story by Rose Kahele
photo by Ann Cecil
In 2004, Dr. Wenhao Sun was working as an assistant researcher at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, doing fieldwork in something called phytoremediation, the science of using plants to clean up the environment. That year, Sun headed a twelve-month project that used native ‘akulikuli plants to cleanse the waters of Honolulu’s heavily used and much-abused Ala Wai Canal. As Sun
conducted his research, another question began to pursue him: What new crop could he grow in Hawai‘i that would address global shortages of fresh water and arable land?
His answer was sea asparagus (Salicornia virginica), a marsh grass found in coastal areas in Northern Europe, Canada and Oregon. A relative of spinach and beets and one that packs a similar nutritional punch, the crispy-on-the-outside, briny-on-the-inside sea asparagus is a delicacy, eaten for centuries in Europe. The ancient Romans enjoyed the grass in salads and steamed with other vegetables. It was also one of George Washington’s favorite summertime foods, and more recently, sea asparagus (known variously as sea beans, pousse pierre and samphire, among other names) was a regular item on the English royal family’s menu.
Sun’s innovation was to grow his sea asparagus hydroponically, suspended in cultivation platforms that float in the ponds of a Kahuku shrimp farm. The grass isn’t the only crop in Sun’s ponds: A healthy population of shrimp, fish and ogo seaweed lives and grows together in them, too, part of a balanced ecosystem that doesn’t need fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides—just fish food.
“I feed the fish and shrimp and they provide organic fertilizers,” says Sun. “The ogo, in turn, provides a lot of oxygen for the sea asparagus, and the sea asparagus provides CO2 for the ogo. Everything is in balance. When the microalgae starts going away and the water is clear, I know it is almost time to harvest the sea asparagus.”
Now a full-time farmer, Sun, who is a native of Shanghai, spent much of last year introducing Islanders to his crop. Sea asparagus can now be found in fine-dining restaurants like Alan Wong’s and Roy’s, as well as in fish markets, at health food stores and in supermarkets.
How does Sun recommend preparing the delicacy? Appropriately, he takes a page from Hawaiian cuisine. “Raw, lomi-style with just some onion and tomato,” he says. “You don’t even need to add any salt.” HH