Why We’re Excited About Hawaii-grown Oysters from Kualoa Ranch

Love on the half shell.


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Kuuipo McCarty and Velez clean the oysters for market. Kualoa Ranch oysters.
Kuuipo McCarty and Velez clean the oysters for market.
Photos: Elyse Butler Mallams

 

I love oysters the same way I love the ocean. There’s something romantic and wild about both that I’ve never been able to get enough of.

Early in my life, I decided I never wanted to live away from the ocean. It was after a summer spent in Houston, when I looked out of the 20th-floor lab where I worked and saw only flat land with no water at all. A friend drove me to the ocean after work, to Galveston, an hour away. We watched the moon rise over the water, the first time I realized that the moon rose like the sun. It threw a beam of light all along the still ocean to our feet. We stayed at the beach until sunrise. Despite the romance of it all, we hardly touched. We just sat together, our hands only a few grains of sand apart. Maybe that’s why every ocean moonrise after that feels like longing.

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, where you could always see the ocean. I went to college near Boston, where the sea infiltrated the land in rivers. For my Peace Corps assignment, I was placed on an island 11 miles wide.

And now, Honolulu.

Every place I go, I order the local oyster. For me, being near the ocean has always meant tasting the ocean. And never can I taste it more clearly than in an oyster.

No dining experience has ever or will ever come close to the transcendent thrill of shucking and eating oysters at the edge of the ocean, next to where they are pulled out of the water. I have gone with a dozen people and ordered them by the hundreds, yes, the hundreds. I have gone with just one other person, shucked a few dozen, camped nearby and then shucked a few dozen more for breakfast.

In less rustic settings, I find nothing more beautiful than oysters on the half shell, cupped in the very water they grew in, arranged on a metal platter of crushed ice. The tableau is so common that I know I’m not the only one who thinks this.

But when I came to Hawaii, I stopped eating oysters. More often than not, they were old, they weren’t handled properly, they weren’t cold enough, they were shucked sloppily, with bits of shell in them. And that’s if you could even get them.

That is changing.

When BLT Steak opened five years ago, the upscale steakhouse introduced Honolulu’s first raw seafood bar, offering three to four varieties of oysters.

“I sell more and more oysters every year,” says Johan Svensson, the chef at BLT Steak. Honolulu’s growing appetite is evidenced by the increasing number of places serving them, from The Pig and the Lady to Bevy, offering the town’s only dollar-oyster happy hour.
 

Ikaika Velez hauls in oysters. Kualoa Ranch grows its oysters in cylinders that are rolled daily to promote a cupped oyster shell.

Ikaika Velez hauls in oysters. Kualoa Ranch grows its oysters in cylinders that are rolled daily to promote a cupped oyster shell. 
 

And, most exciting of all, Hawaii is now producing its own oysters. Earlier this year, Kualoa Ranch started selling the first locally grown oysters in decades. (Thirty years ago, Life Magazine-designated “Frontiersman of the Sea” Tap Pryor—the same Tap Pryor who founded Sea Life Park—grew oysters for the table, but he grew them on land. Which seems as wrong to me as raising cattle on a boat.) It’s about time because, for years, Hawaii has been a nursery for oysters destined for the Mainland.

As with most farming, both on land and in the sea, farmers buy seed. In the case of oysters, the seed comes from oyster hatcheries. Three of America’s largest hatcheries have operations in Hawaii, growing oyster larvae to seed—each barely larger than a grain of sand—then shipping them to the Mainland to become adults. These hatcheries—Taylor Shellfish, Coast Seafood, Goosepoint Oysters—started moving some of their operations to the Big Island years ago, when they found that ocean acidification on the West Coast prevented the larvae from settling down and growing up.

It was only a matter of time before someone figured out how to raise the adults here. And it turns out oysters love Hawaii’s ancient fishponds. Both Kualoa Ranch and Paepae o Heeia are currently growing oysters in their nutrient-rich fishponds, but Kualoa’s are the first to be certified by the Hawaii Department of Health. Ironically, the flow of water in the ahupua‘a system, from the mountains to the sea, a system that in its entirety fed the Hawaiians, is the very reason the Department of Health currently deems Heeia’s oysters unfit for consumption. “We’re at the bottom of a watershed with a lot of homes, and some of it goes into the fishpond,” says Keli‘i Kotubetey of Paepae o Heeia. It’s not a dealbreaker, though. “We’ll just have to plan the growing around seasonal variations and make sure we harvest at the right times.”

Water runoff doesn’t affect Kualoa Ranch’s Molii fishpond as much, but even so, after leaving the pond, Kualoa oysters spend some time in a saltwater tank to purge. Currently, Kualoa harvests about 4,000 oysters a month. Compare that to the 400,000 oysters Hawaii imports in a month, according to Maria Haws, a professor of aquaculture at UH Hilo, and the market opportunity for growers seems to be, well, their oyster. Since these bivalves grow well and quickly—they take almost half the time to mature here as they do in the Pacific Northwest—Haws thinks Hawaii could easily grow as many oysters as we import. I think it just makes sense—oysters require little maintenance and inputs; they keep our waters healthy; and they give fishponds a viable economic business.

And how do Hawaii oysters taste? They are distinctly savory and kelpy. Is that good? Some say oysters that grow slower in colder waters have a finer flavor. Others say you prefer oysters from the water you grew up swimming in. I say the best oyster is the freshest one, one that tastes of the sea, whether it’s the cold, foggy Pacific of my childhood or the sunny one of my adulthood, hinting at surf and ancient fishponds.

 

Read More Stories by Martha Cheng

 

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