As the PR Director for the Maui Visitors Bureau, I have the distinct pleasure of working with many dedicated and talented travel journalists and media professionals from across the globe. In addition to providing assistance with their itinerary planning and offering story suggestions that share all aspects of Maui Nui, I am also able to offer dining options. One of the best parts of my job is I am able to share, first-hand, Maui’s spectacular cuisine scene with our media friends.
One of my favorite restaurants in all Hawaii is Ko at the Fairmont Kea Lani Maui. The Fairmont’s signature restaurant opened in spring of 2008 and offers cuisine reflective of the many cultures of Hawaii’s sugarcane plantation era. The extensive menu is inspired by the rich history and culinary traditions of our Hawaiian, Chinese, Filipino, Portuguese, Korean, and Japanese cultures. Being of Hawaiian, Chinese and Portuguese ancestry, Ko truly speaks to me as well as the comfort foods I grew up devouring here in Hawaii.
Ko (Hawaiian for “sugarcane” ), fondly brings back delectable childhood memories, albeit “kicked-up” several notches. Grandma made ’em good, but not quite this good — sorry Tutu! Some of these include “Ahi On the Rock” shichimi spiced with orange ginger miso sauce (I call it “Ahi Popsicles”!), Lobster Tempura served with spicy-sesame, pineapple sweet chili garlic, and grapefruit soy sauces, Maui Cattle Company “Paniolo” Rib-Eye Steak, and Coconut-Curry Lamb Chops marinated and grilled with mango-mint salsa.
Executive Chef Tylun Pang, a culinary wizard in his own right, tirelessly researched the major cultural influences from the plantation era in developing the concept of Ko. “The entire culinary staff was excited to contribute ideas and family recipes while creating the menu,” explains Chef Pang. “Many on our team grew up on Maui and were raised on this cuisine. They are excited and proud to introduce their favorite dishes to our guests.” And proud they should be. Ko is truly one of Maui’s culinary jewels and it receives raves and kudos from malihini and kamaaina alike.
It is my personal belief that we can better understand any culture through its cuisine, and Ko offers the unique experience of tasting the contributions of multiple cultures.
Polynesian settlers who arrived more than a thousand years ago brought more than their customs and traditions to Hawaii. They brought sugarcane. The Hawaiians planted it around their taro fields and chewed the sweet stalk, but did not actually produce sugar. Maui’s first sugar mill began operations in 1828, and in the decades to come, sugar plantations popped up throughout the islands including more than 30 of various sizes on Maui attracting people from around the world to work them. Working and living side by side, these plantation workers contributed elements of their respective cultures, including cuisine, to Hawaii. Over the years, the blending of ingredients and cooking styles from the various ethnic groups has helped shape and influence the cuisine of Hawaii today.
The Chinese were the first immigrants to arrive to work on the sugar plantations in 1852. My forefathers introduced stir-fry, dim sum, sweet and sour, and cooking with a wok. They also stocked irrigation ditches with fish imported from China (who knew?) and contributed greatly to rice becoming a staple (if not THE staple) in our islands.
The Portuguese (yes, I am “Potogee” as well!) soon followed building fornos (stone bread ovens), to cook Portuguese sweet bread and malasadas, the delicious sugar-coated dessert. My ancestors also favored pork, tomatoes, and chili peppers in their cuisine.
As the sugar industry grew, more laborers were needed. As a result, some 140,000 immigrants arrived from Japan making the Japanese the largest ethnic group of workers. The Japanese are credited with bringing bento, sashimi, tofu, and shoyu (soy sauce) as well as popularizing the tempura cooking style. YUM!
The number of Korean immigrants was very small compared to other ethnic groups. However, their contribution to modern day Hawaiian cuisine was significant. Koreans built barbeque pits and introduced mandoo and kim chee to Hawaii.
The last large ethnic group to work the plantation fields was the Filipinos. Filipino gardens produced fresh vegetables for stews and exotic fruits. Filipinos also made varieties of rice dishes and gingered fish soups. While I am not ethnically Filipino, my grandfather re-married a Filipina, thus I am an “adopted” Filipino, thankfully so! I fondly remember Grandma Lucy’s wonderful dishes, and even more so her desserts. Her “cascaron” and “bibingka” were to DIE FOR. Go ahead…Google it!
Combined, these immigrants and others became the foundation of Maui’s multi-ethnic society, creating the “melting pot of the Pacific.”
Consistent with Fairmont’s dedication to environmental stewardship, Ko emphasizes sustainability. Earth friendly practices include partnerships with local growers taking advantage of island-grown fruits, vegetables and products for tantalizing flavors at their seasonal perfection. The hotel’s ongoing commitment to the environment has resulted in many programs going well beyond in-room recycling and linen exchange programs. Highlights include “Eco-Shopping” which identifies earth friendly products, “Recycling Cents” which has raised over $20,000 for non-profits, disposable containers and cups made from corn and bagasse, and the Aqua Recycler which has an 80% capture rate of recycling laundry water. The Fairmont Kea Lani Maui is truly one of Maui’s “Green Leaders.”
Children will be able to find traditional favorites including hamburgers and hot dogs on the keiki (children’s) menu. However, they can also get a taste of another culture. Keiki dishes are served in Japanese bento boxes along with kid friendly chopsticks that are secured together making them easy to use (“Chopstick-challenged adults use them, too). And of course, Ko offers the resort’s “kids eat free” program for ages 5 years and under along with Kea Lani Restaurant and Polo Beach Grille & Bar. Ko is open for lunch (seasonally) and dinner. Reservations are recommended. Please call 808-875-4100.
Located on the pristine white sands of Wailea, The Fairmont Kea Lani, Maui is Hawaii’s only luxury oceanfront resort featuring spacious suites and villas. This distinctive hotel encompasses 22 acres of tropical landscape and offers authentic Hawaiian cultural experiences and warm and personal service which portray the essence of aloha. A luxurious haven in one of the most scenic places on earth, the resort is situated on the sunny southwest shore of Maui.