Pigs Gone Wild
"The Season of Pork" on the Big Island
Whether dining at home, at a friend’s luau or at some of the island’s most celebrated restaurants, the wild boar is as much a part of the Big Island’s culinary scene today as they were a part of the Hawaiian history and culture.
Although the exact date is unknown, historians predict that ancient Polynesians first introduced pigs to Hawaii around 300-500 AD, voyaging from the Marquesas Islands. A second influx of settlers came from Tahiti during the 9th and 10th centuries, bringing with them many plants and animals—including more wild pigs and boars (thought to have been descendants of Southeast Asian wild boars weighing up to 60-lbs). With the arrival of Europeans in the late 1700s, the European pig entered the mix and co-mingled with the thriving Polynesian species, which resulted in a larger boar with an average weight of 150 pounds.
Wild boar hunting has been a part of native Hawaiian culture since the first of these hoofed creatures ventured onshore. And it’s no wonder why—puaa, or pigs, were the most abundant source of protein and fat in the ancient Hawaiian diet. Today, the meat continues to be a popular choice amongst home cooks and island chefs who use pork in a variety of dishes, including such savory and rich Hawaiian comfort foods like smoked pork, kalua pig, and wild boar sausage. Nowadays, pork is substituted in old favorites to create new popular dishes like pork quesadillas, tacos and pizzas, or slow-cooked options like braised boar sandwiches and wild boar ragout.
But perhaps the most ubiquitous preparation is enjoyed at the ultimate Hawaiian feast, a traditional meal of absolute abundance and celebration—the luau. Passed down from ancient Hawaiians, the luau is a momentous gathering that typically surrounds a particular dish that is made from wild boar or, in some cases, domestic pig. Go to any Hawaiian luau and you will almost always find kalua pork on the menu. It is made by placing an entire boar (or pig) that has been salted and stuffed with hot rocks into an earthen pit called an imu, which is lined with banana leaves, and steamed for about eight hours. As evening approaches, the scrumptious boar is unearthed to much fanfare and placed “center stage” on the carving table, shredded and ready to eat.
Here on the Big Island, winter and spring are the prime seasons for both hunting and eating this wild game. In fact, this timeframe is widely regarded as “the season of pork,” a period when you are most likely to find numerous island restaurants offering special dishes featuring the delicacy.
Over-population of wild boar on the island is an ever-present concern for land management agencies due to the damage these animals can cause to the fragile natural environment. Their sharp hooves trample indigenous plants and disrupt ecosystems, food foraging tarnishes the local landscape, and migratory behavior negatively impacts the island’s watershed. However, preserving a healthy population of wild boar is the intention of many Big Island residents, including hunters, gourmands, gourmet cooks and professional chefs.
If you have never had wild boar, the meat is not much different than the traditional meat of domestic or production pork. The main differences are that wild boars are quite leaner and darker in color, and due to their natural diet, the meat has a slightly gamier taste. The grain is also tighter. But this doesn't mean the meat will be dry, tough or have a rubbery texture; it just simply means a little extra TLC needs to go into the preparation to experience one of the best tasting pork.
Two highly acclaimed chefs on the Big Island have conquered the boar in the kitchen to delight diners by offering specials on their menu featuring the delicious island pork, Executive Chef George Gomes, Jr. at the Manta & Pavilion Wine Bar and Executive Sous Chef Nick Mastrascusa at the Beach Tree restaurant.
“Working with Big Island wild boar is second nature for me,” says Chef Gomes. “I grew up in a home where my Portuguese grandparents cooked from bold, flavorful family recipes. The sort of dishes you begin preparing at 6 a.m. and continue to cook all day long. The aromas from their kitchen were unbelievable!” He adds, “I also remember wild boar hunting up mauka (towards the mountains) with my dad as a kid. We’d make fresh sausage from the boar meat. Those are some of my best memories from growing up here in Hawaii.”
Nowadays, Chef Gomes says he still enjoys preparing wild boar for restaurant diners on a regular basis. “The boar is freshly trapped when I order it. Tom Asano at Kulana Foods in Hilo does an excellent job of ensuring we get the best possible product available, all federally inspected and certified before it’s sent to my kitchen.” Some of Chef Gomes’ favorite preparations include smoked Portuguese linguiça sausage, head cheese and dishes such as his popular pork with steamed clams. He likes to use a variety of cuts, and feels that every part of the wild boar should be used out of respect to the animal. As the local creed goes: only take from the land what you need.
At Beach Tree, Chef Mastrascusa features wild boar dishes on both his lunch and dinner menus. During dinner, he presents what he calls the quintessential, classic Italian wild boar dish—Pappardelle al Cinghiale. House-made pappardelle pasta is tossed with slow-braised wild boar and local Hamakua mushrooms. “Two of our most popular shared dishes at lunchtime are the Braised Wild Boar Nachos and the Hawaiian Pizza with wild boar, pineapple and Big Island Puna goat cheese ricotta toppings,” says Chef Mastrascusa. The secret to succulent pork perfection, according to Chef Mastrascusa, is slow cooking the boar overnight for about 12 hours, which tenderizes the meat, while bringing out all of its rich, bold flavors. Chef Mastrascusa and his culinary team are always testing new recipes using this highly versatile meat, bringing innovative flare to local dining, while remaining true to the traditions of this special place.