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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Asparagus of the sea

 •  Sea asparagus grows in a special way
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 •  Shrimp transforms salad into entree
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 •  Readers, I need your assistance
 •  Spices jazz up familiar entrees
 •  Now for something completely different

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

Wenho Sun, top, farms sea asparagus at the aquaculture operation in Kahuku. The unusual vegetable grows with its roots in brackish water, its tops in the air.

Photos by REBECCA BREYER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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What is it? Sea asparagus (aka sea beans, samphire, salicornia, glasswort) is a nubby, branching salt-tolerant shoreline vegetable

Taste and texture? Salty-sweet flavor, snappy-juicy texture; think cucumber or green bean

Where does it grow here? Raised hydroponically on rafts in brackish water in Kahuku

How do I use it? Fresh, in salads; in sauteed dishes; in soups and stews; pickled

How much does it cost? 72 cents to $1.50 an ounce

Where do I find it? Farm Bureau farmers' markets, R. Field, Marukai, Tamashiro Market

Who's using it? Alan Wong's Restaurant, Roy's Restaurant, Mandarin, Mariposa, La Mer

Alan Wong says: "I like the crunch and burst of saltiness."

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Fine-dining chefs always are on the lookout for The Next Thing, particularly the next locally produced thing with a good story behind it, something to keep customers engaged and coming back.

Locally made goat cheese, Hamakua hearts of palm and mushrooms, exotic fruits such as dragonfruit and rambutan, aquacultured shrimp and kampachi, local lavender and a whole bouquet of herbs and greens have entered the high-end restaurant and specialty-shop market in the past 15 years. But all of these have faced challenges: business problems, pest problems, acceptance problems. Many producers remain small and unstable; many disappear.

The current Thing is sea asparagus, which is being grown in an aquaculture operation on O'ahu (see accompanying story) and began showing up on restaurant plates and in local farmer's markets earlier this summer. This one, too, faces some challenges but also seems to have considerable potential.

Challenge No. 1 is that, technically, it's a seaweed, which for many people, means it's off the menu. But this sea vegetable has much more in common with such popular land vegetables as cucumbers, green beans and asparagus than it does with ogo or other limu. The taste (salty but not fishy) and texture (it snaps like a new-crop apple) both are inviting.

Marine Agrifuture, which is raising the seaweed, has hired Nalo Farms a well-known company with strong chef and farmer's-market connections to distribute sea asparagus here. And they're going beyond the usual suspects to get the product into the hands of everyday folks: Yes, Alan Wong and Roy Yamaguchi are on it, but so is The Mandarin, a small Honolulu Chinese restaurant, where it's served in a stir-fry with chicken and other greens, and so is Tamashiro Market in Kalihi.

Wong first came to know sea asparagus by its French name, pousse pied, when he was working at LutEce in New York in 1983. He's been asking seaweed experts here about it ever since, but no one had ever heard that name. Then one of his servers in the Pineapple Room handed him a portfolio for Marine Agrifuture and his first question was, "How can I get a steady supply?"

"You can add it to salads, dressings, soups, stews, relishes, salsas it's quite versatile," Wong said.

Recently, he threw some in a poi stew he made for a special benefit, sinking the crisp sprigs in the simple beef and poi concoction at the last minute and also making a tomato, onion and sea asparagus relish on the side, kind of like a lomi salmon relish. 'Ono!

Challenge No. 2 will be expanding production, which requires land. Right now, researcher Wenhao Sun has about an acre of sea asparagus in production in Kahuku, alongside beds where shrimp are raised. There are a couple of other small experimental plots elsewhere on O'ahu. Sun says sea-asparagus production is a natural for Hawai'i because Native Hawaiians were skilled aquaculturists, operating rock-walled fishponds in shallow coastal waters around the Islands. Sea asparagus uses a similar arrangement and could, in fact, be farmed in concert with fish or shrimp.

"It has tremendous potential. We just have to get the word out," said Sun. "Once people try, they will come back for more."

Reach Wanda A. Adams at wadams@honoluluadvertiser.com.