WAIMEA, Hawaii -- Peter Merriman has been called the father of a new style of cooking known as Hawaiian Regional Cuisine, which is so popular throughout the Aloha State that it's known by its monogram, HRC.
Because of HRC, Hawaii is now claiming a place on the world's culinary map. The multi-island state finally has its own distinctive cuisine.
Like the people of Hawaii, HRC is ethnically mixed, with several cultures often detectable in a single dish. It's been called East Meets West with many Hawaiian touches and the best local ingredients. To Merriman, the chef and owner of Merriman's Restaurant in this ranch town, using local products and fusing the best of various cuisines define HRC.
Merriman, who has been known to dive for sea urchins and climb coconut trees in pursuit of fresh ingredients, spearheaded the development of the new cuisine 12 years ago. At that time, he invited a dozen of Hawaii's most innovative chefs to a meeting in Waimea.
"We wanted to establish a liaison between agriculture and the culinary community," said the chef in his restaurant, while broiling tuna. "We wanted to get produce from local farmers, fish from local fisherman, and beef and lamb from local ranchers, and wanted to prepare our foods in more interesting ways."
Merriman's revolution has had wide-ranging effects throughout the Hawaiian islands. The food editor of Honolulu magazine wrote: "It's hard to think of a serious chef in the islands today who doesn't use local products and dance across multiple cultures in a single dish."
For instance, Merriman's mahi mahi might be marinated with ponzu, a Japanese soy and citrus sauce. Or his steak might be enlivened with a Szechuan peppercorn rub, a Chinese touch.
Merriman perhaps is best known for his wok-charred "ahi," tuna seared on the outside and essentially raw on the inside. It's his signature dish and a popular dinner option, but it's often available for lunch as well, served with a wasabi dipping sauce and pickled ginger.
For something lighter, consider poisson cru, a lime- and coconut-marinated fish dish that comes from Tahiti, as did the Hawaiians centuries ago. There also are unusual, memorable sandwiches, such as one with traditional Hawaiian kalua pork or Chinese short rib with Waimea tomato and arugula, drizzled with hot mustard.
Although this is one of the top places to dine on the Big Island, the lunch prices are manageable, ranging from $6.95 to $16.95. For $8.95 or $9.95, you can have a Hawaiian Regional Cuisine lunch you won't soon forget.
Merriman's Restaurant, 65-1227 Opelo Road, Waimea; 808-885-6822. The chef-owner also has the new Merriman's Market Cafe, a more informal restaurant with a Mediterranean flavor but local ingredients at Kings Shops in Waikoloa on the Big Island. He is also a partner in Hula Grill on Maui.