Janet Simpson has been part of the local artisan food movement since she began roasting coffee with her sister in Cochrane more than 20 years ago.
But now she’s in Maui as an artisan coffee grower and organic farmer. With her husband, Gerry Ross, a former Calgary geologist, she is helping to grow a local food movement that’s just now gaining ground.
“My mom and dad originally came out to Maui on holidays, then bought this land and started a farm and grew sweet corn,” says Simpson, as we wander among the lush taro plants, passion fruit vines, coffee plants, salad greens and elephant garlic thriving at Kupa’a Farm, on the fertile slopes of the dormant Haleakala volcano.
Maui may be known for its pristine beaches and upscale resorts, but I’ve come to explore another side of the Hawaiian island, to find the quiet corners where a new grassroots food movement is taking hold.
We’ve driven the spectacularly scenic, rugged North Shore to the national tropical botanical garden to learn about the original “canoe” food plants, including things like taro (kalo), breadfruit (‘ulu) and sweet potato (‘uala) – plants the first Polynesians brought when they paddled to these islands by outrigger canoe centuries ago. And now we’re bumping down a rural back road in Maui’s upcountry to visit some of the island’s pioneering farmers.
Tanned and fit, Simpson and Ross have taken well to the rigours of rural island life. Local chefs come for their 40 different varieties of organic fruits and vegetables, while their Maui-grown coffee has won top island and state accolades.
“I grow coffee, but I no longer roast. It’s the only thing I don’t do,” says Simpson, surveying the coffee cherries ripening on her 450 trees.
Maui seems perfect for growing almost anything, but, until recently, nearly all food consumed on the island, especially in restaurants and hotels, came from the mainland. Now, thanks to a handful of farmers and a new generation of chefs, the new mantra is sustainable, organic, fresh – or, as the sign at the local farmers’ market proclaims, “Thousands of Miles Fresher.”
My tour takes me through the western part of the island, from the surfer-friendly towns of Pa’ia and Haiku up into the high paniolo, or cowboy, country, historically known for its big cattle ranches and pineapple plantations.
Today, it’s a funky, laid-back corner – some say “like Old Maui” – where artists, aging hippies and A-list celebrities (Oprah, Willie Nelson) have found a place to retreat – and where you can shop for kombucha tea, a guava jelly doughnut or a pair of cowboy boots.
We check into Lumeria for a few blissful nights. A former plantation-era retirement home, it’s been recently refurbished as a hip and stylish yoga and wellness retreat. While food isn’t really the focus of the experience at this Zen sanctuary, you can work on your inner glow with a cleansing juice fast (reportedly a favourite of local Steven Tyler of Aerosmith and his actress daughter, Liv) and chill out with early morning yoga classes in the lush gardens.
Nearby, Ho’okipa Beach attracts expert surfers and wind surfers with its big wind and even bigger waves.
But foodies head to Mama’s Fish House, a beautiful oceanside institution that’s been serving seafood for more than 40 years. Chef Perry Bateman prepares traditional dishes like poi and lists the fisherman who brought in each fish on his extensive menu.
“We work with more than 200 local fisherman,” he says, while loading our table with tastes of his grilled he’e (local octopus), ahi tuna poke and today’s fresh catch, pan-seared and served with caramelized Maui onions, Anuhea Farms asparagus and slivers of local daikon radish.
Up in dusty little Makowoa at Market Fresh Bistro, chef Justin Pardo also lists local farms on his menu, and, nearby, locals line up for fresh cream puffs at the T. Komoda Store, a bakery that was opened in 1916 by a Japanese plantation worker.
The cuisine on Maui is an eclectic mix of Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean and Filipino food, a reflection of the people who first came to work in these plantations. It’s a theme you’ll see running through the menus here, whether you stop for a plate lunch at a local diner like Sam Sato’s in Wailuku for saimin noodles and azuki manju pastries, or try the lumpia (spring roll) and kalbi (ribs) at Tylun Pang’s K? in the posh Fairmont Kea Lani.
At the Moana Bakery Caf in Paia, local ingredients and traditional foods merge in the casual cuisine. We try the creamy breadfruit and coconut curry with crisp taro chips and a salad of organic upcountry mixed vegetables with sugar cane vinaigrette and purple Moloka’i sweet potato croquettes alongside a very Korean Bi-Bim-Bap rice bowl.
Even hotel chefs are now growing their own herbs and working with local farmers. Chef Wesley Holder shows me his compact garden at the Westin Ka’anapali Ocean Resort Villas where herbs, hot Hawaiian chilies and lemongrass fill beds between towering banana, papaya and citrus trees.
“I work with Ho’o Pono Farm,” says Holder, as we sit down to plates of his fish tacos, and arugula and beet salad topped with Surfing Goat Dairy cheese. “They’re the first people to grow English peas on the island. We can get artichokes, carrots and heirloom tomatoes, too.”
It’s a similar scene when we stop for lunch at Peter Merriman’s Monkeypod in Wailea for cocktails made with coconut water and kaffir lime, smoked taro hummus and Hawaiian pizza topped with Maui’s sweetest pineapple.
Taro and breadfruit have been exotic taste discoveries, but there’s one more local flavour to try. I climb onto the plane carrying the ultimate Maui fast food, a fat piece of Hawaiian musubi – a slice of teriyaki-glazed fried Spam secured to a block of seasoned sushi rice with a band of nori.
Yes, it’s ‘ono (delicious) and it’s local.
The slopes of Haleakala (a.k.a. the upcountry area) are home to several of the farms that are feeding the growing locovore movement on Maui. Take a farm tour of O’o or Kapua’a farms, visit the Ali’i Kula Lavender Farm, hit the Saturday farmers’ market at Kula or milk a goat at Surfing Goat Dairy.
Spend a day at the park-like Maui Tropical Plantation where there are 60 acres of local crops, fruits and flowers to discover. Or plan your visit around the annual Maui County Agricultural Festival, which happens the first Saturday in April, for educational demos, a massive farm market and a chance to taste creative dishes from the island’s most passionate, locally inspired chefs.