Could Hawaii’s Traditional Culinary Practices Help Save the Planet?

Culinary pioneer Peter Merriman talks the traditional—and slightly controversial—food trend that began on the islands and took the world by storm.

Could Hawaii’s Traditional Culinary Practices Help Save the Planet?

Ahi Ginger Poke with Molokai Chips from Merriman’s

Courtesy of Merriman’s Hawaii

Even for the seasoned food lover, the term “Hawaii Regional Cuisine” might not immediately ring any bells, but the movement’s staple dishes—like the wildly popular poke bowl that’s taken the fast-casual culinary world by storm—most likely will. And it’s not just the flavors that have reached international acclaim; the backbone of this culinary movement is a true farm-to-table approach to dining—a concept now at the forefront of the foodie frontier, on the islands, on the mainland, and around the world.

Hawaii Regional Cuisine was founded over two decades ago by 12 Hawaii-based chefs from a range of cultural backgrounds. The style celebrates the fusion of Hawaii’s native ingredients and culinary traditions with a blend of foreign influences, from Polynesia to Japan, Portugal, and beyond.

“I like to say that in Hawaii, we were doing farm-to-table cooking before there was even such a thing,” says chef Peter Merriman, one of the pioneers of Hawaii Regional Cuisine. “The premise of this kind of cuisine has always been to use locally sourced products and make handcrafted food.”

Merriman has spent the past 30 years working closely with the local farmers, ranchers, and fishermen who provide the fresh ingredients used in the fusion-style dishes he serves at his four restaurants across Hawaii. He stresses the importance of the connection between locavorism (the practice of eating locally grown, caught, or raised food) and the history of the traditional Hawaiian dishes that are now recognized internationally.

Farm to Table and Fresh Foods on the Island of Hawaii

“When you think about something like the current poke craze, you have to realize that the real poke craze started in Hawaii about 1,200 years ago,” Merriman states. “Hawaiians have been eating these dishes all along.” While it has since evolved into the “bowl of the moment,” the pre-colonial, raw fish dish is rooted in sustainability, having originated as a simple way to efficiently consume the “catch of the day.” In other words, the concept of farm to table (or sea to plate) is not a trend in Hawaii—it’s an authentic staple of traditional cuisine.

“When I think of the original Hawaiian poke dish, I think of ahi tuna with seaweed, sea salt, and inamona, a traditional condiment made from roasted kukui nut,” Merriman says. “The idea of adding soy, green onions, ginger, and sesame [is new, but] those extra ingredients have really become a part of the poke bowl that’s well-known.” While those additional ingredients—namely Asian flavors—might not reflect Hawaii’s regional resources, they do reflect the islands’ ever-changing multicultural influences.

Chef Peter Merriman, pioneer of Hawaii Regional Cuisine

Chef Peter Merriman, pioneer of Hawaii Regional Cuisine

Courtesy of Merriman’s Hawaii

From this perspective, the global take on Hawaii’s traditional dish might not be such a far cry from the central ideas of Hawaii Regional Cuisine. After all, the only thing more central to the movement’s DNA than the inclusion of regional ingredients is their fusion with flavors from different cultures.

“[Culinary movements] are about taking a concept and building upon it,” Merriman says. This “building upon,” or fusing of traditional culinary practices with new flavors and styles, is what bolstered some of Hawaii’s regional dishes to the international stage in the first place. In many cases, poke’s emergence on the culinary scene in such cities as Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City is just a continuation of the reinterpretation that helped poke evolve into the dish we know and love today.

While you can now order poke from menus pretty much anywhere around the world, it’s not just the concept of these Hawaiian dishes that we should be going crazy for, but the islands’ local culinary practices as well. In true Hawaii Regional Cuisine fashion, Merriman’s restaurants maintain a commitment to sustainable food production (and consumption), by sourcing locally and monitoring portions to prevent overconsumption.

“Fishing management and prevention is extremely complex,” Merriman explains. “It’s not really just about putting a quota on the amount of fish you can catch. The part we try to focus on is the serving side—we always serve smaller portions of wild-caught fish, blended with a range of locally grown ingredients.” By doing so, Merriman serves cuisine that not only reflects and expands upon the cultures and resources in Hawaii, but also attempts to preserve them.

If chefs around the globe imitating Hawaii’s popular dishes choose to mirror Merriman’s dedication to the traditions and flavors that make poke—and Hawaii Regional Cuisine at large—so enticing, then perhaps this sustainably focused food trend will truly sustain in more ways than one.

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