Category Archives: 2018

Hawai’i’s Edible Canoe Plants


POLYNESIAN VOYAGERS CROSSED UNCHARTED ocean in double-hulled canoes to discover one of the most remote landmasses on Earth more than 1,000 years ago. These savvy sailors brought supplies with them that would allow them to inhabit territory they predicted would be unoccupied by humans.

More than two dozen “canoe plants” joined the ancient mariners in the form of roots, seeds and cuttings. The plants would allow the settlers to survive, serving as various resources, such as medicine, bedding and mats, and, of course, food. While they aren’t endemic to Hawai‘i, these species are considered indigenous, or native, because they were – and still are – revered by the Islands’ original inhabitants.

“They knew how important it was to be able to bring their plants with them,” says Michael DeMotta, curator for Living Collections at the National Tropical Botanical Garden.

Sabra Kauka and Michael DeMotta near lo‘i (taro patches) at the National Tropical Botanical garden on Kaua'i.
Sabra Kauka and Michael DeMotta near lo‘i (taro patches) at the National Tropical Botanical garden on Kaua’i.


By the time the Polynesians arrived in Hawai‘i, they had learned new ways to help the plants thrive, including the unique method of propagating kalo (taro) in wetland fields.

“We survived for many, many centuries with only these plants,” says cultural practitioner kumu (teacher) Sabra Kauka. “These plants and the kai, the ocean.”

Each plant carries its own cultural significance. Kalo, for example, represents the “staff of life.” The creation story of Hawaiians centers around two gods, whose firstborn did not survive. At the spot where their baby was buried, a kalo plant subsequently grew. Their second child, named Haloa in honor of their firstborn of the same name, was a healthy boy from whom the Hawaiian people are believed to be descended. Haloa went on to nurture the kalo that sprouted from his older brother – a reminder that the earth will provide if it is properly nourished.

Uncle Bo's serves "Hobo's"’ warm beignets made with   taro and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Uncle Bo’s serves “Hobo’s”’ warm beignets made with taro and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.




Because of the care that Hawaiians put into their food, the plants tended to them in return. Kalo, ‘uala (sweet potato) and ‘ulu (breadfruit) were their staple foods, usually steamed in an imu (underground oven) and paired with fish.

The edible canoe plants provided nourishment for Hawaii’s people for centuries, and many of the species still thrive today. Contemporary chefs in Waikiki are aware of the rich, authentic flavors they add to meals, and have found ways to harmoniously incorporate them into their dishes.

Sugar cane was originally brought to the Islands by Polynesian voyagers.
Sugar cane was originally brought to the Islands by Polynesian voyagers.


Moreover, Waikiki, during the 1920s, was once the prominent site of the state’s wetland lo‘i (taro patches). Other canoe plants were grown here as well, including niu (coconuts) and mai‘a (bananas).

“Honolulu was like the breadbasket of the island of O‘ahu,” says DeMotta who adds that O‘ahu’s south shore was where many of Hawai‘i’s ali‘i (royalty) resided. “You didn’t ever have to leave Waikiki.”

Sweet potatoes (left) and coconut trees were among the ‘canoe plants’ that ancient settlers brought with them to Hawai‘i in order to survive.
Sweet potatoes (left) and coconut trees were among the ‘canoe plants’ that ancient settlers brought with them to Hawai‘i in order to survive.

Consider sampling a dish with one of Hawai‘i’s famed canoe plants while you’re in Waikiki, and reflect in the significance of these mighty flora and their continued importance to native people. “If people embrace eating Hawaiian food, then that’s better for us; it’s better for Hawaiians and the culture,” says DeMotta.

Breadfruit is one of the most highly esteemed of the canoe plants, particularly on Kaua‘i, where it is said to have been brought by the Tahitian voyager, Mo‘ikeha, who later became ali‘i nui (high chief) of the island. The starch can be eaten in a number of ways and is a complex fibrous carbohydrate. When green, it can be baked or boiled and tastes like a potato. When ripe, it becomes sweeter and can be used in desserts.

Bananas in Hawai‘i today are nothing like those that were originally brought to the Islands. The fruit was used more like a starch and baked or boiled while still green. A little coconut milk was poured onto them after removing the bananas from an imu, creating a filling, nutrient-packed meal. Additionally, banana stumps were used to ignite heat in an imu. They were laid in the ground with water before a pig or fish was settled in, and the heat from the ground would cause the stumps to steam and cook the meat.

This plant is best known for being the main component of poi, the pounded and baked or steamed root of the plant. You’ll find this dish at several markets and places like lu‘au (Hawaiian feasts). Poi was a popular edible for natives because of its ability to keep its nutritional value for extended periods of time. The leaves of the taro plant, which are also edible, are heart-shaped, and its thick bulbous root, or corm, has a characteristic purple tint.

This plant prevailed in Hawai‘i long before sugar cane became a commodity synonymous with the Islands’ plantation era. Hawaiians used its sweetness for many purposes, including masking the bitter taste of plant medicine. Juices from its thick stalk were also used to sweeten desserts.

Calling All Veggie Lovers


You don’t have to be a vegetarian to enjoy the many delectable dishes sans meat at a variety of Waikiki dining establishments. Make at least one pass on ordering steak or seafood during your tropical vacation and take a chance on something that provides just as much of a party, if not more, for your taste buds.



Chopped Salad never looked or tasted as exquisite as the one at this Waikiki restaurant located on Beachwalk Avenue. An abundant dose of fresh, local vegetables is used in this dish. And even though it’s a salad, you’ll be hard pressed to finish this meal. Served in an ample sized bowl, the ingredients consist of hearty produce like grilled zucchini, local heirloom tomatoes that explode with perfection in your mouth, volcanic lettuce, Kahuku corn, cucumber, roasted beets, edamame and the option of buttery avocado. The salad is accompanied with flavorfully fried garbanzo beans tossed in furikake and seaweed sesame. And if that weren’t enough, the citrus sesame dressing is the sweet cherry on top of this veggie lover’s dish.




The caprese salad here is as elegant and refined as the restaurant. This Italian dining establishment, located within the Hilton Hawaiian Village, serves all kinds of fresh, locally sourced vegetarian dishes, including a succulent Insalata Caprese. Every one of the vegetables in this salad are organic and grown on local farms. Brilliant red and yellow Kamuela tomatoes are coupled with aromatic basil and macadamia-nut pesto, and topped with amaranth and mozzarella cheese, as well as a perfect dash of Hawaiian black salt. Begin any meal with this palate pleaser and your taste buds will beg for more of the restaurant’s high-quality Mediterranean cuisine.




Situated right on Waikiki Beach with a stunning up-close view of the pristine shoreline, this elegant restaurant has sensational options for vegetarian cuisine. The sunshine-flooded dining room located within the historic Moana Surfrider Hotel is a lovely place to try a non-meat dish like Beach Bim Bop. A clever play on words of the more famously known Korean dish, bi bim bap, its version offers a similar smattering of satisfying vegetables. The spicy Asian meal is created with fiddlehead fern salad, kim chee brussel sprouts, kalbi (Korean barbequed) ali‘i mushrooms, hapa rice and a sunny-side-up egg. Mix the ingredients together and create your own combo of the sweet and fiery house kochujang sauce served with a touch of soy. Add as much homemade chili spread as you dare, but be prepared to feel the fire.




This well-respected brand based out of California is known for its pizza made with a heavenly dough rolled fresh every day. Located within the Hilton Hawaiian Village is the chain restaurant’s No. 1 producing eatery out of its more than 500 establishments. That’s because the quality is just that good. One of the vegetarian pizza options here is especially luxurious, with an ultra-creamy garlic sauce crafted from a secret recipe. You won’t be disappointed by the blend of flavors in this melt-in-yourmouth pizza that has a combo of mozzarella, cheddar and provolone cheeses, and is topped with an assortment of vegetables including artichoke hearts, zucchini, spinach, mushrooms and tomatoes. Don’t forget, Round Table Pizza offers free delivery throughout Waikiki.


Fruit of the Sea


Shrimp are the perfect accompaniment to almost any dish. Bursting with salty sweetness, the “fruit of the sea” is one of the most versatile ingredients for chefs to work with and are therefore featured in a variety of ways in dishes at restaurants throughout Waikiki. Many dining establishments even go so far as to feature locally harvested shrimp, making the tasty invertebrates as fresh as they can get and adding just the perfect amount of flavorful crunch to any meal.


The view alone is worth a visit to this restaurant located at the Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort. What’s more, Kuhio Beach Grill offers something for everyone each night. The dining establishment presents hearty buffets that highlight different dining themes throughout the week. Arrive between 5 and 10 on a Wednesday or Sunday evening, for example, and create your own Hawaiian-style meal. These particular nights have a special poke bowl (raw fish salad) station where shrimp are offered as one of the many options for dressing up your dish. Indulge in the zesty local flavors of poke and opt for shrimp on a bed of matcha (green tea) seasoned rice with a sprinkle of seaweed and fresh herbs, such as green onions, to give it extra zip.



This trendy Mexican eatery is located on a rooftop in the heart of Waikiki on Kalakaua Avenue. The chic atmosphere is inviting, but the food and drinks are the real reasons to visit. Kauai Shrimp Ceviche is one example of an ideal way to embark on your dining adventure at this lively outdoor restaurant. Served with three large, crisp tortilla chips, the traditional Mexican-style ceviche is made with locally raised and harvested shrimp from the Garden Isle. Rather than prepared with heat, the shrimp are cooked by soaking them in lime juice. The juicy citric freshness of this appetizer is made even better with diced tomatoes, red onions, cilantro, avocado and cucumber.



The ample menu here highlights many all-American plates infused with traditional local ingredients. Tucked inside the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort, this is a great spot to grab a quick meal that’s guaranteed to leave you satisfyingly full. You can’t beat its robust portions of signature dishes such as Garlic Shrimp. Exploding with garlic essence, the plate includes sautéed easy-to-peel shrimp that pop with perfection in your mouth and are dressed with a “secret” garlic-wine sauce. Also included are two hefty scoops of white rice and a side of comforting macaroni salad. Just pack a breath mint for afterwards—the garlic, while divine, packs a powerful punch.



The millennial-inspired Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club hosts this one of-a-kind poolside restaurant that appeals to people of all ages. Each dish here is authentic in flavor, using only the finest ingredients, such as the Kauai Shrimp Risotto. Created with large, succulent shrimp raised on the westside of the Garden Isle, this plate is exquisite in every way. While risotto is traditionally a heavy dish, this recipe is on the lighter side: so rather than weigh you down, the delicately creamy sauce, enhanced with zesty lemon flavor, leaves you wanting more. The shrimp and rice combo is served with shaved shallots and sugar snap peas that provide an extra savory zing, while fried capers and shaved radishes resembling flower petals add even more gusto and texture to this impeccable dish.