Byodo-In Temple in Kaneohe, HI
Byodo-In Temple in Kaneohe, HI
DISCLAIMER: I need to break the rules of Photo Friday briefly to say that no, this is not my ink, because I know there will be questions. I was only acting as photographer for this session- I promise! Now, on with the show…
Hawaii is host to its fair share of truly outstanding vegan eateries, to say nothing of the countless veggie-friendly establishments that make room at the table for everyone. What you don’t hear about though are the vast offerings of plant-based delights just beyond the beaten path. Navigating through the immense dining scene in Honolulu has led me to many unexpected but delicious discoveries, in places that don’t necessarily cater to vegans. If you’re traveling with omnivores, in search of more “authentic” local eats, or just craving something different, here are just a few of the quick and easy accidentally vegan snacks I’ve stumbled across so far. These can be found throughout the entire island, but I’ve provided a few suggestions for my favorite haunts. No matter the place or time, the key to any happy culinary exploration is to always ask questions!
The classic beach-going Hawaiian treat, perfect for a hot day- Which is pretty much every day here, even in the dead of winter. Every stand carries a literal rainbow of sugar-based syrups to douse mountains of crushed ice with, so sticking with the basics still leaves you with dozens of flavors to choose from. Waiola Shave Ice and Matsumoto’s Shave ice remain local favorites, but for my tastes, Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha is the one to beat. Where else will you find kale-spinach shave ice and house-made sweetened adzuki beans, no less?
(Cautions: Avoid “creamy” flavors and ice cream toppings.)
A distinct and entirely different dessert than shave ice, snow ice is also a sweet frozen snack, but made of paper-thin ribbons of ice flakes already infused with flavor, no syrup required. This creates a sensational, light texture that’s incredibly easy to eat, even after a big meal. The technique actually comes from Taiwan but has taken root in Hawaii, particularly in downtown Honolulu. Frostcity is a small chain that always offers at least three or four vegan flavors on any given day.
(Cautions: Always seek out plain fruit flavors and ask about the base; it’s often made with dairy. If the proprietor can’t confirm or deny, assume the worst.)
Edamame & Soybean Poke
A popular pupu (appetizer) at dives and fine dining establishments alike, seasonings start at the most basic sprinkle of sea salt but these humble bean pods are rarely requested so plain. Garlic edamame, studded with plentiful chunks of coarsely minced garlic guarantee you the most powerful but worthwhile dragon breath you’ve ever experienced. Spicy (or sweet-and-spicy) edamame adds either crushed red pepper flakes or a drizzle of sriracha into the mix. It’s a real treat when you can find them dressed up poke-style, in sesame oil, soy sauce, scallions, and sliced sweet onions. The beans pictured above are a specialty from the newly opened Izakaya Torae Torae: Teriyaki truffle edamame.
(Cautions: Garlic edamame are sometimes sauteed in butter, and Asian variants can occasionally include a splash of fish sauce. Ask if you have any doubts.)
Hailing from China and not the Southern US, Hawaiian boiled peanuts are often enhanced with a hint of star anise around here, but are just as frequently prepared with nothing more than salt and water. Found in poke shops and the deli section of most supermarkets, these tender, toothsome goobers always satisfy and are absolutely dirt-cheap. I have yet to meet a boiled peanut that disagreed with me, but I hear that the best come from Alicia’s Market.
(Cautions: None! These are always a safe and tasty option.)
Another Chinese import, crack seed is a category of snack that covers all sorts of preserved fruits, some dried and some wet, that typically have a pronounced sweet, sour, and salty taste. Crack seed stores also carry salty snacks like mochi balls and shoyu peanuts, in addition to regular dried fruits and fruity candies. Big glass apothecary jars line the floors and walls of these closet-sized spaces and everything is bought by the 1/4, 1/2, or full pound. If you ask very nicely, most store keepers will give you little tastes to try before you buy.
(Cautions: Just about all of the traditional crack seed options are coated with li hing mui powder, which contains aspartame. Proceed at your own risk.)
Also known in some parts as onigiri, the core of these versatile snacks is made up of tightly packed sushi rice, wrapped up in toasted nori. These plain offerings are good lunchbox filler, albeit unexciting in the flavor department. Common veggie-friendly variants that are readily available in bento shops and even convenience stores include fillings made up of kombu, umeboshi, and takuan. These staples will pop up frequently at Shirokiya and yes, even select 7-Eleven stores. Spam musubi are hands-down the top sellers around here, and you may be happily surprised to find a number of vegan renditions scattered across Oahu. Blue Tree Cafe and Peace Cafe, for starters, both have their own tofu-based take on the classic.
(Cautions: 90% of the traditional fillings you’ll come across are fishy and/or meaty, so make sure you read labels and signs carefully.)
Imagine an acai-banana smoothie thick enough to eat with a spoon that’s topped with granola and sliced bananas, and you’d have yourself a genuine acai bowl. Ice is usually added into the blend for additional bulk and cooling power, and each shop switches up the fruit inclusions and toppings. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a whole salad of blueberries, strawberries, kiwis, and maybe even coconut flakes crowning your icy creation, but even the paired down renditions are worth trying. You really can’t go wrong with this blend, but I’m quite partial to Jewel or Juice‘s regular acai bowl, which is less sweet than many mainstream formulas.
(Cautions: Honey is one of the default toppings, so always ask for your bowl without.)
And to think, I’m just getting started here! Who knows how many other hidden edible treasures are still out there, just waiting to be discovered? The only way to find out is to start searching, so get out there, explore, and taste Oahu!
As I find myself with more photos than I know what to do with these days, I thought it might be fun to institute a weekly round-up of a few favorites, sans commentary. The theme will change depending on what caught my eye in the previous days. Let me know what you think of the concept, and if you’d like to see more Photo Fridays in the future!
What do you call a trip that’s not quite a vacation, not entirely business, and lasts for a whole month? No, this isn’t a riddle, this is what I’m trying to figure out! I’ve made the leap over to Hawaii in hopes of weathering the worst of winter in a tropical paradise, and it’s wonderful, disorienting, dizzying, and exciting all at once. Never fear; regular posting will resume shortly, as soon as I adjust to island time.
No larger than a modest walk-in closet, this unassuming storefront in the East Village is lined not with clothing racks but compact tables, hungry customers flanking all available sides. You don’t eat at Dirt Candy for the ambiance, but if you’re lucky enough to get a reservation in the first place, it’s hardly a distraction once the game of human Tetris has been played and all are snugly seated. An open view of the matchbox kitchen provides a unique sort of dinner theater, a glimpse behind the scenes, but also transfers a frenetic, chaotic energy to the whole meal. As the action spills out into the main floor, service does suffer; plates are hastily deposited without announcement or expansion, and questions are brushed off with unsatisfying half-answers. But ah well, these are reasonable compromises to be made in a chef-driven restaurant, provided that the food itself is capable of making up to these perceived slights.
And it does, for the most part, outshine the otherwise less than ideal conditions. An ambitious menu set on exploring new flavors and textures of vegetables, the entire list of dishes can be ordered in vegan format if they aren’t already free of animal products. Short and sweet, it reads like an excitable gardening catalog. Endearingly enthusiastic, that energy is contagious, making the anticipation for each coming course ever greater.
Cucumber! was my first pick of the evening, a hot and sour roasted cucumber soup poured tableside over shredded wood ear mushrooms and crispy fried rice sticks. For a clear liquid, that steaming broth was stunningly rich, enhanced with the toasted, nutty flavor of sesame oil. Fiery spices build quickly and linger through each subsequent slurp, unfortunately overshadowing the more delicate namesake vegetable. Though warm cucumbers don’t sound the least bit appealing on paper, somehow this curious combination really worked. The round sheets of cucumber gel were the stars of this show, combining a fresh cucumber flavor with a soft, jelly-like texture that seemed to melt delicately into the surrounding liquid.
A perennial favorite, mushroom! is a must order for anyone unfamiliar with the Dirt Candy perspective. So deeply and intensely savory that you can smell the umami coming at you from three feet away, the aroma of pure mushroom will reach you before the plate even emerges from the pass. Portobello mousse is the obvious star of the show, commanding your undivided attention with its impossibly dense, silky texture and deeply earthy, almost smoky flavor. Distilling the pure essence of portobello into this 1-inch cube must be some feat of alchemy, as it creates something that tastes more of the mushroom than any unadulterated fungus I’ve ever encountered. A seasonal fruit compote lends a stabilizing hit of sweetness to this umami powerhouse, the toast is a perfectly crisp vehicle for the decadent spread, but those secondary components can’t hope to rise beyond their supporting positions in the wake of that heavy-hitting mousse.
Though topped by a tempura-fried egg by default, corn! is happily veganized by request with tempura-fried watercress instead. While it doesn’t strike me as an equivalent swap, I can hardly argue with the results. Shatteringly crisp and delightfully salty, I could have happily gone to town on a plate of those battered greens for dinner. Moreover, their crunchy texture offset the luxurious pool of creamy polenta beneath. A buttery porridge of coarse cornmeal with the surprising twang of pickled shiitake peppered throughout, the whole dish screamed out “comfort food.” The promise of the highly elusive huitlacoche was a big selling point for me, so it’s regrettable that I walked away from that meal still unable to say what they taste like. Meted out in tiny dots around the periphery of the plate, it was more about the idea of eating rare corn fungus than the actual act of eating it.
When I think of beans, piles of beige chickpeas and navy beans come to mind, so the appearance of beans! was a bit of an initial shock. Towering above the other dishes in one carefully balanced stack, the beans came in the form of soybeans (tofu,) sea beans, and wax beans. Taste aside, you must know that this is the most flawless execution of tofu cookery I’ve come across to date; seared to an impossibly crunchy finish on both long sides of the white slab, it’s what every block of tofu dreams to become. The flavor is no slouch either, powered by a heavy-handed sprinkle of cayenne across the top, at times overwhelming the senses with heat. Such a blatant lack of finesse is startling at this level, preventing such a promising entree from becoming a clear winner. What really stands out in my mind was the unexpected inclusion of “savory oreos” hidden alongside the main stack. The “cookies” consisted of crispy black rice, and the filling was nothing more than yellow wax bean puree. Playful and creative, those two small bites really exemplified the mission statement at Dirty Candy.
Hands down, the best part of the meal was saved for last. I was certain that the famed Sweet Pea and Mint Nanaimo Bar wouldn’t translate into a dairy-free rendition, but it was my lucky day. Although comfortably full at this point in the meal, I’m so glad I made room for dessert, because the mint ice cream was just the light, refreshing finish to cap off a fairly decadent round of savories. Regrettably, the pea flavor was nowhere to be found, but that disappointment was short-lived. With such bright, herbaceous mint at the helm, who could complain? If only there were enough seats to squeeze in for a quick late night snack, I’d be sorely tempted to drop in for just another layered bar of ice cream delight.
Leaving the restaurant with mixed feelings but an undeniably satisfied stomach, it’s clear that the dining experience at Dirt Candy can’t be compared to any other in all fairness. A truly cerebral affair meant to inspire, challenge, and perhaps even provoke the diner at times, the food isn’t just the end product of the chef’s efforts; it’s the beginning of a whole new conversation about vegetables.
Not so far from the maddening crowds of Manhattan midtown, there sits an oasis of tranquility, hidden in plain sight. Prompted to remove your shoes before entering the dining room itself, this simple gesture simultaneously suggests that all other extraneous distractions be left at the door before proceeding. Adhering as closely to tradition as an entirely vegan Korean restaurant can, the experience of dining at Hangawi is almost as noteworthy as the food itself.
Presented as a modern temple of cuisine, it may be understandably intimidating at first glance, but waiters will kindly guide the curious, the clueless, and the seasoned eater all with equal grace. Even if you’ve never tasted kimchi before or couldn’t tell bibimbap from bulgogi, you’ll be able to find a meal that satisfies. Entering into this serene cocoon within the city, my most memorable prior experiences led me to believe that Korean food would taste somewhat like spicier Chinese takeout, which is to say homogenized, Americanized fast food. It was about time I got a new perspective on this previously foreign food culture.
Lightening the serious mood with a splash of iced tea, beverages are poured right at the table into purposefully imperfect ceramic tea cups, spacious enough to rival the pedestrian venti latte. Pomegranate Iced Tea, with its clear ice cubes sparkling within luscious crimson liquid, is a study in restraint. Tart without being aggressive, gently sweetened to take the edge off, and bearing a well-rounded fruity flavor, even such a generous pour goes down easily. Awareness of the sweltering heat and humidity just beyond those insulated walls vanished after a few restorative sips.
Diving head-first into the unknown, I was clamoring to try Todok Salad above all other dishes. Never before had this unusual root crossed my path, despite how common it seems to be in Asian cultures. Frequently described as “poor man’s ginseng,” todok has similar purported health benefits, but what I was more interested in was the taste. Fibrous yet still tender, the pale white shreds were very subtle in flavor- Mild, slightly nutty, and perhaps bearing an earthy sweetness, they proved to be an easy introduction for a meal outside my comfort zone. Paired with watercress, carrots, and dried cranberries, it would have been a pleasant enough start if not for the tide of dressing that washed away distinction between the vegetables. Already soggy by the time it hit the table, in hindsight, it might have been wise to request dressing on the side.
Picking up the slack for that underwhelming salad, an appetizer plate of Combination Rolls brought together a wide variety of savory samples, each one wrapped up in its own discrete nori or rice paper package. Trios of buckwheat noodle rolls, seaweed rolls, mushroom rolls and kimchi vermicelli rolls artfully adorned the plate, ideal for sharing with an equally hungry date. Easily eating more than my fair share of both the mushroom and buckwheat assortments, they both shared an unexpected depth and richness, enhanced by a lightly battered and fried exterior.
Silky Tofu in Clay Pot brings the heat, arriving in a bubbling hot broth and sizzling metal bowls we’re advised not to touch. Served with sticky white rice on the side to soak up every last drop of flavorful soup, this dish alone would have been enough for a solo diner’s lunch. So soft it practically melts in your mouth, the tofu is just as tender as promised. Stewing away in the boldly astringent, tangy, and spicy liquid, this pillowy bean curd is anything but bland.
Arriving with a plume of aromatic steam, each order of Kimchi Stone Bowl Rice comes with plenty of bean sprouts, shredded nori, and of course kimchi, with a bit of performance art on the side. After allowing us to admire the kitchen’s handiwork on the carefully composed grains and vegetables, our waiter snapped to attention and began vigorously mixing, scraping, and stirring, until every last morsel in that bowl begged for mercy. Dramatics aside, it’s easy to see why this signature dish has taken off with such ease. Well balanced, as I had come to expect from Hangawi‘s offerings, the crispy rice is truly the best part. Perfectly crunchy in a way that standard skillets can only dream of achieving, it’s the sort of dish that I could never fully replicate at home. There’s such finesse that goes into the technique, transforming plain white rice into something extraordinary, which demonstrates the mastery of the chefs here.
The spice level in the funky, fermented Kimchi isn’t hot enough bowl you over, but the burn certainly grows with each successive bite. Crazy though it may sound, the thin sheets of delicately rolled cabbage struck me as ideal palate cleansers between bites of so many wildly different dishes.
Unrivaled even in this city of unparalleled choice, there is no better place to experience a wholly plant-based Korean meal. Fine dining does come at a price, but lunch specials are much more budget-friendly, and I’ve heard that Hangawi‘s sister restaurant, Franchia, also serves similar dishes in a more casual, low-key setting. Clearly, my adventures into Korean cuisine are far from over… I can see a trip out to this second outpost in my near future, purely for the sake of research, of course.