Photos By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin

Jim Cain's winning laulau was not only ono,
but appealing to the eye.

For the love of

Contestants create variations on the basic local favorite

By Nadine Kam

HONOKA'A - The first Honoka'a Laulau Competition took place quietly in a small dining room at Tex Drive-In, just between breakfast and dinner rushes, but when it was over, a taro farmer took the First Place trophy home to Waipio Valley.

"They're calling me the laulau king," laughs Jim Cain, clearly stoked by his victory Saturday, although he was busy tending the farm when the trophies were awarded.

Scott Hiraishi has the enviable job of tasting the entries in the Tex Drive-In contest.

A laulau contest in Honoka'a seemed like a good idea to Susan Boyd, who had moved from Captain Cook to Waipio Valley to promote a youth boxing camp, when she became intrigued by Waipio's rich plantation history.

"Laulau was a spontaneous idea," she said. "I decided to launch a contest in some way, fashioning it after chili contests, and what better place than Honoka'a, home of the laulau because of Waipio's taro farmers.

The winning Vegetarian and Seafood laulau will go on the menu at Tex, already known for its cushiony malassadas, consumed at a rate of 45,000 a month.

Meanwhile, there's talk of inviting Cain to prepare his laulau as a guest chef at Roy's Waikoloa Bar & Grill when it opens June 10.

Clarence Ventura shares his excitement about winning the best seafood laulau division with Tex Drive-In co-workers.

There were few witnesses to this piece of laulau history being made, but word of Cain's victory spread quickly. "It's a small community," he said. "Everybody knows."

His entry was made up at the last minute, when a trip to Kona to accompany a friend to a lauhala weaving class ended with a detour.

He had heard about the competition and said, "I stopped at the ocean and gathered a few things. I knew I wanted opihi, and while I was gathering it I saw the wana (sea urchin), and I thought that would be good."

In the end, his laulau contained crab, opihi, wana roe, butterfish, limu, roasted kukui nut, Hawaiian salt and fresh coconut cream - and most important, an abundance of luau leaf straight from his wetland farm.

"The commercial kind hardly have any leaf in them. They use maybe two leaves. But we don't skimp. The luau is important. That's what laulau is."

Floyd Kawamoto's best Hawaiian-style laulau mimics a makizushi.

And wetland farming, he said, renders the leaves "tender, juicy and succulent." He used pololu leaves, which he describes as darker and sweeter than other varieties of luau.

Cain wasn't the only farm competitor. Winning the Vegetarian Style Laulau award was the team entry from Aurea Marine and H. Aqua Co. While the companies' respective presidents, Terry Astro and Terry Edwards, watched the judges, they guessed they had a winner.

The plan: To wow the judges with spectacular color, in addition to flavor, when they first opened the deep green bundle.

"I think you were right," Astro said to Edwards.

These farmers, too, chose ingredients straight from the land. Their winning entry included papaya and luau from their property. Other ingredients were yams, papaya, carrots, Chinese peas, tofu, purple sweet potato, red and yellow bell peppers, shredded ginger and oyster sauce.

The two farmers submitted two other entries using sunfish and lamb off their farms. "We thought we would team up and share the victory if we won," Astro said. It took six hours to prepare the entries and Astro said, "It was good to have both groups working together. Sometimes when we work together for 40 hours we get irritable, but working together on the laulau was good. There was a lot of kokua."

The Big Island's bounty proved the inspiration for another contestant, Kawika Kalili, a food service student at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. Kalili worked in the security business on Oahu before moving to Hilo.

"Everybody goes out to dinner on Oahu, but here everybody cooks. There's a lot of smoked meat, imu cooking. I like it here."

Before the move, he was never inspired to pick up pots and pans, and on starting the food service program, he says, his biggest fear was wielding a knife. "We were all scared. Now we have more confidence, less cuts.

Laulau contest judges, left to right, Scott Hiraisi (with Sam Choy's), Lyman Medeiros, Jonathan Wendon and Jackie Lau.

Terry Edwards, left , and his laulau partner Terry Astro won the vegetarian division in the laulau contest. At right, Floyd Kawamoto displays his trophy for best Hawaiian-style laulau.

Watching the local cooking shows also became a favorite pastime. "I like to watch Sam Choy. It's awesome the way he whips things up so fast."

Choy might have given high marks to Kalili's spicy, poke-style laulau filled with taro, sweet potato, smoked tako, shrimp, ogo and sweet chili sauce; but he wasn't among the judges. Representing his Kona restaurant was sous chef Scott Hiraishi. Other judges were Jacqueline Lau, executive chef of Roy's Waikoloa Bar & Grill; Roy's Waikoloa manager Jonathan Wendon; and Lyman Medeiros, host and producer of the Big Island television show, "Hawaii at its Best."

The Seafood category winner turned out to be Clarence Ventura, a Tex crew chief who submitted his entry as an individual. Winning the Hawaiian-Style category was Kalili's classmate Floyd Kawamoto, who offered a Laulau Wedge: pork, sweet potato and julienned carrot rolled into luau like a makizushi, and cut into sushi-style pieces.

His win left him anxious for the start of statewide student culinary competitions.

"We're getting ready to enter contests, so we wanted to come out and see how much goes into competition," he said.

He examined Ventura's entry closely, crying, "Coconut milk!" as if he had discovered a cure for cancer.

"It adds so much flavor; so ono!" he said. And 15 minutes later, when all the judges had cleared the room, Kawamoto could still be seen, stirring, studying, tasting, making mental notes. A man pondering just how to achieve the perfect laulau.

If Kawamoto comes back next year, he'll face plenty of competition from Cain, who hints, the perfect laulau has to come from an imu.

"I just didn't have time this year, but next year, I'm gonna go all out. I have to do it for Waipio. I've got a title to defend now."

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