Before my first ever trip to Hawaii, certain local culinary products were nearly inevitable, including poke, malasadas and shaved ice. Those experiences all came to fruition, but it was some of the unexpected stops that were most surprising and rewarding. For instance, my North Shore farm tour culminated with a trip to Marine AgriFuture, where Dr. Wenhao Sun farms sea asparagus in saltwater beds, with towering turbine blades as a backdrop to the bucolic setting.
Dr. Sun is from Shanghai and moved to Oahu to earn his PhD from the University of Hawaii in Horticulture, specializing in environmental plant physiology. About five years ago, he decided on sea asparagus (aka sea beans, aka salicornia) a vegetable with tips popular in places like Korea and Baja California. He said it’s grown for a few hundred years, beginning in England, France, and on the West Coast of the United States.
Dr. Sun explained the health benefits of sea asparagus, saying it’s full of Vitamin A, Vitamin B9 and folic acid, plus ocean minerals that are unavailable in land vegetables. He also referenced Trimethylglycine (TMG), claiming it will “improve your mood…improve your energy.” He even said sea asparagus reduces high blood pressure.
Dr. Sun practices biodiversity, with a variety of seaweed called oga supplying oxygen. Salt water tilapia, aka sunfish, produce fertilizer. The fish then eat the oga. Circle of life. Better yet, salt is a natural pesticide, so no pesticides are necessary when growing sea asparagus.
Akulikuli kai, aka pickle weed, lines the banks of the salt water ponds. The plump, oval “fronds” were even more intensely salty and sour, the result of what’s basically self-brining.
Marine AgriFuture supplies restaurants, health food stores, supermarkets like Whole Foods and ethnic markets like Marukai under the Olakai Hawaii label. They package raw sea asparagus tips, and also produce dressing, salsa verde and pesto. Sea asparagus has natural iodine, so less salt is necessary when added to a dish. The tips are also crunchy. At the time of our visit, Whole Foods was selling four-ounce packages for $4.99, with a two-week shelf life.
, Kahuku, HI 96731
Wenhao Sun currently farms two acres. By next year, he plans to have 20, in 2013, the number will jump to 100, and in 2014, he should be farming 150 acres. Not bad for a diminutive sea bean.