You Can Eat That?

Wild foods abound in Hawai`i's forests and fields-but do they taste any good?
Story by Hunter Haskins. Photos by Sue Hudelson.

David Bruce Leonard is holding a weed up to my nose. We’re in a field full of weeds not all that different from the nondescript one in front of my face.

“You can eat that?” I ask. He nods. “It’s medicinal, too,” he says. “Helps digestion.” He fires off the plant’s names in Hawaiian (pualele), Latin (Sonchus oleraceus L.), English (sow thistle, hare’s lettuce) and, after a moment, Greek (sonchus). This spiny, dandelion-like weed hardly looks edible, but if I can trust anyone about wild food, it’s David. And Sunny Savage, who’s picking weeds from a patch nearby. “Check out these baby amaranth!” she chimes about a plant you might find growing from a crack in the sidewalk. “That’s medicinal,” David says, and launches into a discourse only an herbalist could love.

We’re foraging on a farm in the foothills of Haleakalā. It’s fallow, recently plowed and untouched by chemical sprays for years. Sunny points across the verdant expanse. “These are agricultural weeds,” she says. “They’re placeholders in the soil when not cultivated. These just happen to be edible.” This is not what I expected to be doing when I set out to forage for wild foods. I expected treacherous jungle hikes or rappelling down a cliff to pluck a single, rare berry. This is more like a nature stroll you’d take with your grandparents.

Like a lot of Island residents, I’m concerned about our food security. We import an estimated 85 percent of our food, almost all of it by ship. I’m not alone in imagining scenarios in which the boats stop coming. What if civilization collapses? What happens during the zombie apocalypse, when the Mainland is overrun and Hawai‘i closes its ports? Will we be able to feed our 1.4 million residents? How? Even with every field planted, it might not be enough —commercial agriculture requires major inputs, most of which also come from beyond the Islands. When things go south, wild food might be our only hope, and I want to know what and how much is out there. But it isn’t enough for me merely to survive on boiled sow thistle and raw amaranth. I want to know: Could we eat well on foraged food? Could we create a forest-to-fork gourmet cuisine?

To find out, I recruited two of the best wild food experts in Hawai‘i, both of whom live on Maui. Sunny Savage fully lives up to her name when she hacks open a coconut with a machete. “I stopped carrying a water bottle,” she says matter-of-factly. Sunny is passionate about wild food; she recently wrote a book on the subject, Wild Food Plants of Hawaii, just out in April, and gave a talk at TEDxMaui last year. Sunny feeds her boys (ages 1, 11 and 48) as much wild food “as I can, all the time,” she says. “It’s local and organic. I do it for taste, variety, nutrients and gentle medicinal effects.” Not to mention the price, which is hard to beat. Sunny’s yard is a mix of wild and cultivated plants that keeps her larder green.

David’s just as passionate as Sunny, but he’s more interested in medicine than food. I’ve got a dog-eared copy of his book, Medicine at Your Feet, in my backpack. It’s the result of his studies at the Earth Medicine Institute, which he founded. His teaching blends Hawaiian culture, Chinese medicine, Boy Scout ingenuity and what he refers to as MSU (making s**t up). David is also an acupuncturist, and like many trained in that tradition, he’s knowledgeable about herbs, both Chinese and Hawaiian. Hawai‘i’s version of herbal medicine is called lā‘au lapa‘au, which uses fresh-picked herbs and nuts to treat a variety of ailments.

The three of us make our way through the farmer’s plot to an area where ginger stalks with yellow flowers explode from a hillside. Yellow ginger is a fast-growing invasive from Asia that’s common in shady, wet areas of all the islands; it’s pretty and fragrant but otherwise a nuisance. Without pausing David picks a blossom and pops it in his mouth. “You can eat that?” I ask for what seems like the umpteenth time. “You can eat that,” comes the standard reply. Yellow ginger, I soon discover, has tender, bland petals, but the stem offers a shot of spicy ginger essence. Sunny loves to sauté the unopened buds with olive oil and garlic. (I later use them as a garnish for vodka sodas because, you know, research.) The fresh roots can be used in stir-fry, for tea and to make candy.

But ginger seems to be the exception. My nose and mouth are unimpressed by much of what Sunny and David hand me. Leafy greens taste like leafy greens, never too far in flavor from spinach or kale. Chayote squash, which looks like a deformed pear growing from a tangle of vines so dense it could snare an industrial mower, tastes like a hybrid between a potato and a bland apple. The crunchy yet tender vine tips taste a bit heartier and can be eaten raw.

Throughout our adventure the distinction between food and medicine begins to blur. Western medicine holds them separate, but in Eastern traditions there is less of a distinction. “Let food be thy medicine,” Hippocrates once wrote, an exhortation that’s only now being rediscovered by the West. As we nibble our way through nature, I expect something to disagree with me. But a strange thing happens after skipping my usual breakfast and lunch: I pick up a mild nutrient buzz. Sunny and David are immune or at least accustomed to this feeling. When eating fresh-picked, uncultivated plants straight from the ‘āina, the land, we quickly absorb the nutrients. The buzz is the body’s way of saying, “OK, enough”; it’s a mild, caffeine-like zing with no sense of fullness.

What happens, though, if you get something wrong? The key to not poisoning oneself, David says, lies in knowing the taxonomic families. A wild fennel we found had a nice licorice taste, but “it’s from a ‘bad family,’” he says. Other members of the fennel family are toxic. Unless you know what you’re dealing with, “my advice is to stay away from bad families completely,” says David, “and carefully experiment with the good.” Sunny’s approach leaves little to experimentation. “Before you try it, know exactly what it is and where it has been.” Good advice, I think, for eating wild food or finding a mate. More than once Sunny warned me off a plant she couldn’t identify or couldn’t be sure hadn’t been sprayed with something.

The mother lode comes from an unexpected place. No more than a hundred feet from the road, we come to a shaded gully. Suddenly a chorus rises from David and Sunny. “Look at the New Zealand spinach!” “Here’s that feral parsley we were looking for!” “Oh! Fennel! Tons of it.” It goes on like that for a solid five minutes. I’d walked right over the same spot and seen nothing. I’m looking the wrong way, David explains. “Look for the margins. The change from hillside to streambed is right there, right where you walked over. In nature the action happens in the transitions like fresh-water to saltwater, mountains to plains.”

Change happens from the margins of the human world, too. Technology, academia and politics have all been rocked by revelations from the margins: Physics was rocked by an Austrian customs house clerk (Einstein), the Russian monarchy fell because a Prussian novelist wrote a manifesto (Marx) and health care in America was upended by a Punahou grad (you know who). If wild food is to go from marginal to mainstream, from hobo to haute, we need a mad genius at work in the kitchen.

So we bring our bounty to the kitchen of Peter Merriman; if any local chef can ensure that we’ll eat well post-apocalypse, it’s Peter. His restaurants—Merriman’s on Kaua‘i, Maui and Hawai‘i, Monkeypod on O‘ahu and Maui and Merriman’s Fish House on Kaua‘i—feature local variations on global cuisine, like smoked taro hummus or bourbon-brined Kurobuta pork chop. Peter has been a pioneer in Hawai‘i, a restaurateur on the vanguard of locavorism and farm-to-table cuisine. If it grows locally, he’s interested in it, and that includes wild foods. Still, I’m relieved when, looking through our collection, he utters my catchphrase. “You can eat that?” he asks of a mallow green. “That’s growing by my mailbox.” As Sunny and David detail the ingredients for Peter, I can hear the gears of creativity turning in his head. He leans back, thinking aloud. “It has to be something familiar. If we make a ‘green whatever flambé,’ it won’t be approachable. This stuff is going on steak and prawns. And I’m bringing in Mark.”

Chefs Mark Arriola (left) and Peter Merriman (right) go wild in Merriman's home kitchen, experimenting with feral foods that Leonard and Savage collected for them. In the pan, filet mignon with wild allspice.

Chef Mark Arriola is head honcho at Merriman’s in Po‘ipū, Kaua‘i. In his huge hands the New Zealand spinach is blanched, feral parsley chopped into a salad and ‘ōkolehao, or moonshine distilled from the ti plant, set aflame on beef tenderloin. Arriola tosses plants formerly known as weeds into a bright, intensely flavorful salad. Roasted mallow seeds taste like pine nuts. Fennel sprigs garnish the tenderloin and prawns, with the seeds and even the flowers adding a spicy punch. We eat fresh-picked hibiscus flowers and unopened ti shoots as intermezzos. Peter seems most intrigued by the yellow ginger flowers that add a stunning garnish with a light, floral flavor to custard. The apéritif is a tea of steeped strawberry guava leaves and Job’s tears (Coix lacryma-jobi, in case you were wondering). “This raises energy and helps with digestion,” David says.

If one day in the future you see a kiawe-crusted dessert on the menu at one of Peter’s restaurants, here’s the story: Our least colorful offering to the chef was a bag of kiawe flour. Peter once hated the kiawe tree, as any barefoot kid growing up in Hawai‘i would. Otherwise known as mesquite, kiawe is best known for imparting a smoky flavor to grilled food; here in Hawai‘i the tree is reviled for dropping two-inch-long, slipper-piercing thorns on sandy beaches. Few are aware that ripe kiawe seed pods contain a sweet, gummy resin. Sunny often picks and grinds the pods, seeds and all, to make a sweet and crunchy flour that now has Peter hooked.

So, will wild food ever replace the pasta and Bibb lettuces that come by ship? Wild foods are seasonal, climate-specific and increasingly rare. You have to observe, hunt and keep a wild eye open. And even then you have to get lucky: Despite the best efforts of my crack foragers, we ticked off less than half of what was on our wish list. You’d probably die of starvation if you relied on wild foods for your entire diet—even the Hawaiians brought the plants they liked with them on their canoes, and good thing they did—but if you know what to look for, they’re an unexpected bonus to any regular, shipborne Hawai‘i meal. And, of course, you can expect a zingy nutrient buzz from sow thistle to keep your energy up when the zombies come. HH

Story by Hunter Haskins. Photos by Sue Hudelson