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Taste of Travel

Scouting the islands for unusual treats-to-go, from guava grilling sauce to Maui champagne

June 11, 1995|RITA ARIYOSHI | Ariyoshi is a Honolulu-based free - lance writer. and

HONOLULU — Gone are the days when a fresh pineapple, a case of macadamia nuts or a bag of Kona coffee were the only food items tourists tucked into their suitcases when they headed home from Hawaii.

Now, visitors are discovering the old-time taste treats locals have loved for years, along with a cornucopia of new specialty foods created from home-grown produce: strawberry-guava popcorn, banana butter, Maui onion salsa, passion fruit salad dressing, poha jam and brut champagne from grapes harvested on the slopes of Maui's Haleakala volcano.

"Made in Hawaii" is becoming a source of pride, with support ranging from mom-and-pop bakeries to the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, which has encouraged the movement with trade shows and small business loans.

Travelers can find examples of Hawaii's newfound agricultural bounty at a growing number of gift shops and supermarkets--and sometimes make their own discoveries as part of an island tour. (Unless otherwise indicated, all items described here cost less than $10.)

Wandering around the sleepy, heat-stroked village of Hanapepe, Kauai, one recent afternoon, I spotted a little sign on a ramshackle building--the kind of old house that gives Kauai character and that survived hurricanes when newer, fancier buildings were turned into toothpicks.

"Taro Ko," the wooden sign said. I climbed the rickety steps and knocked. "Open," a man called. The screen door creaked, just as it was supposed to. Inside, Soichi Nagamine was frying up his semi-famous taro chips in a huge wok. His wife, Nora, was setting out the hot chips to cool on trays. Against the wall were stacks of boxes in which they would pack their chips for shipment to their regular customers, who range from Kauai restaurateurs to mainland tourists. They also sell hot-from-the-wok Taro Ko Farms chips to a small but steady stream of drop-ins.

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Appetites of a different sort are aroused at Tedeschi Vineyards, housed in the old lava and coral jailhouse of historic Ulupalakua Ranch, a working cattle spread on the upper slopes of Maui's dormant volcano, Haleakala. At 2,000 feet, the ranch enjoys a climate like that of Napa Valley--a fact noted by two ex-Californians, Emil Tedeschi and Pardee Erdman, when they opened Hawaii's first commercial winery in 1974. (The state's only other winery, Volcano Winery, opened on the Big Island two years ago.)

The winery's first product--and still its most popular--is Maui Blanc, a semi-dry wine made from pineapple. But after experimenting with grapes from around the world, Tedeschi and Erdman decided to plant Carnelian grapes (a hybrid developed by UC Davis). The gamble paid off: President Ronald Reagan celebrated his 1985 inauguration with their Maui Blanc de Noirs champagne.

Visitors can tour the winery and finish in the tasting room, where free samples of Tedeschi's eight wines and champagnes are served. To make a day of it, Makena Stables offers daylong rides from the small town of Makena to the mountain winery, where you can spread a picnic lunch under the huge camphor trees.

Kona coffee, the choice of gourmets around the world, has been a take-home favorite for years. And if you happen to be vacationing on the Kona Coast of the Big Island, you can download prime caffeine for free at one of about half a dozen coffee mills scattered on the hillsides above the resorts, in the small towns of Kealakekua, Holualoa and Captain Cook.

Unfortunately, most of the so-called Kona coffee served in restaurants and purchased as souvenirs is a blend, with as little as 10% real Kona coffee.

Coffee connoisseurs claim Lion brand Kona coffee blend is the best of the cheapies. A 10-ounce blend bag, perhaps flavored with coconut or macadamia nuts, is just under $6 at Times, a popular supermarket chain with 13 branches on Oahu. For shoppers who insist on 100% Kona, Times carries Hawaiian Mountain Gold, at $7.85 for eight ounces. Times is also a great place to pick up a pouch of Noh sauce (a powdered mix)--the secret of many a harried homemaker's culinary success. For a dollar a pouch, a cook can transform ordinary ingredients into Filipino adobo , (a stew most often made with pork), sweet-sour spare ribs or Hawaiian spicy chicken. There's even a Noh instant haupia mix, an essential element of that luau staple, coconut pudding.

Down another aisle are Maui onion salsa, (at less than $3 a jar, cheaper than in any souvenir shop) and pancake syrup in coconut, guava and lilikoi (passion fruit) flavors.

Visitors in search of a more refined shopping experience should head for Island Provision Co. in the Kahala Mall in Honolulu, close to the Kahala Hilton Hotel. The Island Provision Co. is one of those nice little shops owned by three Ladies Who Do Everything More Beautifully Than You: Puchi Romig, Patty Kincaid and Daphne Chu.

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