Just two days after Christmas, my wife and 2-year-old son had already packed shorts and flip-flops into their suitcases and were waiting anxiously by the door. As we braved the traffic and airport security, I wore a broad smile that never once left my face.
I knew that I would be in paradise later that night, enjoying 75-degree weather, a tropical rainforest, and the warm “Alohas” of the friendly island people. I was heading back to the Big Island of Hawaii to continue my exploration of its tropical agriculture.
Like last time, I was passing up Mai Tais and luxury resorts in favor of the “other side” of Hawaii. East Hawaii feels like a step back in time, with its slow-paced energy, tropical environments, and – most importantly – hundreds of local farms. It may not be for everyone, but it’s exactly what I’m looking for.
I have a strong passion for agriculture, and I’m always interested in learning how crops are grown in different environments (especially if I can get a vacation out of it). I’m one of the few remaining farmers in the LA suburb of Chino. I’ve faced increasing pressure from urban development and I’ve been actively looking for a new farming home.
More than anywhere else, Hawaii keeps on calling me back.
I’ve been traveling here quite often lately. The chirp of the coqui frogs, the warm humid air, and the smell of the jungle immediately made me feel at home. We drove down a dark and winding jungle road to our rental home and fell asleep to the sounds of the ocean. We awoke at 7am to a beautiful sunrise, even though on vacation, something about East Hawaii carries you out of bed with ease.
We set out on our first adventure: touring a 20-acre tropical fruit farm. I have to admit that many of the “farms” that I’ve visited in East Hawaii aren’t quite to the standards I’m used to back in California. What I call a backyard garden is easily considered a farm in Hawaii, and sometimes it’s difficult to tell whether the farmer or mother nature is in charge.
I never know what to expect, but as we pulled up to the resort-style entrance of this tropical-fruit farm, I knew it was the real deal. 40-foot-tall royal palms lined the gravel road that we took to the top of the hill, where we were met by the farmer, Tim.
He was a friendly, clean-cut gentleman with a huge smile. He looked more like how I imagine myself as a Hawaiian farmer than the long-haired, carefree characters that I had met on other farms (for starters, I don’t have much hair anymore).
After a brief introduction, we took off for a walking tour around the farm. There were bananas, citrus, coconuts, enormous avocados, and a picturesque mixed tropical fruit orchard. This was heaven. The entire farm was meticulously manicured, and I was absolutely in awe.
As we approached the main fruit orchard, I saw what looked like red Christmas ornaments hanging on the trees. But once we got closer, I could tell that they were actually bright red rambutan fruit. It’s so amazing what mother nature can do.
I’d read about this mysterious fruit, but never seen one in person. Rambutans are one of those odd, prehistoric-looking fruits that you second-guess before touching, let alone eating. They’re about the size of a chicken egg, covered in brilliant red spines that look intimidating but are apparently soft to the touch.
We trucked through the soggy grass and dodged huge webs woven between the trees. Since the remaining rambutans were high up in the trees, Tim graciously lugged a ladder into the orchard and handed me some clippers.
It was still raining, so every time I tugged on a branch, I was drenched in a fresh downpour. Normally, I would be running for cover and a raincoat, but the warm Hawaiian rain doesn’t stop you from doing anything.
Once I had a few good clusters cut off, I climbed back down the ladder to taste my harvest. Tim told me to just bite into it and rip the thick skin off. I felt like a caveman biting the head off a mouse, but you really do just bite down and crack the skin, exposing the fleshy, edible fruit beneath. It was actually fun once I accepted the fact that those terrifying spines couldn’t hurt me.
Under the thick skin, the edible portion looks like a peeled grape. It was smooth, slippery, and sticky. After getting over the weird texture, it was time to taste it. It reminded me of a cross between grape and mango, very unique with a strong, fruity taste. I can’t pinpoint the exact flavor, but it was so good that I quickly ate the whole cluster, spitting out the almond-shaped seed from the center of each fruit.
I immediately sent HAND + SEED a teaser photo of my bizarre fruit encounter, and to my amazement, a story was just about to go up about Vanessa, a Scottish chef who recently stumbled across rambutans at an LA produce market.
The coincidence was unreal and couldn’t have come at a better time (maybe Hawaii really is meant to be). However, I do have to say that the fresh Hawaiian rambutans were far more beautiful and vibrant than the ones Chef Vanessa found. If my dreams ever come true, I’ll overnight Chef Vanessa some Hawaiian rambutans so she can see how they compare.
Now that I’m back home, I can’t stop thinking about the sheer beauty of Tim’s farm. The last time I went to Hawaii, I explored cacao for chocolate production and now I’m obsessed with the thought of combining chocolate with rambutan.
Once again the wheels are turning in my head, but this time a little quicker and on a narrower track. Time will tell where I end up, but I believe that my dreams about chocolate, rambutan, and island living won’t just be fantasies for long.