Sea beans: Brighten your salads with this free beachfront plant

Left: akulikuli in the wild: right in a dish at Vintage Cave

When Blaine Wetzel of Lummi Island’s Willows Inn was in town last month for a collaboration dinner with Vintage Cave Honolulu chef Chris Kajioka, the menu included a Kelly green dish of greens and abalone bites coated in watercress puree and dotted with  akulikuli freshly picked at Paepae o Heeia in Kaneohe and on the North Shore. The bulbous leaves added a delightful crunch to the composition.

The two chefs, led by Taste chef Mark Noguchi, spent a morning on the Windward side sourcing ingredients. When Noguchi pointed out the akulikuli, also known as sea beans and sea purslane, Wetzel perked up and said Lummi Island has its own variety that he uses.

What does Kajioka like about akulikuli? “The texture is really nice, they’re crunchy, but the salinity isn’t too strong. It’s clean, oceany, almost like a succulent—it’s refreshing.”

Blaine Wetzel and his girlfriend Raquel Ruiz Diaz harvesting sea beans at Paepae o Heeia.

You can add that refreshing touch to your own concoctions at home. Kajioka suggests adding sea beans to salads for “a pop of texture,” and using it in poke as a substitute for ogo, which the chef notes can sometimes have an almost hard, unpleasant bite. He also likes how fresh-picked sea beans last for weeks in a container in the refrigerator.

Noguchi likes to pickle the beans with ume, shiso and rice vinegar, and add them to salads. When he salted them, “it took two days before the thing started to pull water. It shows how sturdy the product can be. It maintains its structure, integrity and punch when pickled.” He also uses sea beans as a counterpart to tomatoes.

Best of all, sea beans are free. For budding foragers, this is a good ingredient to start off with. Noguchi says they can be found in town at the Kaiser Bowl end of Ala Moana beach, all over the North Shore, and if you contact Paepae o He‘eia (236-6178, in advance and ask nicely of you can come and harvest some of the akulikuli surrounding the fish pond, they’ll probably say yes.

“Once you start looking for it and using it,” says Noguchi, “you realize it’s all over the place.”