My first morning in Hawaii involved a drive down the east coast of the Big Island along Highway 11 to visit the Volcano Village Farmers’ Market. It was worth an early wake up call to reach the market, which capitalizes on the island’s nutrient rich volcanic soil, convenes on Sunday mornings from 6:30 a.m. – 10 a.m. and occupies a pair of covered buildings that frame a parking lot: the Cooper Center (built in 1987) and Carlson’s Court (2001).
It took about 10 minutes to survey different booths at the grass roots market with minimal signage. My wanderings led past Thai, Indian, pizza and produce options, plus always tempting malasadas and another island classic, spam musubi. Volcano Village Farmers’ Market even houses a bookshop, and Carlson’s Court doubles as Volcano skate park on non-vendor days.
Kuahiwi Ranch sells natural, pasture raised beef at four local farmers markets on the Big Island, and ranch founder Al Galimba’s daughter Michelle flies to Oahu once a month to sell beef at their massive market. Kuahiwi was my next stop on an agriculturally focused island tour.
Papa’a Palaoa Bakery appears at six farmers markets weekly, plus Kea’au Naturals. The name translates from Hawaiian as “sliced bread.” Eric Cox and partner Paul Lackner started at Volcano five years ago, and now Cox bakes full time. He arrived in Hawaii from Covina, by way of Alaska.
Sausage Breakfast Sandwich ($4.50) featured an English muffin crafted from whole wheat, cornmeal and flour, filled with tangy Puna goat cheese, fresh basil, a fried egg, sliced tomato and a single non-local ingredient, a crusty pork sausage patty. They also sell cinnamon swirl French toast on cinnamon macnut swirl bread and sell several different loaves, including ourdough, oatmeal, spicy cornmeal and pain au chocolate. Papa’a Palaoa Bakery even makes coqui in a hole, which is like toad in a hole, but named for the island’s invasive Puerto Rican frogs.
Michiko Kakimoto is a house cleaner from Osaka who started making large pieces of mochi about a year ago and now sells them for $1.75 apiece, crafting glutinous rice flour treats uses local ingredients. My picks were slightly tangy lillikoi (passion fruit) dusted with powdered sugar and capped with a single piece of dried papaya. Pohaberry was even more interesting, with a whole tart orange “gooseberry” sourced a from local hill, which burst in my mouth at first bite. The topper was a tiny piece of dried pineapple.
My move inside the Cooper Center resulted in a bowl of Thai chicken soup ($3) loaded with glass noodles, floppy wood ear mushrooms, chicken, mushrooms, celery and carrots. In this case, it was the optional items that took this soup into a spicy realm: roasted garlic and chile sauce.
Joyce’s Choices has sold baked goods at the market for over five years, including my honey-swaddled bran muffin ($2) with pineapple, macadamia nuts and raisins. She makes cinnamon rolls, artichoke chicken hand pies, berry scones, macadamia nut pesto, olive tapenade and more.
No trip to a Hawaiian farmers market would be complete without sampling unusual tropical fruits that would be near impossible to find on the mainland, even in a city like Los Angeles. A woman who specializes in soursop shared a piece of fuzzy ice cream bean, with sweet fibrous flesh surrounding seeds of a fruit that’s originally from Panama and Guatemala.
The Saturday Hilo Farmers Market is supposed to be the Big Island’s best, but there was something charming about the low-key setting, and even though there may be bigger, it was still easy to find plenty of interesting island-specific foods.