Oahu: From Fruits to Fishes

Green and pink anthurium flowers peeking out from buckets of water. The sweet smell of strawberry papayas. Jars of homemade jam with handwritten labels.

I love strolling through the farmers' market to see what little treasures I can find, and doing this in an exciting, foreign locale never fails to be an eye-opener. I always tell friends that want to visit the Hawaiian islands, "Go to the local market!" Checking out the local markets is a unique and mostly inexpensive way to get to know the area. You can meet anyone, from the very farmers who harvest the crop to business owners selling their homemade goods, from the neighborhood residents to fellow travelers.

So, for the finale of my Oahu posts, I want to shine a light on a couple of marketplaces on the island. I've mentioned all of the "home"-cooking that my mom did for this trip, and now I can finally tell you about where we found our ingredients. We would've loved to go to Oahu's bigger farmers' markets, but our schedule just never matched up with the days that they were held. (For information on markets sponsored by the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation, click here. For the county-run People's Open Markets, click here.) Nevertheless, we found a couple of places that are open all week long and are just as interesting to stroll through.

In Kahuku, where we stopped at Romy's for some shrimp, there is the Kahuku Land Farms Stand. It's an authentic fruit stand that sells locally grown produce, and it's right off of the Kamehameha Highway. (Perfect for a road trip pit stop!) With a few farms represented under the Kahuku Land Farms Stand, a colorful selection of exotic fruits are right at your fingertips. Mangoes, dragon fruit, guyabano (upper left-hand corner, green spiky fruit), rambutan, chico (bottom left, brown fruit), Hawaiian avocados... There are so many to choose from.

One of the stands, Home & Chue's, is run by a lovely Laotian couple. They sell homemade snacks, like sweet sticky rice in banana leaf, alongside their farm goods. In front of Rabago's Lunchwagon, an older Filipino woman also sells snacks and sweets. The freshly made banana lumpia (aka turon) was the most popular item, only $5 for a half-dozen.

If you don't want to buy whole fruit, there are convenient bags of sliced fruit all ready to go, including coconut and sugar cane. The sampler-type bags even had guava and star fruit.

I literally heard angels sing when I saw the apple bananas. APPLE BANANAS. YES. PLEASE. I spoke about my love for these sweet, petite bananas when I was in the Philippines and again when I went to Kaua'i. (I'm still craving that apple banana gelato from Papalani Gelato...) To be honest, I could eat one bunch all by myself. In one sitting. Possibly.

I also love seeing fresh rambutan for sale. They're a strange-looking fruit, but their red color is so striking and they are just as tasty as lychees.

And, just for fun, this is what a whole lilikoi (passion fruit) looks like.

Last but not least, the caimito! Whenever I find fresh ones, I love to buy caimito. They're also called "Star Apple". I first had some in the Philippines when I was a little girl, and I've loved this fruit ever since. Back home, you can usually find frozen ones at Asian stores, but caimito is best when eaten fresh.

They have a soft, juicy pulp that can be scooped out with a spoon. The flavor reminds me of a sweet grape, but it just has that extra tropical oomph. We also bought a dozen of the famous Kahuku sweet corn. Because the cobs are much smaller than we're used to seeing, my nephew and I kept calling them "corn babies". But all joking aside, they definitely fully lived up to their super sweet reputation. If you're ever in Kahuku, this corn should be on your list of must-buy's. You can pick up 1 dozen for $10 or a bag of 6 for $5.

Upper left-hand corner: That's my mom!

Another market that we visited was the Waipahu Festival Marketplace. My Auntie Mel was the one who wanted to bring my mom and I to this lively market filled with fish, meat, and produce. It caters to the vast Asian population on the island, but Festival definitely attracts the Filipino community. The Filipino Community Center, the largest cultural center outside of the Philippines, is actually just a 5-minute walk down the street. Not surprisingly, there's a heavy influence in the area. It dates back to when Filipino immigrants worked at the old sugar plantation in Waipahu. A majority of the vendors at Festival are Filipino and speak Tagalog, which made watching my mom do her shopping a lot of fun, just like at the palengke in Pangasinan! 

The theme of this market is fresh and cheap. The pork is butchered daily and can be cut specifically to a customer's liking. Different sizes and cuts of ahi tuna are for sale, with smaller whole ahi priced at $3.95/lb. And, most fish stands will even clean your fish for free. (This is especially helpful if you're taking fish back to a hotel kitchen or to a beach park for grilling. Less work for you!)

While Filipino staples like tilapia, galunggong (mackeral scad) and bangus (milkfish) are readily available, I couldn't help but be drawn to the more brightly colored fish. They're definitely not what you'd find at the average grocery store on the mainland. Walking down the rows of fish was an adventure all on its own.

But then...there are the piles of vegetables. Literally, piles. The warabi, fern fronds that are very popular in Hawai'i, definitely caught our eyes. When you see a nice big bunch like the fresh ones at Festival, it's too good to pass up. They can be treated almost like spinach, sauteed or in a salad. There were even baby ampalaya (bittermelon) and sigarilyas (winged beans). All of the vegetables looked vivid and unblemished, just what you want to see.

Oh, look. Hello again, bananas. One vendor sold only bananas. Saba, apple, and even "ice cream" bananas... The latter gets its name from its creamier consistency and slight vanilla flavor. I had never seen those before, so it was a "you learn something new every day" moment for me.

Once we got past the fresh stuff, there was still all of the hot food. I remember seeing one Thai food stand, but the rest was, again, mostly Filipino. It's amazing to see freshly cut pork being sold on one side of the market and to be able to walk to the other side to see it cooked, like the adobo made with pork belly. The pig head was cooked into a sisig-type dish with hot chilis and red onion.

One woman was selling individually boxed lunches for $3 each. She had everything, from pancit to ube. It'd be a great, inexpensive place to pick up food for a road trip or an easy picnic.

Later that night, we enjoyed whole Pampano cooked with tomatoes and katuray flowers (which was only $1 for a quart-sized bag!), a salad of blanched warabi with tomatoes and onions, and clams steamed with garlic and ginger. I was excited to see those katuray flowers again (which I had for the first time ever in Kaua'i), and the clams were big yet still tender and sweet. Everything was delicious!

The last market that we visited was Tamashiro Market. It's just down the street from Liliha Bakery and is also a Honolulu establishment that's been around for decades. Originally from Hilo on the Big Island, Chogen Tamashiro and his family moved the market to Honolulu after a tsunami damaged their first store. The market on North King Street opened its doors in 1947 and has been thriving ever since. Chogen's grandsons now run the family business.

Although the Tamashiros started out by selling pork, they now offer a wide selection of seafood. There are live lobsters, prawns, and even abalone. The unicornfish (top) and parrotfish (bottom) were looking pretty awesome, too. As for the shells, those are pipipi (pronounced pee-pee-pee). Pipipi is a type of mollusc that clings to the island's rocky shoreline and dates back to ancient Hawaiians.

In the back of the store, there is a display counter just for the poke. I stood here for 5 minutes, trying to figure out...not what to order, but how much to order. I wanted it all. Between my dad and I, we could easily eat a pound of poke each. 

Tamashiro Market had other regional specialties, as well. The first one that I noticed was the opihi, another shellfish that clings to the shoreline's rocks. It's a bit of an acquired taste, with a strong briny/ocean flavor and an odd crunch-then-chewiness. But, this is a delicacy that's absolutely adored by locals, so much so that Oahu's supply has become scarce. The Tamashiros get their stock from the Big Island and have it available year-round. If you ever come to Hawai'i with a "When in Rome..." attitude about the food, try opihi!

Tamashiro also has another specialty: raw Blue Crab. Korean-style Blue Crab is also available. Yes, the crab is eaten raw. It's similar to eating poke.

Speaking of poke... We ultimately decided on the Ahi Shoyu Poke. It was made with more limu seaweed than I'm used to having, which definitely amped up the "ocean" flavor, but it wasn't too overpowering and was still delicious! Tamashiro always makes its poke daily with fresh, never-previously-frozen fish.

My family and I were so lucky to have such a pure taste of Hawai'i on this trip and to meet some of the nicest people. If you can't make it to the more grand farmers' markets of Oahu, these places are all great alternatives. They may be smaller, but certainly don't come up short in quality. Kahuku Land Farms Stand, Waipahu Festival Marketplace, and Tamashiro Market are all treasure troves for fruits, vegetables, and the freshest seafood. We created amazing meals with their products, and we look forward to coming back for more!