#CatTravels: A cultural lesson in Okinawa

By April 24, 2015 #CatTravels

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To be honest, before this trip, all I knew about Okinawa had to do with food.

Soki soba, taco rice, champuru.

But I didn’t know much about what else makes this collection of islands so unique and different from Mainland Japan.

In just a few days here — visiting Shuri Castle, walking down the touristy Kokusai Dori, touring around a soba noodle factory — I’ve learned so much about the prefecture’s rich — and often tragic — culture and history.

(It helps I came with the production crew for “Family Ingredients” and they’re interested in capturing the spirit of whatever place they’re at.)

One of our stops was Shuri Castle (below), the palace of the Ryūkyū Kingdom.

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Walking up to the entrance of Shuri Castle. We lucked out with great weather!

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The castle is one of the most visited places in Okinawa.

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The view from the castle, which sits atop a hill in Shuri, a district in Naha.

After the kingdom was annexed by Japan in 1879, the king was removed and the castle was used as a barracks by the Japanese army.

During the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, the Shuri Castle was almost destroyed. (It was shelled by the American battleship USS Mississippi for three straight days.) In 1958, the stone gate was reconstructed and, in 1992, the main building of the castle was reconstructed.

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Outside Shurijo Seiden, a beautiful example of Ryūkyū architecture.

The castle was reconstructed on the original site based on photographs, historical records and memory — not unlike castles in Europe that were destroyed during war.

Today, along with other sites in the area, the castle is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Inside Zuisen Distillery, a local distillery near the castle.

And then there’s awamori, that iconic Okinawan spirit derived from long grain indica rice imported from Thailand and fermented with koji, a kind of mold. Unlike sake, which is brewed, awamori is distilled like shōchū. And in order for it to be called awamori, it has to be made in Okinawa.

We learned this by visiting Zuisen Distillery near the castle.

This distillery has been churning out awamori for more than 100 years. In fact, it supplies the largest volume of awamori to stores in Okinawa.

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The distillery offers sampling of its vintage awamori.

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Here’s the distillery’s variety of awamori liqueurs.

Awamori is colorless distilled spirit that’s a lot like vodka (though with far lower alcohol content). It’s only made with three ingredients: Thai rice, water and the black koji yeast-culture.

The most popular way to drink awamori is with water or over ice. (Many people drink it straight, too, or mix the spirit into cocktails.) Traditionally, it’s served in a kara-kara, or a small earthen vessel with a clay marble inside (giving it that sound, kara-kara.)

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Outside Fujiya, a surf-themed restaurant in Naha that served taco rice.

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Inside the restaurant.

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I loved the T-shirts here — especially that yellow one.

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Like some ramen shops in Tokyo, you have to order your food through this vending machine.

OK, taco rice.

Not everyone gets this dish, but I love it.

It’s really simple: taco-flavored ground beef is served on a bed of rice with shredded lettuce, cheese (usually straight from a bag), tomatoes and salsa.

It’s likely a dish born out of the U.S. presence in Okinawa, but the locals have embraced it as well. Taco rice is often served in school lunches and, in 1996, it was on the menu at KFC in Japan.

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Taco rice with egg. You have to mix it all up before you eat it.

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The rest of the food we ate at Fujiya.

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A traditional bowl of soki soba.

And it wasn’t until I went on a tour at a soba noodle factory did I truly appreciate Okinawan soba.

Noodles arrived in Okinawa from China in 1574 — almost a century before udon popped up in Japan.

And in order to call noodles, “Okinawan soba,” it has to meet 12 standards, including the water ratio content, concentration of sodium, thickness, and the noodles have to be coated with oil while it’s hot.

And it has to be made in Okinawa. I didn’t know that.

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Walking around the Peace Memorial Park in Itoman.

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Walls of names of those who died in battle.

The most impactful experience, though, was visiting the Peace Memorial Park in Itoman.

This area was the site of one of the war’s bloodiest battles, when U.S. forces invaded and occupied the island. About 200,000 people died, including more than 100,000 civilians. Some were killed by bombs and shells. Some committed suicide. Some died of starvation or malaria. Some were killed by retreating Japanese troops. It was a tragic moment in the prefecture’s history, and the message of peace has been strong and fierce every since.

The Peace Memorial Park is the main memorial to the Battle of Okinawa, the 82-day battle that lasted from early April to mid-June 1945. (It’s called the “Typhoon of Steel.”) It’s near the ocean, where many people jumped to their death.

The park also houses a museum with artifacts from the war, including oral histories from survivors.

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The fountain of peace at the park.

This fountain symbolizes Okinawa with waves of peace emanating from it. Even the walls surrounded the fountain are placed in a way to look like waves coming from the fountain. It’s a stunning tribute to those who died — and those who survived.

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The Cornerstone of Peace at the park.

The Cornerstone of Peace is a collection of large stone plates with the names of all the fallen soldiers and civilians, including Korean, Taiwanese, Americans and Brits. It was unveiled in 1995 on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa. We left an offering of flowers here in honor of their memory.

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The Golden Okinawan Buddha is housed at the park. This is where people come to pray for peace. Above the buddha is a narrow opening that mimics the night sky. So your prayers leave the building and go towards the stars. It’s very poetic.

Finally, we went out to a bar that showcased live music and kachāshī, a form of festive Okinawan folk dance. (You’ve probably seen this at the local Okinawan Festival.) It’s a traditional style of music and dance that features the sanshin and taiko drum. Men dance with closed fists; women dance with flat palms.

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Honestly, this kind of dance was utterly foreign to me. It felt like a faster, livelier version of bon dancing. And we couldn’t figure it out.

But we did it. It wasn’t pretty. But it was fun.

And I think ultimately, that’s what it was all about.

***

Follow my adventures in Okinawa on Instagram @catherinetoth and Twitter @thedailydish. See even more photos at @familyingredients on Instagram and Facebook.

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#CatTravels: It’s all about the food in Okinawa

By April 21, 2015 #CatTravels, Food

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I’ve eaten all over Japan and nothing — nothing — compares to Okinawan food.

The food in this southernmost prefecture is a reflection of its cultural diversity, distance from Japan and complicated history.

The hundred of islands here were only part of an independent state called the Ryukyu Kingdom that traded heavily with China, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia. (Ryukyu-han became Okinawa Prefecture of Japan in 1879.) All of these connections had an impact on the cuisine here. The pork hailed from China, the dashi and kelp from Japan, the fruits and spices from all over Asia.

And then there’s the big U.S. military presence here, which has contributed such post-war items as corned beef and Spam to the culinary landscape.

It’s strange and wonderful at the same time.

One of the most iconic dishes in Okinawa is soki soba — or Okinawan soba — which, by the way has nothing to do with the Japanese buckwheat noodles with the same name. Not at all.

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This style of Okinawan soba features a clear pork-based broth and wavy noodles.

This noodle dish features thick wheat noodles in a clear dashi (broth) made from pork or bonito fish flakes — or a blend of both. The chewy noodles are always thick and sometimes flat or wavy. It all depends on region and preference.

There are two different types of soki: hon soki (boned sparerib) and nonkotsu soki (cartilage sparerib). And the broth — which, to any Okinawan, is really the most important part of the dish — can range from light and fishy to heavy and porky. Again, it just all depends.

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This homemade version uses a broth with a blend of both pork and bonito fish flakes. The noodles here are slightly thinner than the earlier one.

Soki, though, is the star. These slow-cooked pork ribs are the most common topping in Okinawan soba and are braised in a shoyu-sugar mixture with awamori (a spirit made from long grain indica rice) until the meat is fork tender and falling off its bones.

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The dish is garnished with shredded pickled ginger, scallions, egg, and sometimes Spam. And many add a few drops of something called koregusu, a chili pepper-infused awamori that’s not dissimilar to Hawai‘i’s chili pepper water.

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After a couple of bowls of soki soba, I needed something sweet.

We didn’t see anyone selling andagi on our first full day in Okinawa — I’m on a mission to find that, though! — but we did visit a traditional Okinawan manju shop (above).

Okinawan manju is actually more like Japanese-style mochi. I found this interesting because I’m more familiar with manju as more of a cookie exterior filled with sweetened red bean paste. But the manju here — called nantu — is sweet steamed mochi.

Why?

Turns out, manju was derived from a type of pounded mochi from China called mantou. So maybe the Okinawans still make their version in the traditional Chinese style.

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We visited Manjyu Cafe, a small manju shop that’s been around for nine years here — but actually a second location for the very famous Yamagusuku company that’s been around for 160 years. The women on each side above — (left to right) Tomi Kobashigawa, Miyoko Iha and Akemi Kakazu — are the sixth generation of owners. (Miyoko Iha in the middle is their 83-year-old mother.)

They only serve a couple of different flavors of manju. Today, they had a traditional one filled with red bean paste sweeter with sugar (white) and another made from Okinawan sweet potato and filled with mashed Okinawan taro (purple).

The manju — 150 yen ($1.25) each — are steamed in ginger leaves, which give is a lovely fragrance when you eat it. So different from Japanese-style mochi.

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Another popular dessert is sangatsu gashi, which means “third-month candy” (above). It’s a small, deep-fried bar of dough — not unlike andagi — that contains sesame seeds or peanuts. It’s served during hinamatsuri, or Girl’s Day.

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And while this may not be a traditional Okinawan staple, you’ll find it everywhere, just like in Hawai‘i.

Spam (above), that precooked canned meat from Hormel, is very common here. In fact, you’ll find it in one of Okinawa’s iconic dishes, goya champuru, a stir fry with bitter melon.

Due to a meat scarcity during World War II, the American GIs would give out free cans of Spam to families in Okinawa. It quickly became a household product.

Today, about 7.2 million cans of Spam are consumed annually in Okinawa.

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Take a stroll down Ichiba Hondori, right off Naha’s popular Kokusai Street (think Kalākaua Avenue in Waikīkī) and you’ll see a lot of specialty foods and drinks.

The street was once known as “Sweets Street” because of its large number of confectionary shops, now features a variety of vendors. You’ll see items like Bogor pineapple — its segments can be easily pulled off and eaten — and pickled things like garlic wrapped in shiso leaves.

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Grocery stores — like San A — are a great place to see locally grown produce, too, like the yellow Okinawan carrots (long and light with a texture softer than burdock), okra, shima rakkyo (similar to shallot and eaten with awamori), and handama (purple Okinawan spinach).

It’s been a interesting culinary journey so far — and I know there’s so much more to eat.

But for Day 1, I think that’s pretty good.

***

Follow my adventures in Okinawa on Instagram @catherinetoth and Twitter @thedailydish. See even more photos at @familyingredients on Instagram and Facebook.

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#CatTravels: Heading to Okinawa

By April 17, 2015 #CatTravels

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No, I’m not Okinawan.

I say this because I’m asked it all the time. And I’m not really sure why. (I do love my taco rice and soki soba…)

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I eat too much, work really hard, and laugh really loud.

At least that’s what I’ve come to think of Okinawans, anyway. Which is why, in my opinion, they live so long.

So when I got invited to be part of the production crew to Okinawa for “Family Ingredients,” the Emmy award-winning food genealogy travel show that aired on PBS Hawai‘i in 2013 and slated to go national this year, there was absolutely no hesitation.

The chance to eat authentic Okinawan soba and rafute in the land of their origins?

Uh, yes, please.

Okinawa has always been fascinating to me. This southernmost prefecture of Japan — the plane ride will take more than two hours from Tokyo — boasts about 1.4 million people, including the American servicemen and their families who live there. (There are 32 U.S. military bases on Okinawa Island alone.)

The island is about 400 miles south of the rest of Japan, roughly the same distance from China, and 300 mile north of Taiwan. Its culture bears traces of its various nearby trading partners, particularly China and Thailand. Karate, for example, is a blend of Chinese kung fu and traditional Okinawan martial arts. And awamori, a popular Okinawan distilled spirit, is made from indica rice imported from Thailand.

While Okinawa is part of Japan, there’s a lot about this island that’s utterly unique and distinctive. (Much like how Hawai‘i is so different from the rest of the Mainland.) Case in point: there are six Ryukyuan languages that are incomprehensible to Japanese speakers. And the local pubs here serve unique dishes like goya champuru (bitter melon stir fry), rafute (braised pork belly) and — my personal favorite — taco rice, which is white rice topped with taco meat, cheese, shredded lettuce, tomatoes and sometimes ranch dressing or sour cream.

Oh, and they love their Spam here.

I’m leaving on Sunday for a week with the crew, diving headfirst — or, mouth-first — into the history and culture of Okinawa.

I’m excited.

So follow along!

I’ll be writing blogs whenever I can get WiFi and posting pics on Instagram (@catherinetoth) and Twitter (@thedailydish).

And follow “Family Ingredients,” too, on Facebook and Instagram (@familyingredients).

I tried to get the producer to let me surf while I’m there, but to no avail. I’m still bringing a bikini, though, just in case!

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#40trails No. 3: Pihea and Alaka‘i Swamp Trail, Kaua‘i

By April 16, 2015 #40trails

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HIKE: Pihea and Alaka‘i Swamp Trail, Kōkeʻe, Kaua‘i
WHEN: March 2015
LENGTH: 8 miles (total), roundtrip
DIFFICULTY: Moderate
FEATURES: Birding, native plants, canyon views, native rainforest, bog environment

When my husband told me we were hiking through a swamp, I envisioned a boggy wasteland near the ocean.

I didn’t expect this landscape at 4,500 feet above sea level.

But that’s exactly where the Alaka‘i Swamp on Kaua‘i is located.

It’s part of a wilderness preserve accessible through Kōkeʻe State Park. This swamp is a montane wet forest — not so much a true swamp — located on the plateau near Mount Wai‘ale‘ale, one of the wettest spots on the planet.

The swamp trail meanders 3.5 miles along a boardwalk and is often shrouded in mist (above). And the view at the end — a lookout on Kilohana over the picturesque Hanalei Bay — is usually blocked by the clouds that roll in in the morning.

So…

So we got up super early and hit the trail before anyone else.

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We beat the sun to the trailhead!

There’s no guarantee that starting before the sun rises will ensure a clear view at the lookout. But your chances are definitely increased.

The Alaka‘i Trail is connected to the Pihea Summit Trail, which starts at the Pu‘u o Kila Lookout (elevation 4,176 feet) at the end of Kōkeʻe Road. The first part of the trail is an easy stroll along the rim of Kalalau Valley, through a native ʻōhiʻa forest with ‘a‘ali‘i shrubs with views of the lush, amphitheater-headed Kalalau Valley below. (That’s another hike!)

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The view of Kalalau Valley.

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The trail wanders through a native rainforest filled with plants unique to Hawai‘i, like ʻōhiʻa and ‘ama‘u ferns, which has trunks very similar to the hāpuʻu ferns.

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You can catch glimpses of the mountainous landscape at this elevation.

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Park of the trail is a plank boardwalk (above) mostly covered with rusted chicken wire to provide traction. It’s very scenic and peaceful here, the only noise coming from the chattering — and endangered — ‘apapane (Hawaiian honeycreeper) and other native birds that we spotted along the way.

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Here’s one of those chatty ‘apapane.

Actually, this state-designated wilderness preserve boasts several endangered native birds, including the curious ‘elepaio (monarch flycatcher) and the green ‘amakihi (Hawaiian honeycreeper). The swamp’s most recent loss has been the the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō (Hawaiian honeyeater).

The critically endangered puaiohi (small Kaua‘i thrush) can be found here — and only here — in the central and southern parts of the preserve. In fact, 75 percent of the breeding population occurs in only 4 square miles of forest. We weren’t lucky enough to catch a glimpse of this rare bird — not even its song.

There are more than 50 different species of native plants along this trail, all of which prefer the wet mountain habitat, including the native ʻōlapa trees, which flutter in the wind. (It’s my husband’s favorite forest tree.)

After a few miles, you’ll get to a fork in the trail where you can either keep heading toward the summit of Pihea (elevation 4,284 feet) surrounded by ʻōlapa and pūʻahanui shrubs and views of Kalalau Valley or continue on for another 3.5 miles through the Alaka‘i Swamp.

Take that one.

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The first part of the trail follows this predator fence and through native wet forest to the rim of Wainiha Pali. Most of the trail follows the wooden boardwalk that was placed here specifically for hikers to provide easier access to the swamp. Before construction started in 1991, hikers trampled through the area and bogs, further endangering the native wildlife.

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About halfway to the swamp, you’ll approach a series of about 200 steep wooden stairs (above) that take you lower and lower into the forest, down to a stream — Kawai Koi — that you’ll need to cross (below).

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Then we reached the swamp.

It’s a magical place, a bit other worldly and extraordinary. It doesn’t seem like this eerie landscape could ever be found on a tropical island like Kaua‘i. But here it was, in all of its boggy glory, and it was awesome.

And after about a half an hour of walking along the boardwalk here, we reached our destination: Kilohana Overlook (below) at stunning views of Wainiha Valley and the horseshoe-shaped Hanalei Bay. We gazed down nearly 4,000 feet into the deep, lush valleys and across a deep blue ocean dotted with whitecaps.

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Here, we stopped for a bit — the hike took us five hours, but we were birding most of the way — and eat the lunch we packed — that consisted of Lunchables and Snickers — with a quick visit by a friendly ‘elepaio before heading back through the bog, now encircled by clouds.

We lucked out. The clouds rolled in just as we were leaving the lookout. And we didn’t encounter a single person on the hike out. (We saw about a dozen people on our way back, though.)

So getting up early was well worth it.

Plus, now we had lots of time to head back to the cabin for a nap.

VERDICT: Best hike in Kōkeʻe, hands down. It’s long and tiring — lots of ups and downs on the Alaka‘i Swamp Trail — but the uniqueness of the bog and the view at the lookout, if you can catch it clear, are breathtaking. Go early, bring lots of water, and don’t forget your binoculars. Lots of native birds to spock!

***
Follow my hiking adventures #40trails at Instagram (@catherinetoth), Twitter (@thedailydish) and Facebook (/thecatdish).

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#CatEats: Table-to-farm event at the Sheraton Waikiki

By April 15, 2015 #CatTravels, Food

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It’s nearly impossible to find Twin Bridge Farms in Waialua without specific directions from someone who’s actually been there.

It turns up in two different spots on two different map apps on my iPhone. In one, it’s near the roundabout between Waialua and Hale‘iwa on O‘ahu’s North Shore; in another, it’s in the Pacific Ocean.

And the farm doesn’t have a website, either.

Turns out, the farm is by the old Waialua Sugar Co. mill — which shut down in 1996 — at the end of a dirt road that looks like it leads nowhere.

There’s no sign welcoming you. There’s just an unmarked plantation-style structure outside a chain-link fence.

Good thing the rest of the tour came in a golden tour bus; otherwise, I would have never found the place.

The farm recently hosted about 30 people, mostly guests who enjoyed a gourmet dinner the night before at the Sheraton Waikīkī using the veggies grown here.

Started in October 2014 by Senior Executive Sous Chef Colin Hazama, this table-to-farm event, part of the Chef’s Table and Farm Tour series, offers diners a chance to see where their food is grown and meet the people behind the ingredients on the plate.

It works like this: For $170 ($200 with wine), you get an oceanfront dinner at the hotel on Friday night, with a menu featuring products from a local farm. The next day, you board a bus that takes you to that featured farm, where you meet the people responsible for your meal the night before and feast on a gourmet lunch prepared by Hazama at the farm.

“We wanted people to enjoy eating dinner first, then see what they ate the next day,” Hazama explained, while I sampled the sweet potato pie he was serving that night at the fourth dinner in the series. (The sweet potatoes came from Twin Bridge Farms.) “You don’t really get a full understanding of what you’re eating until after you’ve eaten it.”

Nearly 80 people showed up for the Twin Bridge Farms collaborative dinner, with about 30 of them making the trek to Waialua the next morning. (The farm tour is limited to 30 people.)

I was lucky enough to tag along with Hazama and his guests last weekend to Twin Bridge Farms, a farm that specializes in locally grown asparagus and potatoes. It doesn’t offer regular tours, so visiting was a special treat.

Here’s what it looked like:

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One of the owners, Milton Agader, greeted everyone at the farm’s recently renovated packing facility and commercial kitchen. He started this farm with his partner, Al Medrano, in 1998. They both had worked for the Waialua Sugar Co. until it closed down in 1996, then decided to start their own farm, instead.

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The farm has a contract to test potato seeds that are required to go through a stringent certification process. In return, they keep the crop. Up to 90 percent of the seeds sold in North America are first tested here.

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This is Agader holding up a tray of potatoes. The workers here plant the seeds in November and by early January, technicians come and take readings of the plant and send samples back. The farm grows a variety of potatoes, from Yukon Golds to Adriondack Blues.

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The farm also grows other crops, including these beefsteak tomatoes.

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After a quick tour of the packing facility, the commercial kitchen and the outdoor area where workers use a customized machine that cuts asparagus into perfect spears, we boarded the bus (again) and headed to the fields.

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We started at the diversified ag fields, where Agader and Medrano (shown here) grown all sorts of crops, from kale to cilantro. The farm even has a small shade house with an aquaponics system set up.

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Here are rows of beets.

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And here’s broccoli.

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After a short walk through this area, we headed to the fields of asparagus, the farm’s signature crop. Asparagus plants are perennial, which means the same plants grow in your garden year after year. Some of these fields are more than 15 years old.

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Agader snapped off some spears and gave them to guests to sample. Everyone raved about the tenderness of the asparagus. Some had never eaten asparagus raw. It was quite an experience.

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While the U.S. is the largest importer of asparagus, it’s not the largest exporter — at all. China is the world’s largest producer, with Peru and Mexico a far second and third. Most of the U.S. production of asparagus comes from California, Michigan and Washington.

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Hazama and Ryan Loo, executive chef at the Moana Surfrider, prepared a gourmet lunch that was served at the farm on this plateau with stunning views of the fields and mountains.

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In addition to Kaua‘i shrimp po’ boy sandwiches with Nalo Farms micro cress and Dole pineapple cabbage slaw or the country-style Bloody Marys with picked veggies and herb salt, the chefs highlighted the lunch with the farm’s asparagus: grilled spears with a whipped potage cream and crispy speck courtesy of Shinsato Farms.

It was an incredible experience to taste both the raw veggies fresh from the farm and the creative interpretation of these same ingredients by skilled chefs.

So if you’re looking for a new twist on the whole farm-to-table dining experience, this event series is worth checking out.

The next one will be at the Sheraton Kona on the Big Island. Hazama will team up with the hotel’s executive chef Matthew Naula to create a meal featuring the products from Wailea Agricultural Group — known for its hearts of palms — Kona Cold Lobsters and Living Aquaponics Farm. The dinner is scheduled for June 5 and farm tour on June 6. Cost is $170 for the dinner, farm tour and gourmet lunch; $200 with wine pairings. Seating is limited to 50 dining guests. The hotel is also offering a discounted room rate at $159 per night for guests who are attending this event. Make reservations at 808-921-4600.

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