into the sauce and then popped into your mouth. It was heaven. I think we ended up ordering another plate at least three times, and when it was all gone, I was very tempted to lick the plate and bowl clean. At this moment, I wish I had.

4. Fresh Mangoes
Except for in Hawaii, it’s practically impossible to get a good mango in the United States. They’re picked green and hard and shipped across the country, ripening on the shelf. If you’re lucky, they sort of resemble this tastiest of tropical fruits. In tropical parts of the world, they’re picked plump and juicy from the tree at the peak of ripeness and transferred directly into your mouth. Though Kota Kinabalu on Malaysian Borneo doesn’t have a lot to recommend it in my opinion, I still dream of the mangoes I bought in the market there. The flesh was the perfect yellow-orange, and by the time I finished eating my half of one, I had juice all over my face and running down my arms. I was a hot sticky mess, but I was oh so happy.

5. Cao Lau Noodles
There is one place and one place only where you can get proper Cao Lau noodles and that is the Vietnam city of Hoi An. This dish of thick rice noodles topped with grilled pork, bean sprouts, greens, and rice paper croutons that give it a satisfying crunch can only be made with water from one special well and lye from trees that grow only in Hoi An. It’s completely unfair, because these noodles beat out pho as my absolutely favorite Vietnamese dish. Though I ate them every single day we were in Hoi An, it was definitely not enough. Must return soon.

6. Coco con Dulce de Leche Gelato

Thank god we walked so much on our trip or we might have gained a lot of weight, in Argentina especially. While there, we partook in their Italian style gelato literally every single day. Though we tried all kinds of flavors, one hands-down favorite, for Jeff especially, was the Coco con Dulce de Leche. If that was on the menu, that is what he was having. And though we have an ice cream maker and I found a recipe for Coco con Dulce de Leche ice cream, and though it came out pretty darn good, it’s just not the same as a huge scoop from Volta in Buenos Aires. We just can’t seem to make the dulce de leche stay creamy or get it to distribute itself in ribbons rather than chunks (suggestions, anyone?), but until we get back to beautiful Argentina, it will have to do.

7. Gyros
Sure, I hear you saying that you can find gyros all over the United States, but I’m telling you, friend, they’re just not the same as they are right off the spit in Greece (and they never put French fries inside the gyro here in the U.S.!). For the year I taught in Athens, I lived right across the street from a gyro stand. I probably ate there three times a week. Why I didn’t eat there seven times I week I don’t know. In retrospect, I should have. The gyros were awesome and so ridiculously cheap. Though there is much I love about Greece, I would be 100 percent happy to return and do nothing but eat–gyros, moussaka, patitsio, proper feta, awesome olives, tatziki, proper Greek salads, saganaki, tyropita, spanakopita, gigantes, fassolakia, loukaniko…

What about you? What’s your favorite international dish that you just can’t seem to find at home? Make me hungry.

(Apologies for the lack of mouth-watering photos. We’re absolute failures at taking photos of food. We always start shoveling it into our mouths the second it ends up on the table!)