Hotel cooks up culinary arts tour

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HONOLULU -- Visitors here who have a passion for the food arts are fortunate people. The blending of Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and, more recently, European cuisines with traditional Polynesian dishes has spawned entirely new flavors that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

Drawing parallels to the people who live here, the foods found throughout the islands are diverse and eclectic, but still maintain roots sewn deep in tradition.

The Halekulani is celebrating this idea with a two-day culinary tour that delves not only into food but into the cultural aspects of dining on Oahu.

The tour is being offered monthly to guests of the hotel. Private tours can be arranged for meetings and other groups staying at the hotel, a spokeswoman said.

The two-day sessions are pricey, at $600 per person, not inclusive of hotel accommodation (the tour is open to all visitors, with a 14-person maximum).

Itineraries vary. On the tour I took, most of the group activities took place on the first day. The following is a look at that day's itinerary:

We began with a short drive to the Honolulu fish auction, run by the United Fish Agency. En route, the group was introduced to Joan Namkoong, author of a number of food-related books and the host of the daylong excursion.  

Halekulani executive chef Darryl Fujita holds up the 30-pound red snapper he was preparing for dinner. Photo by Brian Berusch.Halekulani executive chef Darryl Fujita joined us at the market, where he tested the quality of a yellowfin tuna by rolling the fish's red meat between his fingers. The "give," scent and visible fat all factor into the quality and price of a fish, he said. He settled on a 30-pound red snapper for our dinner.

Next stop was Honolulu's Chinatown, a four-square-block area teeming with outdoor markets, lei stands, dim sum eateries and bakeries. The district emerged in the 1870s, Namkoong said, when migrant Chinese workers arrived in droves to work the sugarcane fields that populated much of the island.

We ducked into Mei Sum, a family-run establishment that Namkoong called her favorite. There we nibbled on dumplings and won tons filled with mushroom and chicken, shrimp, bean curd and fresh vegetables.

A half-hour away by bus is Aiea, where our attention was turned to a 10-acre watercress farm owned by the Sumida family.

The farm produces 75% of the watercress consumed on the island.

Established in 1928, it lies in an area that has changed dramatically with the urbanization of Aiea, according to owner David Sumida.

Sumida walked us to the spring-fed marshes where the watercress blossoms.

"There used to be this great river that flowed all the way from the mountain down to the sea," he said.

"The kids used to come all summer long and swim in the river, and I could always see them when I was working in the fields, asking my father if I could go out and play."

By midday, we had returned to the hotel to begin preparing our lunch.

First, we enjoyed a salt and soy tasting in the kitchen of La Mer, the Halekulani's fine dining restaurant.

There, Namkoong explained the difference between soy sauces. The heavier and thicker soys are best for marinades or paired with meats, she said, and the lighter and less salty soys are best for fish or dipping with sashimi and vegetables.

We made our way to the workstation area in La Mer, where chef Fujita was cleaning the red snapper he had purchased earlier that day. 

Fujita explained the process of preparing a whole fish, and then put us to work julienning ginger, garlic, cilantro, green onion and shiitake mushrooms, which would top our steamed fish along with the watercress we had picked at the farm.

He taught us techniques for heating sauces and oils as well as the proper way to pan-fry vegetables.  As soon as the fish was done, we sat in the kitchen and ate of our efforts.

Between lunch and dinner, there was time to enjoy the beach, wander Waikiki or relax at the hotel.

At 6 p.m. we reconvened for cocktails at one of the hotel's other restaurants, House Without a Key, before venturing over to Orchids, the final restaurant on property, for a full dinner with wine pairings and instructions on how to pair vintages with Asian flavors.

The second day began with a culinary class in La Mer with chef Yves Garnier, who delved into the use of local ingredients and techniques to improve one's skills in the kitchen.  The day ended with a dinner at La Mer, inclusive of wine pairings.

For information on the Halekulani, call the hotel at (808) 923-3311 or visit www.halekulani.com.

To contact reporter Brian Berusch, send e-mail to [email protected].

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