PHOTOS: RICHARDSON/OAHU ISLAND NEWS                                     


 By Mary Young
Oahu Island News

    It’s February, the month of roses, candles, and chocolates, not to mention heart-shaped tomatoes, all available at Oahu’s weekly farmers’ markets.

    The tomatoes are an heirloom variety called “oxheart,” explained Jeanne Vana, horticulturist and manager of North Shore Farms. She brings her tomatoes to the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation markets, Saturday mornings at Kapiolani Community College and Thursday evenings in Kailua.

    “I kind of like to change the colors with the seasons, so you’ll see a lot of pink,” said Vana, “Weather permitting.”

    Farmers’ and open markets abound on Oahu. The People’s Open Market Program, sponsored by the City and County of Honolulu, has 25 market sites and more than 1 million customers a year. That’s up to 3,000 customers a day at the program’s busiest site on Kaumualii Street, according to program supervisor Ned Yonemori. Most recently added to the schedule are Sunday markets at Kapolei, Royal Kunia, and Waikele.

    “We’re pretty maxed-out,” said Yonemori. “We’re seven days a week.”

    Other farmers’ markets operate once or twice weekly in areas including Hawaii Kai, Waikiki and downtown Honolulu. Most offer some combination of vegetables and fruits, flowers and crafts. The KCC and Kailua markets are distinctive because they offer only Hawaii-grown produce and food products.

    Margo Goodwill of Waialua shops at several markets here and on the neighbor islands.

    “There’s asparagus, there’s eccentric things like beets and pomegranates, there’s wonderful cucumbers, in season there’s papayas, there’s corn and potatoes,” Goodwill enthused, “And it literally feels like it’s from the hands of the people that grew it.”

Fresh and good

    Amy Hammond of Kaneohe was buying organic sweet corn at the Kailua market on a recent Thursday. When she buys at a farmers’ market, she said, “I know it’s going to be fresh and it’s going to be good. Plus, I could buy it in small quantities too, where if you go to the grocery store you feel like you’re buying a whole lot at one time.”

    A few feet away, apple bananas were selling briskly at Theng’s Farm stand. “King” Thephsourinthone, a tall 20-something man clad in a grocer’s apron, waited on customers. Someone asked Thephsourinthone when the bananas were picked. “These were picked about four days ago,” he noted, as compared to supermarket bananas, which might be harvested up to a month in advance. When they are this fresh, he remarked, “You’re going to get the full taste of the banana. It’s not going to be bland.”

    At the Kailua market, shoppers start milling around the farm stands before the 5 p.m. opening time. Right on the hour, someone blasts a loud air horn and suddenly everyone springs into action. After a half hour, cooking aromas start to fill the air – barbequed ribs, spicy chili, the seductive smell of garlic – and people gravitate toward the concessions. Families huddle around benches and share samples. Some just sit and enjoy the live music; one recent evening, a duo from Wiki Waki Woo played steel guitar and ukulele, singing oldies like “Ukulele Lady” and “Pineapple Princess.”

    Jeanne Vana’s tomato stand is one of the busiest. Customers line up to try the fried green tomatoes (she displays a copy of the Fannie Flagg novel “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Café” near the checkout stand). Vana prepares hers with a local twist.

    “We use panko (Japanese bread crumbs) instead of corn meal, and it’s crunchy instead of soft,” she revealed, “And you cook it in a wok instead of a skillet.”

    Then there’s the green tomato pie.

    “Apples can’t be grown here in Hawaii,” noted Vana, “So we came up with something that can grow in Hawaii, which is the tomatoes. It has the same texture and taste and it’s better than green apple, [which] makes the best apple pie.”

    In addition to salad greens, herbs and meats, the Kailua and KCC markets offer fresh flowers: orchids, hibiscus, torch ginger, heliconia and other tropical varieties. Lucy Hiraoka of Hiraoka Farms brings roses along with the farm’s vegetables and greens. Hiraoka said she plans to have red roses for Valentine’s Day, but there may be fewer blooms than usual because of the January cold snap. Ordinarily, she doesn’t have much demand for red roses.

    “Most florists have your standard red, pink-whites or lavender,” she said. “We try to go for fragrance or brighter colors because people here in Hawaii usually like color in their house.”

    Later in the spring, Hiraoka plans to sell winter roses, spring gardenia, sunflowers, and others.

    Chocolate lovers looking for a Valentine’s Day indulgence can find several options at the Kailua market. Chocolate hearts, chocolate-dipped strawberries and a “Chocolate Decadence Tart” are available at the Sweet Shop stand. Caterer and pastry chef Joslyn Benne also recommends the Raspberry-Chocolate Chambord Torte.

    At Hawaiian Fudge Sauce Company, spoon up samples of Kona coffee and macadamia-nut variations on “tutu’s original,” then compare it with the company’s premium product, made from “100% estate-grown Hawaiian chocolate.”

Local color

    Two Saturday markets on the North Shore offer products made and grown in Hawaii. The pace is slower, in contrast to the high-energy city markets. In the parking lot at Sunset Beach Elementary School, the North Shore Country Market sells Hawaii-made crafts and food: flowers, shave ice, grass-fed beef burgers from North Shore Cattle Co., shell jewelry, tie-dyed shirts and, perfect for this month, heart-shaped pillar candles in pastel colors. Artist Jessica Wall creates the candles and collects local shells that are embedded in designs around the base.

    At the tiny Waialua Farmers’ Market, fruits and ethnic vegetables are for sale; the local atmosphere is free. At the site of the old Waialua Sugar Mill, a small group of immigrant farmers, former sugar workers, sell produce from plots of land they lease from Dole Foods Hawaii. The arrangement was made when the sugar mill closed in 1996 and the workers were left jobless. The Waialua Farmer’s Cooperative was formed to help the workers make the transition to farming.

    Edith Ramiscal, president of the Waialua Farmers’ Cooperative, stated that her goal is to expand the farmers’ market to more of a community market and to bring more business to Waialua.

    “I grew up in Waialua and I’ve seen it go downhill, so I’m trying to help this town out. I’m interested in helping the town out and keeping it country,” she said.

    “We want it to be kind of a tourist destination because after all, Waialua Sugar Mill was the hub of Haleiwa, Waialua, Waimea, Mokuleia. … We want people to experience this,” Ramiscal declared. “And this is how Hawaii was born, with the immigrant farmers, the immigrant laborers that came in.”

    On Saturday mornings, the Waialua market sells out in a couple of hours: apple bananas, tomatoes, garlic, lima beans, taro and more exotic produce such as kabocha pumpkins and katuday.

    David Ancheta, standing near his family’s vegetable stand at the Waialua market, noticed a shopper puzzling over a bag of katuday. He offered some suggestions for preparing the edible white flower. First, you cook it a little bit, said Ancheta. “Then add spices, tomato, vinegar and salt, whatever you like,” he added. “Good for blood pressure.”

    “I learn about the vegetables as I go along,” commented Goodwill, who shops weekly at the Waialua market. “I try to experiment with new ones at least once a month, and they tell me, oh, this gets boiled, this gets stewed, or you cook this with pork, it’s really good.”

    “The farmers’ market is a little bit social too, although you don’t talk too much before the market because you have to go get the goods,” she added. “But it’s a nice, social way to start the weekend.”