Star-Bulletin Features

Dorene Pascua thinned young Manoa lettuce plants in a sunny Waianae field last week. Manoa lettuce once required cool growing conditions, but new strains are more resistant to heat.

Lettuce begin

In a burst of green, Manoa lettuce
emerges from the shadow
of fancier salad fixings

By Eleanor Nakama-Mitsunaga
Special to the Star-Bulletin

Camouflaged behind an array of lettuce greens is a variety that has weathered more than 60 years of market preferences. While robust romaine, green- and red-leaf lettuce and dainty mesclun mixes garnered all the glory, it has sat back, patiently waiting for the day when it, too, would receive the accolades.

The Manoa lettuce that Owen Kaneshiro grows is larger and heavier than older varieties.

That day has come. Manoa lettuce has returned with a slightly new look, to a renewed appreciation.

The Manoa lettuce of today is no longer grown in Manoa Valley, where it flourished in the '40s and '50s. The lettuce is actually a variety called Green Mignonette, a crisp, bib-like, slightly curly, green-leaf lettuce.

Up until the early '80s it was the lettuce of choice for island families, yielding on average 50,000 to 70,000 pounds a week, according to Steven Fukuda, county extension agent with the University of Hawaii-Manoa's College of Tropical Agriculture.

'Roy & Friends'

Roy Yamaguchi's annual benefit dinner for the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation is a challenge to Yamaguchi's closest chef-buddies to create dishes that best showcase fresh-off-the farm island produce.

This year's dinner will feature guest chefs including Alan Wong, Hiroshi Fukui, DK Kodama, Wayne Hirabayashi, Darryl Fujita and Colin Nishida.

The event is a grazing affair, which means for the price of admission, diners can sample every chef's dish -- more than once, if so desired. Wine is included, too.

Dinner is served: 6 to 9 p.m. Monday
Place: Roy's Restaurant, Hawaii Kai
Tickets: $100 per person
Call: 478-9621

"The elder generation preferred and still prefers Manoa lettuce because of its crisp texture and taste," Fukuda says. "Personally, quality-wise, I think it's still the best eating lettuce."

That's probably why Manoa lettuce, despite the availability of other greens, remains a local favorite. Yet it seemed to disappear in the '80s and '90s for a number of reasons, Fukuda says.

Long-time farmers noticed their crops were no longer producing quality heads, a problem Fukuda believes was a result of inadequate crop rotation.

"You can't have the same lettuce crop growing in the same soil for years," he says.

A rotation of various crops keeps the soil rich in nutrients.

New pests and diseases threatened the crops at the same time that lettuce varieties from California became available at low prices. The new varieties were sturdier and less perishable than the delicate Manoa and eventually led customers away from the staple local variety.

Today's Manoa lettuce is a bit more resilient, due in part to work done in the late '80s by UH horticulturist Richard Hartman. Hartman improved the quality of the lettuce, particularly by targeting the problem of tip burn, a condition in which inner leaves are unable to keep up with the growth of the rest of the head. By improving resilience to tip burn, which is caused by high-heat or water stress, Manoa lettuce could be grown in areas besides cool, wet Manoa Valley.

Around the same time, Owen Kaneshiro was contemplating a life of farming in Waianae. His father, a second-generation hog farmer, offered him some of their 20 acres of land, and Manoa lettuce was the first crop that came to mind. A neighbor had grown it on adjacent land with some success.

"Lettuce takes only about 45 to 50 days from seed to harvest, so the turnover is quick," Kaneshiro explains. It's also a year-round crop with a peak season between January and April.

Paublo Pascua harvested Manoa lettuce on Owen Kaneshiro's Waianae farm last week.

Sunlight and water are important for growth, but Manoa lettuce still does better when temperatures are cooler in the fall and spring.

After 20 years of growing and experimenting with Manoa lettuce, Kaneshiro feels confident about his crop. "I used to produce just enough for a week-to-week harvest so that it wouldn't go to waste. But my goal now is to produce a larger inventory with larger-size heads."

Kaneshiro's Manoa lettuce is not the petite heads of older varieties. The head is large and heavy, with beautiful, densely packed leaves. "The older generation really appreciates the lettuce," he says. "They're the ones keeping me going."

Try a lettuce sauté

Don't think of Manoa lettuce only as a salad green. It can also be stir-fried like bok choy or choy sum.

George Mavrothalassitis of Chef Mavro's says a quick sauté results in an even tastier product. "I use Manoa lettuce because it has such a nice flavor."

He sautés the lettuce for a dish with quinoa and serves it with squab, but also says that it marries well with spinach and watercress.

"Just sauté Manoa lettuce until it wilts," he says. "You don't want to remove the moisture, just bring out the flavor."

Manoa lettuce is showing up on restaurant menus around town, as the lettuce once considered everyday fare rises to specialty status. That's welcome news for Kaneshiro, who always thought Manoa lettuce was underappreciated.

The lettuce now sells for around $1.89 a pound, but Kaneshiro says he'd like to see the price come down a little more. "Every year is challenging, dealing with the pests, disease and trying to develop a good product," he says. "But it's worth it."

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