Home Food Hawaiian Foodways Are Vanishing. Chef Brian Hirata Won’t Let That Happen

Hawaiian Foodways Are Vanishing. Chef Brian Hirata Won’t Let That Happen

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In Hawai‘i, aloha ʻāina (love of the land) is a philosophy of caring for one’s own place and for the environment. “O‘ahu is very close to not being salvageable; they should work really hard to preserve with what little natural spaces they do have there,” Hirata says. While the island of Hawai‘i is more rural than O‘ahu, commercial and residential developments have nonetheless bulldozed through acres of ancient trees and native plants. “I worry about this island,” Hirata says.

During the pandemic, the lull in tourism provided an opportunity for the natural habitat of these islands to recover from overcrowded beaches, parks, and trails. It also highlighted the importance of tourists fostering the love of the land when they return. “Native Hawaiian food comes through an understanding and consciousness about place-based sourcing, and [chef Hirata] really highlights that in important ways,” Hobart says. “When tourists get to interact with and taste the ingredients, it helps them understand not only what is unique about Hawai‘i food but also its fragility. It helps them understand why it’s important to protect the environment and traditional practices.”

To avoid resource depletion, Hirata never fishes from the same location or forages from the same plant more than once or twice a year. And since he’s the only person curating the wild ingredients, he can easily track the frequency he visits each site. Even with Na‘au’s rising popularity, Hirata has no intention of scaling up his business. “What we put on the plate is not designed for a large luxury hotel or restaurant,” he says. “We wouldn’t be able to sustain it because resources are so limited.” Hirata’s eventual goal is to be able to donate a percentage of Na‘au’s proceeds to fund limu `ele`ele (native Hawaiian seaweed) restoration projects. A primary food source and shelter for native fish, crabs, urchins, and sea snails, limu is essential in Hawai‘i’s fragile ecosystem and an important ingredient in its culinary heritage. He also wants to continue hunting and cooking invasive species like Axis deer, goats, and wild pigs, which damage the ground nests of endemic birds and the roots of native trees and plants.

 Foraged hō’i’o.Photograph by Bea Oyster

A  view of the ocean from the coastline in Hilo.Photograph by Bea Oyster

The three fiddle heads he collects from his foraging trip will be sufficient for the next handful of dinners. When he returns home from the forest, Hirata pops the fiddle heads into a pot of boiling water that he set up in his garage, taking care to avoid the noxious fumes that would burn his eyes and throat. Twelve minutes later, he pulls out the hāpu‘u, peels the bright green skin to reveal a white asparagus-like interior, chops them into cubes, and marinates them in a mixture of rice vinegar, soy, garlic, onion, sugar, and sesame seeds. One ingredient down. Seven more to go.

Hirata continues to gather ingredients in the days leading up to the pop up. One day, he’s chain-sawing down a Peach Palm tree in his backyard to harvest a log-size heart of palm, and the next, he’s crouched down over the side of the mountainous Saddle Road to pick lemony sheep sorrel. And when he can’t get the ingredients himself, he has a guy—a retired carpenter who catches octopus the ancient Hawaiian way, free-diving with a three-prong spear; the farmer who captures wild pigs and fattens them up with macadamia nuts; and the friend who knows the secluded spot where limu `ele`ele grows.

In a small kitchen equipped with a basic electric stove at Anna Ranch Heritage Center, Hirata works quietly alongside his former student Mitchell Mizuguchi. The pair has a comfortable rhythm, with Hirata in teacher mode as he explains the required mise en place and the construction of each dish. When a rice cake won’t crisp up properly on the stove, Hirata offers a few suggestions on how to fix the problem. “We only need 16 tonight,” says Hirata, reassuringly. “Take your time. You’ll get it right.” Even in the middle of dinner prep, Hirata continues to impart his knowledge to his younger sous chef; the behind-the-scenes lessons are an essential component of Na‘au’s philosophy. “I’ve never worked with some of these ingredients before,” says Mizuguchi, who works as a butcher at the Waimea Butcher Shop. “I want to learn from the chef, which is why I’m here.”

While Hirata and Mizuguchi assemble dishes in the kitchen, business partner Nishimura leads the front of house staff to decorate a handful of tables with candles, tropical foliage, a copy of the menu, and jars of customized poke mix, a gift from Na‘au. That evening, in a cozy ranch-style room with hardwood floors and wrap-around French windows, local and visiting dinner guests listen attentively as Hirata introduces each dish, describing the significance of the ingredients and sharing stories from his own family’s foraging experiences. Over excited conversations and plenty of wine, diners sample silky bonefish mixed with limu and kukui nut, a modern interpretation of poke using ancient ingredients; popcorn chicken-style octopus; and Hirata’s signature cheesecake with delicate `ōhelo berry jam.

“We want to share with the world these unique ingredients that [haven’t] been shared because we’re so isolated,” Hirata says. “You can get truffles and caviar anywhere. We’re giving someone an experience about Hawai‘i, a place where we grew up and that we love. It’s something they can keep for the rest of their life.”

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