Creating a Taste for Invasive Species

Mar 7, 2019

Chef Tammy Smith of Hale Kealoha shows off her first batch of fried tilapia at an "Eat the Invasives" event in Hale'iwa.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

Hawaiʻi is a global hotspot for invasive species from fire ants to miconia to coqui frogs. Combatting this threat is no easy task, but some believe they’ve found a recipe for success. HPR Reporter Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi has this story.

It was a night of fine dining at a Haleʻiwa fishpond with some of Hawaiʻi’s top chefs. On the menu were dishes made with some of the more predatory species in the islands.

NOGUCHI: So tonight’s invasive game was Samoan crab.

SMITH: Tilapia is our invasive.

KENNEY: We took kiawe bean flour. Kiawe is another one of those invasive trees.

Those are the voices of Chefs Mark Noguchi of the Pili Group, Hale Kealoha’s Tammy Smith, and Kaimukī restauranteur Ed Kenney.

“I mean we’ve often used the term, ‘If you can’t beat em, eat em’” says Kenney.

Kenney’s referring to a trend known as “Eat the Invasives.” The idea is to wipe out damaging species while filling our bellies with something scrumptious. Tonight, he made flatbread with kiawe bean flour.

“On top of that we are serving a mouflon ragu. Mouflon is an introduced sheep that’s found on South Point on the Big Island,” says Kenney.

Smith fries tilapia fillets in butter and serves it along side a pickled limu salad made with invasive gorilla ogo and a kalo poke with deep-fried tilapia skin.

“You know nowadays you see plenty salmon skin being cooked,” says Smith, ”So we have tilapia, so we going do tilapia skin in salad, make em little bit small kine fancy.”

For Noguchi, events like this call on not only his sense of taste but his sense of kuleana or responsibility to care for his island home.

“Eating the invasives is malama ‘āina, right? In a different way,” says Noguchi, “And I think that if there’s any way to manage an invasive species is you make it yummy so that people want to eat it.”

Hawaiʻi spends nearly $60 million a year trying to eradicate and control invasive species. Josh Atwood is the coordinator for the statewide Hawaiʻi Invasive Species Council.

“Invasive species are the single greatest threat to Hawaiʻi’s environment, economy, agriculture, human health and way of life,” says Atwood.

We put the question to him – can we really eat our way out of this problem?

“Not for control or for eradication of invasive species,” says Atwood.

Still Atwood sees the benefits.

“It's a great educational tool for people to be aware of and species and their impacts,” says Atwood.

His main concern isn’t that eating invasives won’t work but that it will make a troublesome species popular.