Gluten Free Drinks: Kombucha

...Hey guys

...Hey guys

At the beginning of December last year I was on one of my trips to Hawaii, so this year while it's beginning to freeze in New England (although it has been unseasonably warm lately - low 50s!!), I'm reminiscing about floating around Waikiki Beach, driving by the huge - and kind of creepy - Christmas figurines in Honolulu, and Christmas music playing in the open air malls as I wandered about sweating in shorts. I am super jealous of past me.

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Instead of engaging in some twisted form of self-jealousy I am going to share with you one of my favorite take-aways of my time in Hawaii: the nectar of the gods, kombucha. This stuff was so accessible around Hawaii, and if it wasn't such a normal beverage option in Hilo and Kona on the Big Island I doubt I ever would have tried it. The thought of fermented tea is pretty bogus, but when I wandered into Conscious Culture Cafe in Hilo one day after work I became a believer.

 

Conscious Culture Cafe has since merged with Big Island Booch Kombucha, which had an outpost before but was making some booch in the Cafe when I first stopped in. I only stopped in because of the sounds coming through the screen door - cheerful music, lots of happy chatter and the soft clinks of utensils on plates that seems to signal good food is near. The orange room was small with a small wooden bar and a few taps, and a drink sounded perfect after a long day of work. I realized pretty quickly that the taps were not for alcohol though, but the concept of kombucha distracted me from being disappointed. 

I asked all the beginner questions: was it alcoholic, is fermented bad, is it really good for you (answers: not really, not in this case, maybe but not definitely)? Then came by real question: but is it good? Luckily they are big on letting you sample of Big Island Booch, and as many as you'd like! I pretty much sampled the whole list. 

 

I'd describe kombucha as a sweet but tangy alternative to soda, with lots of carbonation and a light fruity flavor. When I first arrived at the cafe they had big silver vats in the back room, each topped with what looked like a canvas tarp as different types of kombucha were made. This stuff is delicious, and every time I visited I purchased a new glass bottle and refilled it at least once a day. The trick to this fresh kombucha is to keep it cool, which is next to impossible going to and from work in Hawaii, where if the temperature itself won't melt you, the humidity certainly will. Basically this means once you get your kombucha in Hawaii, if you can't store it in a fridge you need to chug that puppy. That's not really a problem though since it's so delicious!

About the health benefits: supposedly kombucha is great for your gut and digestion, and helps with mental clarity and an improved mood. My mood was pretty great the whole time - I was in Hawaii! - and I'm not sure I noticed these purported benefits, but I'd be really interested in hearing about any stories of success you have!

Local fruit samples, too!

Local fruit samples, too!

Kombucha is available all over, but usually I can only find it in bottled form and not straight from the tap. So far the only exception I've found is at my local Whole Foods, where there's a small tap recently added to the back of the store. Bottled Kombucha offerings are all over the place though - at a WF in Houston I saw a huge variety of brands and flavors - and if you can find them, tell me your favorite brand and flavor! Since Big Island Booch is only on the islands (for now!) I have to get a bit more creative. I can't say enough good things about Big Island Booch though - if you're ever in Hawaii this is a must, and if you make it to Hilo I seriously insist you stop by the Conscious Culture Cafe to chat with their friendly staff, listen to a music night, or eat a local filling lunch or dinner. They are the BEST.

Have you had an interesting kombucha experience? Want to weigh in on the best brand or flavor?

 

Gluten Free Restaurants: Hawai'i

 

I have been lucky enough to travel to Hawaii for work a few times. Now, in many ways this is just incredible. How many people get to go to Hawaii, and for free! It's a place I honestly never thought I'd go and I'm still so grateful for the opportunity to experience warm weather (and the humidity!) in the winter, slow down on "island time," and experience the wonderful culture and hospitality of the less-touristy areas of the Big Island.

But I will say there's a big difference between honeymooning in Hawaii and traveling there alone for work. I knew people at the site where I was working, and one of my sister's best friends lives out there, but there is nothing stranger than spending most of your flights and time outside with newlyweds. Like, every flight. And on every tour or next to you in every restaurant as you chow down while people-watching (really couple-watching here) or reading a book. The weirdest part was chatting up couples my age with absolute rocks on their fingers who had recently bought homes.  I was feeling a little jealous that they were at this point in their lives, having found a life partner and who they were ready to share their lives and this insanely beautiful place with, but I could also tell they were a little jealous of me. Traveling by myself, for free, and getting to make my own plan for the day and leave a few things til my next visit since this wasn't a one time trip. That really helped me appreciate my experience, and feel happy for these cute little couples starting their own adventure.

So. On to the food! I enjoyed so much delicious Hawaiian cuisine so there will be a lot of posts, but I had to start with some epic Japanese food. I was pretty much obsessed with Kanpai in Hilo, on the Big Island, during my visits. One trip I went two nights in a row. 

The best part about Hawaii - well, one of them - was the insanely fresh fish. Restaurants are able to utilize the best local catches from that morning, and boy can you tell the difference. I'm not usually a sushi person (except for Philly rolls), but I went overboard on my trips.

 

It was always worth it at Kanpai. I've had their Ahi Roll, Spicy Ahi Roll (which is like way way spicy), smoked salmon roll, ramen, and miso soup.

 

God their miso soup. Most Japanese places taught me that this is sort of a throwaway, a little salty broth with some scallions to keep you from freaking out from hunger.

Kanpai helped me realize just how amazing it can be. This was full of tofu and green onions, with little bubbles of heat that seemed to continually rise up. It was flavorful, so delicious that I ordered it every time I went. Just ridiculous.

 

 

 

 

Ramen looks beautiful upon delivery and tastes just as good. The big red bowl was spicy though - something I would highly recommend for all you heat-seekers but that was a little overwhelming for my bland palate.

All of their sushi was painfully good. Usually I'd get too excited by the menu and over-order. The staff is thoughtful and attentive. On one of my last visits, I ordered the Ahi Roll and chatted with the waitress about the Spicy Ahi roll and how, although delicious, it was wayy to spicy for my Irish/Polish self. When my roll came later it was accidentally the Spicy one, which the waitress had noticed as she brought it over. I said I thought I could manage, but she insisted the kitchen (which is right in front of you if you sit at a stool) would remake it. After attempting a piece and chugging half my water I agreed with her, and she packaged that roll for me for later or to give to someone else. The sushi chefs were so nice, and when I was finishing up they insisted - like seriously insisted - that they let me make them another roll to go. When I politely protested they told me that the fish was so fresh they use it daily, and it would be wasted if I didn't take some home since they'd get new fish the next day.

I think part of their offer stemmed from the mishap earlier (that really didn't bother me), part from the fact that I was eating alone with my book (actually one of my favorite things - I don't have to talk; I can focus on my food!), but mostly I think they are just a group of very thoughtful people.

Every aspect of this small restaurant is carefully executed, and every staff member I interacted with was friendly and considerate. Based on my experience I would be willing to bet that this group would go out of their way to make a gluten-free meal totally separate from everything else that someone with Celiac would not only feel safe eating, but love.

Final note: do NOT miss out on their sake cocktails.