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Salad Days in Hawaii

In the cradle between two volcanoes, the farmers of Waimea are growing beautiful baby lettuces (exotic by local standards) that are inspiring many of Hawaii's top chefs

Hawaii is a dream of lushness, of exotic fruits like lilikoi, tamarind and kaffir limes. Over the past decade chefs have begun abandoning tired Continental cuisine and have started using these ingredients to create spectacular dishes like scallop and tobiko ravioli with lime­ginger sauce and grilled cured nairagi with sesame tahini. Now, Alan Wong, George Mavrothalassitis, Philippe Padovani and other Hawaiian talents are aiming higher: they're making salads.

Of course, these are exceptional salads--Caesar salad with crisp shredded pork, lettuce and fennel salad with a tangy tangerine vinaigrette, lobster salad with herb-flecked cantaloupe relish. But integral to each is one basic ingredient: beautiful greens. And getting these greens isn't easy. Until very recently, Hawaii's tropical, leaf-wilting climate meant that chefs had to rely on limp mesclun that had been airlifted from the mainland.

Five years ago, Kurt Hirabara, a crop scientist on the Big Island, and his wife, Pam, who worked in the marketing department at a bank, decided to tackle this problem. Traditional Hawaiian agriculture--sugar, pineapples--was in decline, and growers were looking for alternatives to coffee and macadamias. The Hirabaras' first farm, a tiny experiment on half an acre, was near the slopes of an active volcano on the Big Island. Volcanic soil is some of the most fertile in the world, but winds blew chemical vapors from the volcano's eruptions to the fields, causing a residue to settle on the leaves. After four years of fighting the "vog," they moved north to Waimea (also called Kamuela), a cradle between two extinct volcanos. There they found soil and a climate that were hospitable to their Big Island Babies--13 varieties of tender baby lettuces that are now served at some of Hawaii's best restaurants, including Alan Wong's, Chef Mavro, Padovani's Bistro & Wine Bar and the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua. "They pick the greens in the morning, and I put them on your plate at dinner," Wong says.

The same topography that allows people to ski (atop Mauna Kea) and surf (at Kona) on the same day also allows lettuce to thrive not far from tropical fruits. In Waimea, at 2,900 feet, the Hirabaras can grow vegetables that couldn't survive the heat at lower elevations near the ocean. Because good land is so astronomically expensive, their lettuce farm is tiny--only an acre and a quarter is being cultivated. But they produce 2,400 pounds of baby lettuce a week from it.

The Hirabaras are now working with the owners of four larger farms in Waimea, in the hope that the area's score of microclimates (created by variations in elevation, rain and wind) will allow them to grow cooler-weather produce like strawberries, artichokes, fingerling potatoes, asparagus, heirloom tomatoes and carrots. Pam Hirabara will handle marketing for the group, working with the same chefs who buy their Big Island Babies.

"They get that crunch to their lettuce that I've never found anywhere, even in France," Mavrothalassitis says. The Hirabaras take no credit. "It's not the farmer--it's the Big Island," Pam Hirabara says. "Things grow exceptionally well here." Her husband agrees: "The island is alive, and so is the soil. The Big Island is getting bigger all the time."

Text by Judith Coburn, a freelance writer who lives in the salad belt of Northern California and travels frequently to Hawaii.

Published April 1999
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