I was startled awake at 5:30 AM by a loud rapping on the bedroom window. It was the next door neighbor of our rented Hilo water view house telling my wife and I that we had to evacuate. A Pacific-wide tsunami warning, following Chile’s catastrophic earthquake in February 2010, had been issued. Not knowing if we’d see our beautiful Japanese beach house again, we drove the 30 minutes to Volcano National Park, 4,000 feet elevation. The Park is home to one of Earth’s most active volcanos – in an island chain born of volcanos. As we had breakfast in the tropical forest we were struck that we had fled to the sides of an active volcano to escape a tsunami. This is the fragility of paradise; an environment that allows for abundance yet it just may convulse and destroy it all. Fortunately, Hawai’i was spared this time, but that wasn’t the case in 1950.
Later that week we drove the ten miles into Hilo for a day at the already famous Hilo Market – founded in 1988. I was struck by the vaguely shabby feel of Hilo’s commercial waterfront. Some fine examples of Art Deco, tropical Victorian and Arts & Crafts architecture are in various states of repair or restoration. A substantial swath of land forms a buffer between the historic commercial center and the Pacific Ocean. It makes for attractive park land, athletic fields and water activities, but that’s not the reason for its existence.
For nearly a century, prior to 1950, this land had been Japan Town, a warren of shanties and pan-Asian cooking. The legacy of Japan Town lives on in the Puna’s suburb Asian fusion cuisine. In a brief period of time one morning in 1950, Japan Town was swept into the sea by a tsunami created by one of history’s most catastrophic earthquakes centered in the same area of Chile as the 2010 event. The Hilo Market area occupies land that had been devastated by that tsunami.
As we neared the market, the scents and sights pulled us quickly along. The main stalls, flower vendors, clothing, crafts, jewelry and a seamstress radiated onto the surrounding sidewalks. The Hilo Market is not really a building. The main stalls are under a permanent cover with no walls (fortunately or else it would feel like an oven). It’s a bustling place. Organic lettuce is sold next to carnivorous plants. Taro root’s for sale if you want to make your own poi or tapioca. Exotic fruits and vegetables from Asia and the Pacific are in abundance and require conversations with vendors and fellow market goers for preparation suggestions. It’s a riot of color, textures and sounds!
The fresh coconut “milk” vendor is a perennial favorite in the tropics. Fresh, iced green coconuts have their tops sliced off with a machete. A straw is all that’s needed to enjoy a truly refreshing drink. Often when finished, the soft green shell is cut in half exposing the pudding-like coconut that can be eaten with a spoon – a double treat !
The multi-cultural quilt that is Hawai’i resulted in a fusion of comfort foods. During the Second World War, that marvel of canned foods, SPAM, hit Hawai’i like a rock star. Overnight, the refrigerator scarce islands of the 1940’s found a food of remarkable flexibility, even if it is lacking in other qualities.
The macadamia nut is nearly synonymous with Hawai’i, even though it’s native to Australia. What processors do to this buttery treat is legendary, and for another blog post, but suffice to say, the nut also married SPAM.
Farmers markets are in nearly all small towns, and even between them, on the island. The Sunday market near Hawaiian Paradise Park, south of Hilo, offers a large variety of local crafts, musical entertainment, fresh eggs, Kava (for a relaxing morning), candles and terrific poultry, beef and pork grilled over guava wood.
The lush eastern half of the Big Island is a garden, and even if you are a visitor without a kitchen, the markets of Hawai’i provide not only the best and exotic but a terrific insight into cultural fusion, entertainment and certainly an opportunity to eat authentic prepared island foods.