Fresh off the plane and impatient for the next day’s Big Island tour with a local fruit expert, I brake just past a roadside stand in the upland coffee-growing region a bit south of Kona International Airport. Along with one-pound bags of Kona coffee, the tiny unmanned stand displays a small cluster of softball-sized yellow fruit. A coffee grower sauntering by tells me it’s called a jabong and describes its flavor as a combination of grapefruit and orange. Fifty cents later, it’s mine. And so my Hawaiian fruit odyssey begins.
Lacking a knife, I sink first my teeth, then my fingernails, into the thick, tough skin, then wrestle with the equally tenacious pith. Segmenting the fruit proves no easier—and reveals, lurking inside each tightly encased slice, a cache of seeds that resemble gigantic wizened corn kernels. The pulp is firm, pleasingly substantial. It does indeed deliver a toothsome sweet-sour citrus tang. I spit out the seeds on the rich volcanic soil.
“That was a pomelo, also called a zabon,” says Ken Love, president of Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers, the next day, as he leads me on a multi-stop pick-’em-peel-’em-bite-’em tour of this undiscovered eater’s Eden. Thanks largely to its restaurateurs and chefs, who are eager to serve local, garden-fresh produce, and obliging growers willing to plant new species, the Big Island has become an abundant fruit bowl brimming year-round with tropical varieties whose names are every bit as colorful as their skins and pulp. There’s jaboticaba, jackfruit, longans, liliko’i and mangosteens—to tap just three letters of the alphabet.
Because of Hawaii’s remote Pacific Ocean location, only a few species, like the tart ohelo berry, a cousin of the cranberry, are native. So, admittedly, most of these fruits are not unique to the islands. What is special is the opportunity to taste so many different kinds of exotic fruits just off the tree, a veritable United Nations of species, without a single stamp on your passport.
Prominent early imports include breadfruit (ulu to native Hawaiians) and bananas (mai'a), which were among the “canoe crops” brought by Polynesian settlers, perhaps as far back as the 13th century. A second wave of new species came ashore off whalers and European sailing ships that followed Captain James Cook’s arrival on the Hawaiian Islands in 1778. The journal entries of botanists who sailed on these ships point to the introduction of oranges, peaches, nectarines, figs, plums, grapes, cherries and avocados. More exotic fruits, like Central American sapodillas and West Indian soursops, took root more recently.
Another reason to make a pilgrimage to the Big Island is the fact that most of the local abundance doesn’t leave the island. Strict rules from the U.S. Department of Agriculture discourage the export of all but a few varieties to the rest of the country. Indeed, such edible local treasures as white pineapples and Kahalu’u avocados never make it to the mainland. Why? Finger the tiny fruit fly, which the USDA seeks to keep out of North America by banning the import of fruits that might, Trojan Horse–like, contain fruit-fly larvae.
Hawaiian pineapples do, of course, make it to the mainland, but only the acidic mass-market variety that is inhospitable to fruit flies. The supersweet white pineapple, also known as the sugarloaf, makes an all-too-fitting fruit-fly host and, therefore, remains a local delicacy. “Is it good?” echoes Eric Weinert, the Big Island–based general manager of Hawaiian operations for California company Calavo Growers, beginning a verbal swoon. “We grow them in our backyard. Four of us will eat a six-pounder for dessert. We also dehydrate them. They make the best candy in the world.”
The 60-year-old Love wears a billowing “aloha” shirt, jeans and sneakers. His curly gray hair is all but hidden beneath the rumpled brim of a canvas slouch hat. A former globe-trotting news photographer who attended cooking school in Japan, Love started his Big Island farm in the early 1980s and transplanted himself there full time in 1995. He now jokes that he needs a vacation from his retirement. Like many on the Kona Coast, he grows and sells coffee. His property is a veritable jungle of plants, a tangled mix of full-grown fruit trees, seedlings sprouting from pots and exotic saplings, such as a thorny finger-lime from Australia. Empty fruit crates used to transport his crop to local farmers’ markets litter the garage. He and his wife make jams, jellies, syrups, even jackfruit jerky, from the local bounty.
But more than a small grower and food maker, Love is a tireless promoter of sustainable local agriculture, posting all manner of research papers, field notes and photos on his website, HawaiiFruit.net. A self-taught fruit aficionado, he secures grants to plant new varieties on the University of Hawaii’s experimental plots. Above all, he’s a catalyst. Love connects local growers, chefs and distributors, seeking to re-tip local produce scales to a more island-healthy balance.
In a way he’s fighting an uphill battle. The percentage of locally grown fruit and vegetables sold in Hawaii has decreased over the last four decades, from more than half in 1961 to one-third today. It turns out that for various reasons it’s cheaper to import produce than to grow it.
But Hawaiian harvests are increasing. Maureen Datta, co-owner of Adaptations, a Kona area distributor handling more than 100 local growers, says that the fruit portion of her 28-year-old business started in 2004 and now accounts for 30 percent of sales and is steadily growing.
Fruit-enthused Big Island chefs are clearly helping to stir up demand. When James Babian, executive chef at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, first arrived on the Big Island 14 years ago, he found the Hawaii regional chef movement grounded in good intentions and not much else. “There was no mushroom farm, there were no heirloom tomatoes. There was some exotic fruit, but not much,” he recalls.
In the early 2000s, when he was president of the local chapter of the American Culinary Federation, Babian started a subcommittee chaired by Ken Love that brought chefs and farmers together and helped strengthen the plant-to-plate connection. “We’ve got one small farmer; coffee’s his primary crop,” says Babian. “But he’s got a huge strawberry-guava bush that goes off once a year. I have a deal with him. I’ll buy everything that’s ripe on that tree. We’ll make ono sashimi with crushed strawberry guava on top. We’ll make strawberry-guava ice cream or sorbets. And then freeze the rest to make jams and chutneys.
“I’m living the dream,” he continues, attributing the stellar quality of the Big Island fruit to the rich volcanic soil and the fortuitous series of sea-level to low-mountain microclimates that offer farmers a range of terroirs. “When I first got here there was some dragon fruit, but it only grew for about a month,” says Babian. “They kept experimenting, playing with different elevations. Now it’s a six-month season.”
“Here’s a Surinam cherry,” Love says, plucking for me a black-skinned specimen shaped rather like a miniature pumpkin, hence its other name: the pumpkin cherry. “It’s sweeter than the red ones.” An exploratory nibble reveals yellowish flesh and a big seed. The fruit is juicy, beguilingly sweet and sour and carries a background taste of…what? Resin, I realize. After three or four seeds have hit the ground, I’m won over.
Love’s gaze darts among his trees. He disappears and then emerges with an abiu, a soft yellow fruit about the size of a lacrosse ball, a commonly plucked backyard snack in Brazil. I cut it open and sample a bit. Unfortunately, this abiu is past ripe, starting to ferment. Love tells me what I’m missing: “It’s like vanilla custard, and it has an even rarer half-brother, the abiurana, that’s like vanilla-caramel custard.”
Love shares that he’s thinking of creating a flavor wheel to help pinpoint some of the more elusive and distinctive flavors, which range widely. Vanilla, for instance, is also what Hawaii chef and restaurateur Peter Merriman detects in the ice cream banana, a rare local fruit he’s especially fond of. These are softer than butter when ripe, and islanders freeze them for a no-churn, no-sugar-added treat.
Merriman was a locavore before the word was even invented. “When we opened Merriman’s more than 23 years ago,” he says, “people would bring us boxes of carambola—star fruit—and tell us, ‘Hey, this was in my yard. You guys can have it.’ ” He welcomed this bounty, because back then these local delicacies weren’t available through commercial growers.
Near his fig trees at the University of Hawaii’s test orchards, Love points to one that produces his runaway favorite avocado, the Kahalu’u. “The California Haas has a fat content of about 8 percent,” he says. “The fat content of the Kahalu’u can reach 25 percent. It’s like eating butter. We have 200 types of avocados, 50 types of oranges, 50 types of bananas here.”
Nearby, high in another tree, Love spots a cluster of bright-red, Ping Pong ball–sized fruit bearing short bristles a porcupine might cuddle as kin. Love climbs an orchard ladder, cuts off the bunch and demonstrates how to eat a rambutan. “Rambut means ‘hair’ in Malaysian. It’s like a hairy lychee,” he says. “All the hotels are using it now.” Employing an experienced thumbnail, he peels back the firm skin, revealing a milky-white orb a good bit larger than a quail egg. The flesh around its almond-shaped seed tastes luscious, intriguingly sweet and succulent.
But my favorite new fruit has yet to cross my lips. I sample it a few hours later in the botanically diverse Captain Cook orchard planted by Love’s former fruit mentor, the late George Schattauer, one-time manager for Jimmy Stewart’s Big Island property. Schattauer’s widow, Margaret, still lives here in a house built by her great-grandfather and allows Love the run of the grounds. Near the house stands a 40-foot Valencia orange tree. It was planted in 1792 by Archibald Menzies, the surgeon-naturalist who sailed with Captain George Vancouver to reclaim the bones of Captain Cook. It’s still producing sweet, juicy oranges. Uphill, Love shows me the jackfruit tree that in 2003 produced a Guinness-worthy specimen: a Goliath 76-pounder the size of his torso.
But even more peculiar is the jaboticaba tree, which grows its Concord grape–like fruit right out of the bark on its limbs. If Willy Wonka branched into fruit, he’d tap the jaboticaba. These you pop in your mouth. The first taste of the white flesh is blissfully sweet. Then it changes to sour as the purple skin is chewed.
Sweet. Sour. Spit seed.
Sweet. Sour. Spit seed.
I continue on in the name of research until a competing duo called etiquette and conscience suggest I’ve had enough. Happily, late in the afternoon I’m able to satisfy my jaboticaba jones. I score a bag of my new favorite snack at the well-stocked South Kona Fruit Stand on Route 11 in Honaunau. On some six acres around the stand, Ken Verosko, an ex–New Yorker and former decorative painter, grows an extensive assortment of fruit year-round: 19 varieties of mangos, 21 kinds of avocados, plus jackfruit, figs, abiu, Cuban red bananas, ice cream bananas, lychee, loquat, white sapote, mamey sapote and soursop—this last fruit famously so. In 2010 Verosko picked an 8.14-pound soursop as big as a human head. Again, the folks at Guinness smiled on an exotic Big Island fruit. Verosko’s partner, Beth Smith, who runs the fruit stand, compares the taste of soursop to a piña colada without the rum. She’s right. I buy a ready-to-eat chunk and find that its white fibrous flesh delivers a nuanced cocktail: pineapple, banana, lime and coconut.
My fruit quest resumes across the Big Island at the Wednesday farmers’ market in Hilo. Only a few of the vendors have what I’m looking for. One sells an array of jams and butters. Among the flavors are ohelo berry; passion fruit, which Hawaiians call liliko’i; and calamondin, a lime-orange citrus native to the Philippines and China. Another offers a delicious poha-berry jam—inside a sugar-coated Portuguese-style malasada, a most memorable jelly donut. For less than $20, I’m able to purchase an array of exotic fruit, which I assiduously refrain from sampling. They’re for tonight. I’ve arranged a special, Iron Chef–like challenge with Allen Hess, who, at the time of my visit, is overseeing the open kitchen at Merriman’s in Waimea. (He has since opened his own restaurant, Allen’s Table, in Kamuela.)
At 5:30 p.m., when I take my seat, the restaurant is already busy. Alone at a table for four, I spread out the contents of two plastic bags. My Big Island still life includes a dozen rambutan on the branch, a Keitt mango, a purple-skinned mangosteen, a cherimoya, a wi apple, two sapodillas and a small bunch of ice cream bananas.
When he joins me at the table, chef Hess recognizes most but not all of the fruit. “The way I love to prepare rambutan,” he says, “is to cut and freeze them. Because of the water content, it’s almost like eating a rough-turned sorbet.
“Wi apple? I’ve never heard of that,” he says, picking up the hard, oblong green fruit. Nor is he familiar with the Keitt mango, which I’ve heard can be particularly sweet. The cherimoya is quite soft. “They can go really ripe fast,” he says, explaining that before using any of these fruits in a dish, he’ll need to taste them to make sure they’re in prime condition. “If I’m not familiar with something,” he continues, “I’ll ask, What does it remind me of?”
About ten minutes later, chef Hess returns from the kitchen with a rectangular plate bearing slices of most of the fruits and four square ramekins filled with what he calls “classic Hawaiian sides.” One bears slices of lemon, another balsamic vinegar and soy sauce. A third contains fish sauce cut with soy sauce. The fourth ramekin bears a pink spice called li hing powder. Made from dried plum seeds, it’s at once sweet, sour and salty, and it’s so popular in Hawaii, it’s sprinkled on everything from fruit to popcorn. We start with the wi, which Hess tells me the Filipino cooks in his kitchen call a Filipino pear. He suggests dipping it in the powder. Indeed, it has a pear’s crisp, grainy mouthfeel and pairs well with the recommended coating.
When we move on to the ice cream bananas, neither of us finds any hint of vanilla. Perhaps they weren’t the real deal. We agree the Keitt mango is wonderful. “If I had 50 pounds, I’d make a sorbet,” Hess says. “Seven or eight, I’d pop one in the freezer real quick, peel it, slice it thin and serve it, maybe with fresh mint or a dusting of chile powder.” The sapodilla, also known as a chico sapote, tastes as advertised by the market vendor: like brown sugar. Hess suggests a squeeze of lemon. Again, good advice. He says he’s already formulating a four-course meal for me and heads off to the kitchen.
While waiting I turn my attention to some homemade biscuits with a compote of ohelo berries, honey and reduced Gewürztraminer. Then the dishes start coming. First is a salad of thin wi slices, which add another level of complexity to the mix of greens, goat cheese and pickled pumpkin. Next, a lobster-and-mangosteen ceviche inside half a rambutan shell, plus two diver scallops, each capped with a banana slice sautéed in coconut oil and topped with a dice of hot pepper. The entrée features the restaurant’s signature macadamia nut–fed feral pig—pink loin slices top jasmine rice served with sautéed spinach and Keitt mango. For dessert, there is a trio of ricotta fritters in a pool of cherimoya and banana crème anglaise encircled by liliko’i syrup.
After eating a good portion of the Big Island’s fruit bounty straight off the tree, I find it equally enjoyable to put myself in the hands of a creative chef and see my farmers’ market haul come to life on the plate. I enjoy all of Hess’s creations, but the dessert really wows me. I think I know why. Visiting Hawaii long before me, Mark Twain had the pleasure of eating cherimoya, which he described as both “the most delicious fruit known to men” and “deliciousness itself.”