BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


9 Comments

Savory Saturday: Fine Dining

Hearts of Palm Salad from Nobu

Tofu Sashimi from Nobu

Mushroom Tobanyaki from Nobu

Zucchini Unagi (Cauli-Rice, Shiso, Lotus Root) from Greens & Vines

Zucchini Noodles with Macadamia Nut Pesto and Local Tomatoes from Greens & Vines

Sugarland Farms Watermelon (Thai Style Garlic Chili Vinaigrette, Nalo Herbs, Cucumber, Puffed Rice) from Roy’s


14 Comments

Da Vegan Kine Grindz

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!

Shave Ice

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.)

Snow Ice

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.)

Boiled Peanuts

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.)

Crack Seed

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.)

Musubi

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.)

Acai Bowls

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!


23 Comments

Photo Friday: Sweeping Landscapes

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!


24 Comments

Broke Da Mout

Hawaiians simply have a way with words. Direct but gentle, and often spoken with a good dose of humor, every statement seems to come with a built-in smile at the end. Said in Pidgin with island inflection, “broke da mout” (“break the mouth”) is in fact a compliment to the chef. Not nearly as painful as it may let on, the phrase suggests that you’ve eaten something so unfathomably delicious, or eaten such vast quantities of it, that you simply couldn’t stand to take another bite. Ergo, your palate has been thoroughly spoiled, in the most satisfying way. I can report without hesitation that I thoroughly broke my own mouth to the fullest extent of the definition while in Honolulu.

Lured out by the familiar urge to discover new ono grindz (good eats), every step of my two mile walk to reach Greens & Vines was worth the effort. Born of the 100% raw vegan catering company Licious Dishes, this dine-in outpost is only a few months old, still glistening with that new restaurant shine. Glowing like a beacon on a dark night, the neon sign out front is quite arresting, especially for the unprepared. Already on my hit list, it was a sight I was unprepared for as I gazed blankly out the bus window.

“Oh, that’s the restaurant right there!” I exclaimed in spite of myself, to no one in particular. It would clearly require a more thorough exploration at a later time, especially without those lovely people sharing public transit who were now convinced of my mental instability.

After miscalculating the distance from my hotel rather drastically, it ended up being a later meal than anticipated, but gave me plenty of time to work up an appetite. Good thing too, since just one plateful of Kaffir Miso Pad Thai, composed of kelp noodles and topped off with a generous handful of crunchy cashews, left me feeling quite stuffed. Taking my time to luxuriate in every slippery strand, the effusively friendly staff made me feel more than welcome to linger, as opposed to so many other establishments that saw the single vegan diner as a burden. One gets a real sense of community here, proof positive that veganism is alive and thriving in all pockets of the world.

Although I already broke da mout on my main dish, the temptation of the dessert menu was too much to bear. Wrapping up a petite wedge of Tangerine Cheesecake to go, it became a most decadent midnight snack just a few hours later. Flawlessly smooth, creamy, and sparkling with citrus zest, its small size belied immense flavor. More than enough to satisfy even my voracious sweet tooth, what initially seemed like a scant portion turned out to be just right.

The raw movement may still be in its infancy in Honolulu, but endless other clean, green options can be readily found hidden in amongst the puka dog and saimin stands. Peace Cafe serves up well-balanced meals with a macrobiotic sort of slant, featuring otherwise obscure flavors like matcha and kinako to create vegan treats found no where else.

Speaking of which, the Iced Matcha Latte is an absolute must for any hot day, which is pretty much every day on the island. Lightly sweetened just to cut the bitter edge of the powdered green tea, soy milk lends body to the beverage, making it both refreshing and wholly satisfying. If only I had ventured out to this part of town sooner, I’m certain I would have found many excuses to return for a second and third refill.

Mochi brownies displayed alluringly on the counter did look like an awfully attractive lunch option, but the savory dishes are worth holding out for. Before ever setting foot in the shop, I already knew that I wanted the Heart and Seoul entree: Inspired by Korean bibimbap, a power plate of greens, both raw and cooked, beansprouts, shredded carrots, and either fresh tofu or TVP over a bed of brown rice. Ever indecisive, I stood there hemming and hawing at the counter, until the cashier helpfully broke my strained silence. “I could get you a little bit of both, too- How about that?” she asked sweetly. Yes, please; I felt like I really could have it all in that moment. Both were utterly delightful, but being the tofu-lover that I am, I would spring for a full portion of only that silky-soft bean curd next time. Topped off with a healthy dollop of very mild gochujang to mix and mash at will, the diner has the freedom to mix in as much of that salty paste as their heart desires. Naturally, I devoured every last smudge.

What’s most telling about how vegan-friendly a city is, however, is not the number of specialty shops or isolated outposts. Rather, it’s what one can scavenge in the everyday eateries, even the mundane or most unpromising locations. While the Ala Moana Mall is no average shopping center, boasting hundreds of stores spread out for what seems like miles, the above platter is still an incredible testament to how open and accessible Honolulu is to the compassionate visitor or resident. Grylt Ala Moana, located in the Makai Food Court, is one of three locations within Honolulu. In true cafeteria style, you’re encouraged to build your own plate, picking between proteins, sides, and sauces. Grilled Tofu is the way to go to avoid animal protein, and incredibly, you can actually choose Olive Oil Mashed Cauliflower over plain white rice, if desired. For just 50 cents more, it’s more than worth the upgrade. Grilled Veggies are already so expertly seasoned with balsamic vinegar and black pepper, it seems a shame to cover them with any additional sauce, despite how bright and vivacious the Citrus Herb Oil was. Request it on the side to dip the tofu in, and you’ll have the perfect complement to all components.

Next, we’re jetting off to another island… The Big Island, in fact, for a stop in Hilo. Still more photos are being uploaded everyday, so please keep checking in to see all of my adventures!


39 Comments

Biting into the Big Pineapple

Though its nickname evokes images of a more tropical rendition of New York City, Honolulu is truly beyond compare. A big city with the heartbeat of a small town, everyone seems to know each other, or at least treat strangers like family if they don’t. Shy and introverted by nature, it took a huge step outside of myself to embark on my first solo trip, and I can say with conviction that there was no better destination than this string of islands in the Pacific Ocean. Reaching out into the void, I was shocked by the genuine kindness that was placed in my outstretched palms. Hearing horror stories about Hawaii’s rocky past, including some lingering (and often justified) resentment against haoles, it seemed a sure thing that my sheet-white face was just asking for trouble. Never have I been so happy to be wrong.

Simple interactions, no matter how shallow, just felt warmer, friendlier than anything I had previously encountered. Smiles came easily, instantly, to every gentle face, and accidental eye contact no longer felt like a potential threat. For the rest of my life, I will never forget the mundane act of waiting for the bus in China Town. Midday sun blazing away, cooling trade winds no where to be found, it was a warmth that was impossible to comprehend for a January afternoon. Wholly unprepared for the heat, I rolled up my sleeves and sweated it out, checking and double-checking the schedule to make sure I had picked the right bus line. Out of the blue, a petite woman sitting on the bench struck up a conversation, noticing my discomfort.

“Yeah, I sure wish I had an umbrella like you,” I mentioned dreamily, nodding to her black-paneled parasol. “I’ve only thought of them for rainy days, but that’s such a good idea!”

Without missing a beat, she immediately offered to share her shade. “Come sit by me then! There’s plenty of room,” she indicated her vast abundance of space, patting the empty seat. And so there I sat, nearly 5,000 miles from home, cheek-to-cheek with a complete stranger, having rarely felt safer in the comfort of my own house.

It’s such a simple gesture, such a forgettable instance, but I’m still bowled over by that effortless generosity. It’s just not something I’ve seen anywhere else in the world.

The people are what truly makes Hawaii so special, but the food naturally ranks second on my list of reasons to visit. Shockingly, vegan options abound in Honolulu, with hardly a menu lacking one ready-to-eat option. Tofu reigns supreme here, thanks to the influence of many Asian cultures, thus making it the norm rather than the “alternative.” Not every morsel was the height of fine cuisine, but I had a handful of memorable meals that would be worth returning to the island for.

An unassuming little hole in the wall, Ruffage Natural Foods is located just a few short blocks away from Kuhio Beach in Waikiki. After a long day of sun and surf, the short menu of simple, wholesome entrees draws both travelers and locals alike. The Tofu Avocado Spring Salad was exactly what I craved, fulfilling my desperate need for fresh greens and a punch of protein. Despite the heat, I still couldn’t resist pairing that with a soul-satisfying cup of miso soup, filled with seaweed and tofu as well. For a no-frills healthy meal, I can’t think of a better place to drop by.

Out in China Town, at the very bus stop where my most cherished conversation took place, the Downbeat Diner is also serving up some awesome meatless eats. Boasting a menu of comfort foods and classic diner favorites, they readily accept the challenge of veganizing each and every option should it not be naturally free of animal ingredients already. Since I came in a little bit early for lunch, the brunch options were most appealing, and they pulled out a solid Tofu Scramble indeed.

Squeezing in those greens again, this platter typically comes with potatoes, but can be swapped for a salad upon request. Mushrooms and onions added a savory complexity to the yellow-hued, seasoned bean curds, I cleaned my plate in mere minutes and would have licked it if not in public.

You won’t want to bypass the drink menu while you’re at it. My admittedly unusual request for a virgin Bloody Mary was met without any snark, and hit the spot perfectly. Lightly spicy, nice and salty, and packed with tomato flavor, I wish I could have ordered about a gallon of the stuff to take with me.

By complete accident or a crazy stroke of luck, however you’d like to consider it, I ended up staying at the very hotel where my top restaurant destination was situated. I had to compare the addresses at least five times before I believed it, but indeed, they were the same. Yuzu, crafting exquisite Japanese food in the ground floor of the Ala Moana Hotel, is not a vegan restaurant. Amazingly, they produce some of the most realistic-looking vegetable nigiri I have ever come across, and many other vegetable options are equally delightful.

You owe it to yourself to try the Vegetable Nigiri Sampler at least once in your life time. The height of edible art, though it may be a dead-ringer for fish at first glance, there’s not a scrap of animal protein to be found on this plate. The “tuna” slices are in fact peeled tomatoes, gently poached in vinegar to impart a uniquely bright, uncharacteristically oceanic flavor. Yuba fills one gunkan while a rich carrot mousse is piped into another. Lotus root is fried and covered with eel sauce, so cleverly hidden within its crispy shell that I would have never been able to identify it unaided. Mushrooms top of the remained of the pieces for incredible umami bites. Eggplant is typically included into the melange as well, but the chef so graciously provided a second tomato piece for me instead, accommodating for my sad eggplant intolerance.

Don’t leave the table without trying their hand-cut Veggie Medley Udon Noodles while you’re at it. Sliced fresh to order and lavished with all variety of garnishes on the side, they’re almost as much fun to eat as they are delicious. Slippery, chewy strands of wheat that twist effortlessly around the chopsticks, the noodles are a world apart from anything dried or store-bought. Each bite is a little bit different too, depending on how you load them up with scallions, sesame seeds, ginger, mushrooms, or crunchy tenkasu. A final splash into the soy-based dipping sauce, and the whole assembly goes down easily. My only regret is that I didn’t have time to return and try another dish or eight at Yuzu.

There’s still much more food to come, but in the meantime, keep checking my Flickr set for more photos!


26 Comments

Aloha from Hawaii

Eyelids weighted down by a marathon 29-hour day in transit, it hardly seemed worth fighting their slow descent. Nodding off for 15-minute stretches at a time while waiting, waiting, waiting endlessly to stop hurtling through the clouds, I eventually succumbed to exhaustion. Next time I came to, I was in paradise.

I don’t care if it’s horribly cliched- It’s completely true. Honolulu, Hawaii is like no other place I’ve ever been, and I couldn’t have dreamed up a place more perfect if I truly had died and gone to heaven. Stepping off the gangway into the cozy embrace of 80-degree air, the afternoon sun sparkling overhead, I wasn’t quite sure I had actually woken up yet.

Though my hotel room wasn’t ocean-front or even ocean-facing, the view was still unparalleled in its grandeur. Each sunrise and sunset was a sight to behold. On my last morning in the city, I rose while the sky was still dark, dragging a chair in front of the window for a front seat to the show. In those wee AM hours, nursing a large cup of hot Kona coffee, I watched as the streets slowly began to glow and come alive and the sky danced with a changeable rainbow of colors.

Readjusting to 12-degree days and 5:00pm nightfall has been challenging, to say the least, so I’m not yet fully back up to speed. Consider these landscapes just a small taste of what’s to come, and keep checking my Flickr set for additional photos and descriptions, some of which won’t be featured on the blog. Though all my photos are full of treasured memories, too beautiful to keep to myself, I don’t want to bog down anyone’s loading time further. Consider it a somewhat hidden bonus for the truly curious. Next up, a handful of island food finds simply too incredible to limit to mere images. Stay tuned!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,521 other followers