Issue 13.3: June/July 2010

The Local Chip

Story by David Choo
Photos by Elyse Butler

 

 

The sign’s faded, the building’s paint is peeling. It’s easy to miss the two-room, seventy-plus-year-old cottage that for decades was home to Hanapepe’s lone saimin stand. But if you follow the savory, nutty scent of bubbling soybean oil and frying taro, you’ll find Dale Nagamine manning the woks. The 56-year-old farmer is the owner, operator and sole employee of the Taro Ko Chips factory, located at the bend in the road at the entrance to Kaua‘i’s Hanapepe Town. If you’ve blinked and missed it, look for Stanley Sakoda, Nagamine’s buddy and the unofficial mayor of Hanapepe, who might be waiting outside to greet you and show you in through the back door.

 

You might not realize it, but producing the Pacific’s answer to the potato chip is an arduous and unforgiving process. Nagamine’s parents started Taro Ko (named for Ko Road, where the family taro farm is located) in 1985. The Nagamines, who were longtime farmers of Kaua‘i lehua taro, started frying chips as a way to supplement their income. When his parents passed away, Dale took over the business, working six to seven days a week, eight hours a day. He grows his own taro with the help of a friend, and he single-handedly peels, slices, fries, bakes, seasons (liberally, with garlic salt) and packages his chips. Usually, he sells out every bag.

 

Lately a lot of tourists have been finding Taro Ko, which is amazing considering that few Kauaians are even aware of it. Several years ago travel writers discovered Taro Ko, and thanks to the Internet, Nagamine now caters to a steady stream of akamai (clued-in) tourists and only one local store, Sueoka’s in Köloa. “I couldn’t supply enough to other markets—I’d run out of taro,” says Nagamine. “Whatever I grow, I cook. That’s it. I dream small.”

 


 

 

Most Americans discovered the taro chip through the national brand Terra Chips, which introduced them to the Mainland in its “Exotic Vegetable Chips” bag, mixed in among other strangers to the American palate like batata, yuca and parsnip. But taro chips have been a mainstay in Hawai‘i for decades. The dry-land taro used to make them, called bun long (also known as Chinese taro) is a regular in Island cuisine; it’s steamed in dim sum, stir-fried, boiled in stews and even puréed into a dessert-pastry filling. Its spinachlike leaves are shredded and steamed in a Hawaiian favorite, laulau. Because bun long has less moisture and carbohydrates than lehua maoli, the wetland Hawaiian taro used to make poi, it doesn’t burn easily and cooks up crispier. It also has less calcium, so it doesn’t leave you with that itchy-throat feeling. But its best quality is, obviously, the taste: a subtle nutty flavor, insidiously addicting. As they say in the chip business, you can’t eat just one.

 

But delicious as they are, it’s unlikely that the taro chip will ever challenge the potato chip for snack food supremacy; even in Hawai‘i they’re considered something of a gourmet item with an exotic cachet and a high price tag. That’s because taro chip making has typically been a cottage industry in Hawai‘i, a hobby, really, more than a business with real growth potential. Taro chip producers, like most local specialty food manufacturers, must balance quality and quantity, says Neil Arakaki, president of candy manufacturer Menehune Mac and past president of the Hawaii Food Manufacturers Association. Complicating matters for taro chip makers, he says, is bun long’s relative scarcity, high price and finicky nature. It doesn’t preserve well, which limits its shelf life. The chips themselves are delicate but bulky, adding shipping costs to an already high price. Locally about four or five companies dominate the industry, with each manufacturer keeping to its particular island and local taro supply. “Atebara’s on the Big Island does a high-quality product with nice packaging,” Arakaki says. “But the problem is getting the product to Honolulu, and once you do get it here, how long is it sitting on the shelf?” But these
“problems” have an up side: Perhaps what’s most appealing about the local taro chip industry is that it’s unlikely ever to become a behemoth like Frito-Lay or achieve the homogeneity of the Pringle. Rather than go national or even statewide, says Arakaki, “a lot of these guys have no interest in taking their product to the next level.”

 

He tells the tale, now legend in the local food industry, about Dewey Kobayashi, the erstwhile maker of Maui’s Kitch’n Cook’d potato chips. Made from carefully selected spuds from the Pacific Northwest, the kettle-cooked chips were all the rage in the 1970s. Word spread to Dallas, the headquarters of Neiman Marcus. They sent a food buyer who was impressed and tried to place a large order. Kobayashi refused, handing over just five bags, the maximum he allowed each customer.

 

 “Mr. Kobayashi believed that there was a right way to do things and there was a wrong way. These taro chip guys are following in that tradition. They are content to sell at craft fairs, open markets and out of their homes,” says Arakaki. “They’re purists who aren’t willing to sacrifice quality. They’re artisans.”

 


 

 

That doesn’t mean, however, that the taro chip can’t hit the big time—really big. Late last year, before the first family’s annual holiday visit to Hawai‘i, the ABC morning show Good Morning America toured the Kailua Beach estate that has become President Obama’s winter White House. Sitting on the kitchen counter were several bags of the Hawaiian Chip Company’s taro and sweet potato chips—necessities, said the estate’s owner, for the commander in chief. “It’s the president’s favorite,” said ABC News reporter Yunji de Nies while holding a bag.

 

“I saw the segment online and I couldn’t believe it. The president of the United States likes my chips,” exults Jimmy Chan, the 34-year-old owner of the Hawaiian Chip Company. “He’s almost as influential as Oprah!”

 

The Hilo native started frying chips after seeing an episode of Emeril Live in which the celebrity chef cooked up some sweet potato chips. A recent grad from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa, Chan had been contemplating opening a restaurant with friends. He’d majored in speech, though, so he knew little about the food business—except that he loved food, especially Okinawan sweet potatoes. He started experimenting. In 2000 he started the Hawaiian Chip Company, with sweet potato chips as its main product. But when a bad crop limited his supply, a friend turned him on to bun long. Shortly after Chan introduced taro chips, they became the Hawaiian Chip Company’s best seller, with a four-ounce bag retailing for around $4.50.

 

That’s pricey for a bag of chips, but with good reason: Bun long’s irregular size and shape means that each corm (root) must be hand-cleaned and peeled before being dropped into a high-tech vegetable slicer. “You have to slice taro very precisely,” says Chan. “Too thick and it’s tough to bite through; too thin and you have a chip that crumbles to dust.” At $30,000 the Japanese-made machine is the most expensive piece of equipment in the company’s Kalihi factory. “We used to joke that it was so expensive because there were samurai swords inside,” says Chan. “Then we learned that the company that manufactures the blades also makes swords.” After slicing, the chips must be fried by hand. Chan insists that machines can’t make the tiny adjustments to cooking time and temperature that the fussy taro demands. Individual workers then season and package the taro. The result is a chip that is both substantial and delicate, uniform in color and size and, amazingly, grease-free.

 

Chan’s ability to deliver quality and quantity may make the Hawaiian Chip Company the first business to take this hyper-local industry beyond Hawai‘i’s shores, but he’s proceeding with caution; he doesn’t want to tax his taro supply or compromise quality. “It’s nice being the president’s favorite chip,” he says, “but we have to make sure that every bag is perfect.”

 


 

 

In contrast to the Hawaiian Chip Company’s gleaming Kalihi factory, operations at Taro Ko are decidedly low-tech. Unlike the Hawaiian Chip Company’s ninja slicer, Nagamine uses a regular commercial-grade machine. His fryers are four large woks on gas burners. And growing his own adds another entire level of challenge. “I used to buy some of my taro from outside sources, but I couldn’t control the quality so I decided to only use what I grow,” says Nagamine. “It’s intensive work, growing taro. I don’t want to say that my chips are better than others or anything like that. But that’s the way that I want to do it.”

A customer and his young son enter the kitchen and purchase two small bags of taro chips ($3.50 each). Sakoda chats the visitors up: They’re from California, and it’s their last day on Kaua‘i, which they’ve visited four times before. “Every time we come,” says the father, “we make sure to stop by here. We’re going to eat one bag on the way back to the hotel and take the other one back home.”

 

Nagamine and Sakoda smile when they hear this. Today the former sugar town of Hanapepe is a tidy collection of gift shops and art galleries—except for a few holdouts like Taro Ko. “I’m going to keep on doing what I’m doing until I don’t want to do it anymore. I have a niece who’s expressed some interest in taking over the business someday, but she’s still in high school,” says Nagamine, who has no children. “I started with a quarter-acre of taro. Now I’m up to two acres. I’m expanding a little at a time because I don’t want the business running me. Like I said, I dream small.”