Koko Head Cafe
1145 12th Ave C
Honolulu, HI 96816
Hawaii received statehood in 1959, making it the most recent state in America. Its islands are steeped in Polynesian history, and offer an exotic reprieve from the mainland’s fast-paced lifestyle. Would this tropical paradise even care for the comfort a warm pan of biscuits brings to so many? We’re not going to lie. To nosh on a plate of scratch biscuits and gravy proved as likely as spotting a can of Spam at an island vegan convention. “We don’t grow wheat or process flour in Hawaii,” Dania Novack Katz, publisher of Edible Hawaiian Islands explained. This might explain the missing bevy of biscuit believers, but surely there was hope in tracking down a biscuit befitting the tradition of its people. This week, 50 States of Biscuits proudly presents poi as the secret to Chef Lee Anne Wong’s biscuits at Koko Head Cafe in Honolulu, Hawaii.
You may recognize Chef Wong from her outstanding performance as one of the final contestants on the first season of Bravo’s reality show, Top Chef. She went on to be their culinary producer for the next four seasons. A French Culinary Institute graduate and Executive Chef of Events Operations, Wong moved from the mainland in 2013, and opened Koko Head Cafe, an island style brunch house. “I moved from the food capital of the world to a place where I often needed a soy sauce break,” 2nd Generation Chinese-American Wong remembers. This self-described culinary polyglot travels the world exploring cultures and flavors. Her attention to global detail shines in dishes such as Breakfast Bibimbap- bacon, Portuguese sausage, heritage ham, kimchi, soy-mirin shiitake mushrooms, on choy, seasme carrots and bean sprouts, sunnyside up egg, served over crispy garlic rice in a hot skillet, and Eggs Hāloa- poached eggs on poi biscuit, coconut luau, sour poi hollandaise, local greens. “Breakfast is personal. People are repetitive about their menu choices. I wanted to make brunch exciting again,” Wong explains.
To know the foundations of Chef Wong’s poi biscuits, one must first understand the story and significance of Hāloa. The source and beginning…
The base for Eggs Hāloa and Biscuits and Gravy is Wong’s poi biscuit. “This biscuit is one- of-a-kind, culturally and historically relevant,” she says of a biscuit rooted in Hawaiian heritage that she’s particularly proud of. Chef continues by explaining the process, “We source our organic kalo/taro product from a local kalo farmer and practitioner. We get it in the form of cooked koena (the first/outer layer of flesh from a steamed and peeled piece of taro root) similar to the flesh of cooked sweet potato. The koena has a lot of starch and sugar. From this, we freeze the koena completely, and then thaw it completely. This process helps to leech all of the water out of the koena, which we then dry and grind into flour. Because the kalo has natural bacteria and cultures that make it great for fermenting, the flour over time takes on an ‘aged’ flavor very much like sour poi. The heart of the steamed kalo root is what is used to make pa'i'ai, which is the form of poi without water. We get our poi already made with water, and then it sours for a few days to develop flavor. We combine the koena flour and sour poi with other ingredients to make our poi biscuit.”
Taro is primarily used to make poi, and is considered by many Hawaiians life’s sustenance. Still, life as a taro farmer is relentless. Natural calamaties mainlanders experience such as hurricanes and floods are no match for the taro farmer who also contends with muddy agricultural conditions which are far-removed. To top if off, the financial yields are quite low. “Small scale farmers are breaking their backs to grow delicious food,” Wong says, “which is why we’re 100% committed to supporting small farms.” Wong reports that upwards of 70% of her food budget is allotted for her neighboring farms. She enjoys working with the island food co-op, Adaptations, Inc., where their mission is to engage in ecologically sound community and land development based on organic farming. Even though Hawaii is a unique, pristine micro biosphere, it’s economy was built on mono crops such as pineapple and sugar cane. In supporting diverse agriculture, chefs like Wong are doing their part to assure a sound future for their food systems.
While most Americans' access to taro and poi is extremely limited, the Vanilla Sea Salt Cream Biscuit at Koko Head intrigues a more familiar palate. Made with Hawaiian vanilla bean, Alaea sea salt, and cream, this fragrant biscuit is served warm with a house-made honey butter. Chef is currently serving butter made with Christmas berry honey, but she changes the honey often, sometimes using lehua, or macadamia nut. Then there’s the house jam using local organic fruits such as gooseberry, tangerines, Surinam cherries, lilikoi, mango, and jaboticaba, otherwise known as Brazilian grape. It may be winter on the mainland, but who would know with these island delights? Wong shares her biscuit recipe that home cooks will find accessible, regardless of terroir.
Vanilla Sea Salt Cream Biscuit
By Chef Lee Anne Wong
yields 12 biscuits
4 c all-purpose flour
4 tbsp baking powder
3 tbsp granulated sugar
1 tsp salt
3 c heavy cream plus extra for wash
1 tsp vanilla paste or extract
1 beaten egg
Sea salt for finishing
Preheat oven to 375°. Blend dry ingredients. Mix vanilla with cream, before stirring into dry ingredients. Let sit for 3 minutes for moisture to soak up dry ingredients. Pat, but do not knead, until dough forms. Roll out dough on lightly floured surface, cut dough in half, stack the halves on top of each other, and repeat process four times to create layers. The final rolling should be 1.5 inches thick. Cut into to 12 equal squares. Brush with egg and cream wash. Sprinkle with sea salt. Bake at 375 ° for 12-15 minutes.
We’d like to wish Chef Wong a big “Mahalo nui loa” for a look inside her idea of paradise. Like her biscuit recipe? Pick up a copy of her cookbook Dumplings All Day Wong for a bit of a biscuit break. Thanks to Nadine Kam’s 2014 video of Chef Wong’s dumpling demonstration.
Written by Melissa D Corbin
Corbin is a Nashville-based freelance food and travel journalist. She’s also the founder of Corbin In The Dell, a company connecting those who care where their food comes from through content development and strategies that matter. Follow her on instagram @melcorbin and twitter @mdcorbin.