Sunday, April 26, 2009

Coastal Foraging: Kaena State Park

Kaena Point Trail

Last weekend, wanting a coastal hike that might yield some edible seaweed and a sea critter or two, my wife and I headed to Kaena State Park in northwest Oahu. It's a one hour drive from where we live, and the trail starts just past Yokohama Beach, which is named for the Japanese fishermen who frequented the area early last century. (Its much older, local name is Keawa'ula, which means "red harbor" in Hawaiian, referring to schools of cuttlefish whose reddish backs colored the waters long ago.)

At its longest, the hiking trail extends 9.5 miles (15.3 km), but our shortage of bottled water and the sunscreen I accidentally left in the car meant that we could only go to Kaena Point, which is more or less the trail's halfway point. It's also a great destination unto itself, as the scenery changes from worn footpaths above surf-beaten volcanic rock to gorgeous dunes covered in naupaka shrubs. And where the beach slopes down to the water, outcroppings of rock surround pools of clear blue water that remind me of outdoor hot springs in Japan. But the highlight is finding yourself in the presence of endangered monk seals and Layson albatross. Much of the indigenous plant life here, too, is rare and protected.

Exciting action photo of a monk seal racing back to the ocean

A Layson albatross flying over the dunes and shore

In Hawaiian, Kaena means heat, an apt name for this dry, almost entirely unshaded area. Kaena Point also has spiritual significance to native Hawaiians. The area is about as isolated as you can get on this island of one million people, but even in ancient times it was apparently considered no less so. Kaena Point was once believed to be the wandering place of the souls of dying people. Upon death, the souls would leap into the abyss from a large sacred rock, where their aumakua (ancestral spirit guide) would catch them and lead them to the hereafter. Along the trail one comes across volcanic rocks stretching in a long, flowing pattern, which I assume relates to Hawaiian beliefs about Kaena Point.

During the winter months, the surf from here all the way east past the North Shore can get to monstrous sizes, as the following video attests. People generally don't surf here, however, but in less remote parts where rescues are easier and the undertow isn't so dangerous. If you want to see what big wintertime surf can mean in Hawaii, check out the video below.

The trail followed along an old dirt road that fell into disuse when a portion of it slid into the ocean long ago. The remains of the road provide a perfect path for hikers, though it does get a little hairy at times. A railroad originating in Honolulu used to link the area to the former sugarcane-growing town of Haleiwa, on the North Shore, but the railroad, too, fell into disuse nearly seventy years ago.

In any case, I took my camera with me so I could photograph the plants we encountered in the hope of matching them up in field guides later to see if any were worthwhile as wild foods. (Except for the pea pods of non-native mesquite trees I came across, the ones I've identified so far are not.) I was really hoping to collect a sample or two of seaweed, since virtually every variety seems to be not only edible, but also a rich source of nutrients. Collecting seaweed proved almost impossible, however, because the shore was composed of large rocks that were being slammed by powerful waves.

We were also hoping to capture a couple crabs. These guys were all over the rocks, and they were huge. They were also incredibly fast, and I was pretty sure I heard them laughing at us as we stumbled around the shallow water like the idiotic landlubbers we are. We caught zero of the buggers. What we really needed were nets and cages.

Crabs clambering over rocks

We also came across black nerite snails, or pipipi. These were clustered on rocks and easy to pick off, but my wife has an aversion to snails and I decided to leave them in peace.

Black nerite snails (pipipi)

We even came across sea salt lying in depressions atop some of the more highly perched rocks, which had apparently been filled with seawater that evaporated long before under the hot sun.

We did find one edible, however, which is the whole reason for this post: helmut urchins or, as they're known in Hawaiian, ha'uke'uke kaupali (which means "cliff hanging"). To me, these look like ocean mangosteens, and their insides contain flesh that's nearly as delicious. How do I know? Because my wife plucked one off a rock and hammered at it with a stone until it broke open.

Helmet urchins (ha'uke'uke kaupali)

Underside of helmet urchin (ha'uke'uke kaupali)

While I'll eat sea urchin, I'm not a huge fan of its deeply briny taste and slick, somewhat lumpy texture. But these were otherwordly. The taste was of a salty, creamy custard, and the texture was more uniformly smooth than I expected. We each had two of the pieces you see in the photo below, and yes, in case you're wondering, we washed them off before eating them.

It may look unappetizing, but it overwhelmed us with its flavor

The hike was totally worth the sweat and sunburn, and it was nice having Yokohama Beach to come back to and cool off in. Although Hawaii's wintering whales are long gone, and the dolphins we've seen on previous visits didn't show themselves this time, Kaena Point is stunningly beautiful and as close as you can get to an unspoiled coastal environment on Oahu. Next time I come here, I'm going to make a point to reach the end of the trail -- toting crab traps, of course...

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

First-time Foraging: An Unplanned Attempt in Nuuanu Valley

Sorry for the poor photo quality. That's what you get when you rely on a cell phone, I guess.

This weekend my wife and I headed to Nuuanu Valley, just off the Pali Highway, to go hiking. The day was picture-perfect, and at 9:30 a.m. we couldn’t have picked a better time to climb the steep, rutted trails. Granted, we sweated more liquid than we knew our bodies contained, but it was worth it for the vistas we came across and also for the peace and natural splendor all around us.

A beautiful, liver fluke-infested creek at the trailhead. Kids, don't go in that water!

About ninety minutes into our hike, near the end of the trail we were on, we happened upon a patch of three wild plants that we were pretty sure could be taken home and prepared for safe consumption. 

The first was fairly easy to identify, as wild ginger seems to grow everywhere in Hawaii. Here, along the trail, ginger roots were clustered together in the open. We found them interspersed on the trail's shoulder and even in the crooks of trees. I broke off a rounded piece, and when I brought it beneath my nose I could smell its pungent sweetness. We put it in our carrying sack and took it with us.

A patch of wild ginger skirting the trail

As we started looking more carefully at the low vegetation surrounding us, my wife pointed out what she said was a mountain vegetable commonly used in Japanese dishes, which she called zenmai (). It looked familiar to me, but I couldn't give it a name. So when I got home, I looked up zenmai on Google Image Search and found that it corresponded to the fiddlehead. Fiddlehead is indeed an edible plant, though I learned that it needs to be cooked properly in order for one to avoid an upset stomach or even food poisoning.

Two young fiddlehead ferns

The other thing my wife noticed was a grouping of what she thought was wild shiso (紫蘇), or what many people in the U.S. call perilla and either make use of culinarily or treat as an invasive weed. When we tore a piece in half, a strong minty fragrance wafted into our faces.

Wild shiso (as far as we could determine)

A leaf from the shiso-looking plant that we found

Due in part to our ignorance about wild plants and in part to our fear of misidentifying something truly toxic, however, we only made off with a single piece of the wild ginger. I'll need to research the fiddlehead and wild shiso more before returning there and trying to use them in our kitchen. This is hardly a blazing start to my interest in foraging for wild foods, but hey, you've got to start somewhere, right?

Although I just received an order of books about wild food collecting by Euell Gibbons, up to now I’ve only read about two-thirds of In Search of the Blue-Eyed Scallop, which focuses on all the bounty available to shore foragers in different parts of North America. While the book has been interesting, none of its contents were of use to me as I climbed along valley trails 1600 feet above sea level.

Out of curiosity, I looked up wild ginger in Gibbons’ stalking the wild asparagus. He writes of it: "This little flower is not related to the plant which produces the ginger of commerce, but the root has a similar taste and odor" (282). I actually found it two days later at Whole Foods, where it was labeled “Thai ginger.” I guess that means it is available commercially – at least here in Hawaii – though I stupidly forgot to see how much it sold for.

One nice thing about Gibbons’ books is that after discussing a wild food he almost always includes one or more recipes for it. Under his entry for wild ginger he explains how to make it into candied ginger and also a syrup said to relieve flatulence. Not that I have a problem with flatulence, but I decided to make both recipes…

His recipes for candied wild ginger and wild ginger syrup are super easy. They have to be; otherwise I wouldn't have attempted them. And in the end, despite its unappetizing appearance, the candied ginger turned out pretty well. It was as crunchy as Japanese takuan (pickled radish) and pungent with gingery flavor, and the sweetness – absorbed by the syrup during the boiling process, and later sprinkled on top in the form of sugar – was a nice finish for it.

We also added part of the wild ginger to a dish of fried rice, but in this we found the ginger’s taste too deep and earthy for our liking.

A piece of wild ginger from the morning's hike

Here’s my take on Gibbons’ recipe for candied wild ginger:

1. Cut the ginger into 1/8-inch-thick rounds.
2. Simmer for at least an hour, or until tender.

Simmering wild ginger. Those brown rings became pronounced once the water heated up.

Without our adding anything, the wild ginger turned the water pink and gave off residue

3. For 1 cup sliced ginger, add 1 cup granulated sugar. Boil for 30 minutes.
4. Drain ginger, pouring the syrup into a glass jar and closing it tightly.

A bowl of wild ginger syrup alongside a plate of the rhizome laid out to dry

5. Dry ginger for 2 days.
6. Roll dried ginger in granulated sugar. Store in an air-tight container.

All dried out and sitting on a bed of sugar

It doesn't look like I thought it would, but it tastes good!

For more information about foraging, take a look at a fascinating and well-written blog called Fat of the Land, which I came across this weekend.

Also, Greg at SippitySup has blogged about "foraging in the wilds of the big city" here.

I'm sure there are plenty more useful foraging blogs I don't know about. If you know of any, I'd be thrilled to receive their URLs from you!

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Yakiudon (Udon served with stir-fried pork, kim chee, mushrooms, and chives)

I'm working on a number of different writing projects all at once, but until any of them are finished and ready to share, this will have to suffice.

Here's another simple Japanese dish that uses udon (Japanese wheat flour noodles). While many non-Japanese people are familiar with udon, they've usually only encountered it as a noodle soup with tempura-fried shrimp or vegetable fritters. But udon is also excellent when made into a stir fry. There are many variations of yakiudon, and in Japan one happily finds that, like many Japanese dishes, this can differ greatly by region.

For a little Korean flair we added kim chee to the recipe, which I find contributes quite a bit of flavor, though its pungency, perhaps through cooking, is almost negligible. We usually eat this for lunch, though on this occasion we had it for dinner. Also, if you're going to use udon, you may want to consider freezing it first. Surprisingly, frozen udon gives you more suppleness than udon that has been kept for a while on a store shelf or hidden away in a cabinet.

This recipe, by the way, serves two people.

2 100 g (3.5 oz) packages of udon
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/4 lb pork loin (sukiyaki pork works best), sliced thin
1 bunch chives
3 shiitake mushrooms
1/2 cup kim chee
1 teaspoon dashi
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons mirin
1 package bonito flakes

1. Boil water.
2. Add udon (one 100 g of udon is enough for one person) and boil according to directions on package. Boiling times differ according to the udon brand. Ours suggested 10 minutes.
3. While draining noodles, rinse with cold water. When finished, your noodles should be semitransparent and slightly firmer than spaghetti is after boiling.
4. Heat vegetable oil in wok or large pan.
5. Add pork loin and cook for about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.
6. Add chives, mushrooms, and any other vegetable you have available, such as bean sprouts, cabbage, chopped carrots, green peppers, etc. You can even thrown in a handful of medium-sized shrimp. Cook for 2 minutes.
7. Add kim chee and cook for 3 minutes.

All cooked and ready to serve with udon

8. Stir in dashi (we use the dry, pellet form), soy sauce, and mirin. Cook until liquid mostly evaporates.
9. Serve in bowls. Top with half a package of bonito flakes and, if you have it, some Japanese pickled ginger (gari – the pink kind you eat with sushi).

Swimming in bonito flakes, just as we like it

P.S. I just received an order of Euell Gibbons books about foraging for and preparing wild foods. If I'm lucky, I'll do a little write-up of those at some point, too -- hopefully after exploring some of the wild foods available to me in Hawaii. If anyone has this sort of experience, in Hawaii or elsewhere, I'd love to hear about it.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Friday, April 10, 2009

Agebitashi (Deep-fried Vegetables in Soy and Mirin Broth)

Sometimes, when we're too busy or tired to go all-out on a meal, we like to head to a Japanese grocery in Honolulu called Marukai and buy sashimi. Once we return home it's easy to whip up a pot of miso soup, some boiled spinach, and of course rice. Easy, quick, and healthy. But today, once we found ourselves at Marukai, we decided we wanted a lot of vegetables. Japanese vegetables. And we wanted them so that we could make agebitashi, which we haven't had in a long time.

Agebitashi is simple to make, and the ingredients for the dish are hardly exotic. If you can find Mirin, dashi, daikon, and Japanese eggplant, you'll have no problem making this dish. And the daikon, while nice to use, isn't what I'd call essential.

Here's what you need to make agebitashi:

1 cup Mirin
1 cup soy sauce
3 cups water
2 teaspoons dashi
Vegetable oil for frying
4 Japanese eggplants, halved and sliced lengthwise
2 zucchinis, cut diagonally into 1-inch wedges
4 sweet peppers, quartered and seeds removed
1 lb or more of green beans, the ends snipped
1/2 daikon, grated

Got all of it? Good. Now here's what to do with it:

For the broth
1. Pour Mirin into pot or pan and bring to a boil.
2. Add soy sauce, water, and dashi. Stir to mix and let sit on high heat for about 5 minutes (don't let it reach a boil).
3. Pour broth into a large container and leave until your deep frying is completed.

For the veggies
1. Put a sufficient amount of vegetable oil into a deep pan for deep frying and heat on high.
2. After cutting all your vegetables as described above, pat dry with a towel. (This cuts down on hot oil popping when you introduce your washed veggies.)

Halve the eggplants and then cut lengthwise

Cut the zucchini diagonally into 1-inch wedges

Quarter your sweet peppers and snip the ends off your green beans

And make sure to pat your veggies dry after washing and cutting them

3. When oil is hot enough, add veggies a handful at a time. Make sure to turn them over halfway through.

4. Whenever a batch is done, drain on newspaper or paper towels.
5. After draining, add veggies to the container holding your broth.

6. After ladling your agebitashi into serving bowls, top with a generous pinch of grated daikon and mix it.

Grate half a daikon

Agebitashi is best served with rice. Regular steamed rice goes nicely, but if you want to add some nutrition to your normal rice, try making it into takikomi gohan (one version of Japanese "mixed rice") like this:

1. Into a pot of uncooked rice and water add chopped aburage (packaged slices of fried tofu), konnyaku (a gelatinous substance derived from a type of sweet potato), and chopped carrots.
2. Add a mixture of 1 teaspoon of dashi with 2 tablespoons of soy sauce and 2 tablespoons of Mirin.
3. Add the chopped leaves (about 1 cup) from one daikon radish.
4. Cook as you would normal rice.

Before cooking it, the takikomi gohan should look something like this:

And when cooked, you can expect this:

When all of this was done we included miso soup and simmered Japanese pumpkin (kabocha no nimono).

Miso soup with aburage, konnyaku, sliced daikon, and homemade red-and-white miso paste

Simmered Japanese pumpkin (kabocha no nimono)

And then it was time to eat. We broke open some Tiger beer and stuffed ourselves full to bursting.

Note: Agebitashi is delicious when served hot, but I guarantee that it'll knock your socks off after you've refrigerated it long enough (i.e., overnight) to let all the flavors of the broth absorb into your vegetables.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Friday, April 3, 2009


I have to say, the routine of eating cereal for breakfast has long gotten old. It's true that on weekends when I wake up motivated I alternate between a strawberry puff pancake and eggs with toast and sausage, but that still leaves five days of the week with the same boring stuff. My wife dislikes cereal -- she says that my Cinnamon Life piled high with strawberries is too sweet, which is probably true -- but she admits that her own usual breakfast is equally boring: white rice with fermented soybeans (natto). Every day, the same thing.

But in the morning, when we allow ourselves to spend an extra five or ten minutes in the kitchen, there's some amazing and healthy eating just waiting to be had. We need to have the proper ingredients in our fridge and cupboard, but there are enough variations of this that it's still an easy breakfast.

For those of you unfamiliar with Japanese cooking, get your pens and paper and write down ochazuke. Ocha (お茶) in Japanese means "tea" and zuke (浸け) means "soaked." Although you can buy instant ochazuke in many Asian groceries, it's much more satisfying, not to mention healthier, to eat what you've prepared on your own.

Some friends I've introduced this to are dismissive of its potential to satisfy. "It won't stick to my ribs," they scoff, then high-five each other and do two or three jumping chest-bumps. "Whoot!" they shout before finally settling down. (They're American. They're also full of caffeine and sugar). Well, it's true that it won't stay with you the same way that a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, and a dozen pieces of buttered toast would. But I do believe that it'll keep you sated for just as long as cereal will.

If you can find the ingredients for ochazuke, try it out. If not in the morning, then have it as a snack. It is salty, but other than the high sodium content it's generally very healthy. Personally, I feel that the combination of all the ingredients pictured below is not only delicious, but it's fun. Texturally and flavor-wise, this is great stuff.

And here in Hawaii, where a 21 oz. box of Cinnamon Life cereal costs $8 with tax at Foodland, all these ingredients are comparable in price, if not cheaper, on a meal-by-meal basis.

Rice, steamed
1 umeboshi (pickled plum)
5 takuan slivers (pickled daikon radish)
1/2-sheet nori (dried Japanese seaweed), folded and crumbled
1 or 2 pieces shiojake (salted salmon)
Wakame furikake (dry mix of kelp-based seasoning for rice), handful
Green tea, boiled

Takuan (left), boiled rice (center top), and shiojake (right)

Nori pack (left) and wakame furikake pack (right)

1. Steam rice. (Or, if you're like us, microwave pre-made rice stored in the freezer.)
2. Add a big, juicy pickled plum. (Luckily for us, our umeboshi were hand-delivered by guests from Japan, who had obtained them from a renowned umeboshi maker from Kyushu. If you can, buy a kind that is known for being slightly sweet. Most umeboshi are face-puckeringly sour and quite salty.)

3. Crumble a half-sheet of dried seaweed and scatter it atop the rice and pickled plum.

4. Add a handful of takuan.

5. Add one or two small pieces of dried salmon. (Too much salmon overpowers the other ingredients, so start off conservatively.)

6. Boil a small pot of green tea. (We prefer loose leaf Japanese tea, as the flavor is strong and clean.)

7. After pouring the boiled green tea about 2/3rds up your bowl, add a handful of furikake seasoning. (While there are many kinds of furikake, we had wakame [kelp] furikake on hand.)

8. Enjoy, and don't be afraid to drink the leftover tea at the bottom of your bowl!

Stumble Upon Toolbar