Whenever I travel, I make a point of hunting down the local farmers market. I’m obsessed with them. Whether I’m nibbling fresh-from-the-oven baguette in Southwest France, chomping down on a grilled sausage sandwich topped with Walla Walla onions in Washington State, or noshing a big plate of pork ribs in French St. Martin, I’ve found that the best way to get a true taste of what your destination has to offer is to start with the market.
And let’s face it. Local markets are cheap. For a quick lunch on the fly before site seeing, the local farmer’s market can be your money-saving friend. I’ve sampled platters of homemade paella piled high with fresh mussels and clams for a meager three dollars, crunched tacos de carne asada at a buck a piece, and dug into bowls of conch fritters washed down with icy Heinekens for under $5 total. Market food is tasty, often incredibly so. Boasting fresh, local ingredients carefully tended to by local food artisans, farmers, cheese makers and bakers, how can one go wrong?
If you’re a cooking fiend like I am (and especially if your accommodations include a kitchen) there’s no better way to spend a morning than piecing together the ultimate dinner by filling up paper bags with exciting foodstuffs like fresh figs, free-range duck eggs, bison tenderloin or artisan-made truffles. For traveling foodies, the farmer’s market is our candy store (a really big, super-fresh, uber-healthy candy store) just waiting to be plundered.
One of my all-time favorite markets is the Hilo Farmer’s Market on the Big Island of Hawaii. Located in Hilo’s historic district, the Hilo Farmer’s Market has grown considerably since its humble beginnings back in 1988, when there were only four farmers selling their goods. Today, the market boasts over 200 vendors who hock everything from gingerroot to bongo drums.
Taking place every Wednesday and Saturday from “dawn til’ it’s gone”, the Hilo market is a busy, bustling place. While local crafts, clothing and artwork are a big hit, the ultimate star is the food. Exotic fruits beckon hungry travelers, where local papaya can be snagged three for a dollar. Jack fruit, lychees, white pineapple and Chinese longan fruits are in abundance as well.
Locally grown vegetables are a cooks’ dream and include such delights as hydroponic lettuce, bok choy, Maui onions and bitter melon. Hawaiian specialty products round out the offerings and include Kona coffee, Portuguese bread and jars of homemade lilikoi butter.
If you happen to get hungry while shopping (and trust me, you will) there’s a variety of food available to enjoy on the spot or take away. Reflecting the many cultures which make Hawaiian cuisine so varied and utterly fascinating (Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Filipino and Portuguese) you can sink your teeth into just about anything. Japanese bento boxes featuring traditional sushi as well as local specialties such as Spam musubi are offered alongside Vietnamese spring rolls, Filipino-styled empanadas, pad Thai, Peruvian tamales and Hawaiian lau lau (pork wrapped in taro leaves). If all of this shopping and eating makes you thirsty, buy a green coconut and have the vendor hatchet it open. Stick a straw in it and drink away the rest of your afternoon.
Hitting the Hilo Farmer’s Market is an absolute must when traveling to the Big Island, especially if you’re planning to visit the many nearby beaches that dot the island. A picnic basket filled with Hawaiian sweet bread along with a few Portuguese sausages will certainly make for an afternoon of tasty beach time.