Cottage Industry

Crafting her seasonings by hand, Kaiulani Cowell spices up the local food scene.

photo: Daeja Fernandez

A curry is a spicy blend, but the actual ratios and contents vary by region—even by chef.

The spice road leads from India into China. But eventually, the fragrant route winds its way into Hawaii, and curves up to a small cottage on Round Top. There, Kaiulani Cowell works out of her former guest quarters, now certified by the Health Department as a food-preparation site.

It’s a pleasant space indeed, with the ocean in the distance and bright green geckos keeping watch over the lanai as the heady scents of turmeric and fennel waft out past them.

Cowell’s company, Kaiulani Spices, makes five types of flavorings—curry, hot curry, Kona coffee, Chinese five spice and Hawaiian—and each is literally hand made. Cowell dons a pair of plastic gloves before plunging her arms into a large plastic tub to mix the ingredients together. “The only machine I use is the spice grinder,” she says. She and her assistant, Brian Slemons, even use a hand-cranked labeler to package the jars.

Cowell trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New Hyde Park, N.Y., and was a chef in San Francisco and Guam before launching her spice line four years ago.

“I wanted spices that go specifically with the foods we love in Hawaii, so I started playing around, testing, a little of this, a little of that. My friends were my guinea pigs.”

She is opposed to using any artificial flavors or colors, and tries to buy locally grown ingredients where possible, including Kona and Wailua coffee and alaea sea salt. She’s been working with a farmer to obtain a source of Island-raised cloves and nutmeg. Her other spices come from India. But there’s one more ingredient: “I talk to my spices while I’m making them,” Cowell says. Telling them what? “Oh, I tell them how good they are.”

The resulting spices seem happy indeed. They’re about $6 a jar, and you can find them at Don Quijote, Down to Earth, Tamura’s, Umeke Market, Executive Chef and the Compleat Kitchen. For more locations, call 946-9202.

Kaiulani’s Curry Rice with Cranberries
This vegetarian curry is one of Kaiulani Cowell’s signature dishes.

photo: David Croxford

1/3 cup olive oil
2 1/2 tablespoons Kaiulani’s Curry (hot or medium)
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 to 2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped (separate leaves and stems for later)
4 cups cooked rice
2 tablespoons cranberries or raisins
1/4 cup scallions, sliced thinly

Put the olive oil in a pan and heat it. Once the oil is hot, add the garlic, the curry power, cilantro stems and cranberries. Cook until the garlic is soft, then add the rice. Mix well with a fork. Add scallions and cilantro leaves to the rice and mix again. Taste the rice and adjust the seasoning before serving. For a variation, add cooked shrimp, chicken or pork, or use mushrooms and red bell peppers instead of the cranberries.