NIIHAU: ‘Forbidden Island’ still pr
Little landmass has enough livestock to feed state of Hawaii
It’s the Forbidden Island. A remote landmass where an ancient dialect of Hawaiian is spoken fluently by its native residents.
Shrouded in mystery and intrigue, Niihau is situated 17 miles off Kauai across the rough Kaulakahi Channel. At 72 square miles, it’s about the size of San Francisco.
But there’s no Golden Gate Bridge connecting it to the real world. It’s the land that time forgot.
Niihau has no electricity. No store. No running water. No airport. No cars, except for a few antique trucks. Residents barter and trade. Hunt with knives and ropes. Guns and liquor are banned. They fish like their ancestors (OK, maybe there’s a skiff and an outboard motor or two).
And OMG! Niihau has no cellphone reception.
Yet Niihau is and has been famous for decades. That’s because exquisite lei from there are handcrafted from tiny shells laboriously collected on its beaches. The lei can sell for thousands of dollars in a rare few places such as Maui Ocean Treasures in Maalaea and the Maui Hands gallery at Hyatt Regency in Kaanapali.
And a handful of wealthy visitors have gone there to trophy hunt, buzz it by helicopter and scuba dive at nearby Lehua Isle crater. But access to its lifelong residents is very limited or not allowed at all.
Now, the private isle of Niihau is starting to get on the world’s culinary map for its free-roaming sheep and eland. Word of mouth is spreading like wildfire among savvy chefs. The good news is, there is plenty to feed the entire state of Hawaii.
Thousands of animals there roam free, feeding on seaweed for nutrients and making tracks on sandy beaches to prove it; and munching on lantana and other scrub all the way to the top of the 1,280-foot cliffs.
They are sent to Kauai by a World War II landing craft to the Makaweli Meat Co. and there they are then processed into meat for Hawaii’s top restaurants – from Mama’s Fish House to Grand Wailea to Sea House at Napili Kai Beach Resort.
“Niihau is owned by two brothers, Bruce and Keith Robinson,” explains Jehu Fuller, general manager for the Makaweli Meat Co. “The Robinsons are direct descendants of Elizabeth Sinclair, who purchased Niihau back in 1864 from Kamehameha IV of the Kingdom of Hawaii.”
The original family home is still on Niihau, but the Robinsons mainly live on Kauai. Makaweli Meat. Co. is also owned by the family with other major landholdings on the Garden Island of Kauai.
“Give or take, there are about 100 Hawaiian people who live on Niihau,” says Fuller. “It flexes in and out. But the island is what Hawaii was 150 years ago. There’s no change really, except that we are now building a slaughterhouse over there in addition to the one on Kauai. It should be done in two weeks.
“They have been ranching sheep there since the 1860s. The original livestock consisted of Spanish Merino brought with the Sinclairs from New Zealand.”
According to Wikipedia, Elizabeth McHutchison Sinclair was born in 1800 in Glasgow, Scotland, married Capt. Francis Sinclar, had six children and they all sailed to New Zealand in 1841. Francis and the eldest son were later lost at sea there.
After toiling as farmers for years, she and her remaining growing family all ventured to Vancouver Island in British Columbia, but found it too forested for farming.
So in 1863, Elizabeth and her 13 family members set sail for Honolulu on the ship Bessie.
“The 300-ton barque arrived fully provisioned, with Merino sheep, one cow, hay, grain, chickens, a grand piano, books and clothing. Eliza was considered a ‘chiefess’ by the Native Hawaiians she and her family employed on the island of Niihau and in Makaweli on Kauai,” the Wikipedia bio states.
The cost to purchase Niihau back then was $10,000 in gold.
While the original sheep were of Merino stock, her descendant Aubrey Robinson imported Colombia rams and then Aylmer Robinson imported Romeldale sheep, which gave more size and better flavor to the meat – according to a brochure by Makaweli Meat Co.
“The last importation was French Merino that are also called Rambouillet sheep,” the Makaweli brochure reads. “They free roam and this gives the lamb its unique and tantalizing flavor.”
“They eat what they want, when they want,” Fuller says of the stress-free sheep. “The whole island is their pasture. It’s so isolated and untouched, anything raised in that environment is low stress. I’d compare it to the difference between a farmer and someone who lives in New York City.”
The livestock is all natural and raised without growth hormones, antibiotics and steroids and is processed in the USDA-certified abbatoir at Makaweli. Fuller talked via phone from there with The Maui News.
“Each time someone buys a lamb burger, now there’s a story behind it,” says Fuller. “There’s traceability, a real connection.”
One of the biggest fans of Niihau lamb is Mama’s Fish House Executive Chef Perry Bateman.
“We are very pleased to be able to offer it,” Bateman says. “It’s not gamey, and it has a great lamb flavor. We serve lamb chop appetizers and lamb shoulder entrees. We dry season it, and slow braise it for seven hours at a low 225 degree temperature, roast it with carrots, onions, celery, garlic, rosemary and thyme.”
Bateman adds red wine and stock made from lamb bones and beef stock he uses for Maui onion soup.
“To get the lamb bones from Jehu is precious. From the ground up – it’s all Hawaii. We serve it atop an ulu cake, then put half green papaya for sweetness, add Hamakua mushrooms, Kula asparagus and strain all the braising liquid into a bowl. The green papaya sops up the jus. We top it with luau leaf gremolata.”
“Mama’s lamb appetizer is grilled, served with pa’i’ai, poi demi glace and luau-leaf chimichurri.
“Mama’s is family owned and Niihau is family owned and we’re blessed to support the island. It has enough lamb and eland to share with the state,” he adds.
The Niihau eland make up the largest herd in the world. Natives of Africa, they were brought to Niihau for trophy hunting in 1998 as Molokai Ranch closed, but it was soon discovered that it had just a sixth of the fat content of beef and half the calories. So the game plan changed to raise eland as a commercial venture for restaurants. The eland meat also has a very low amount of cholesterol, lower than chicken, so eland won’t raise your low density lipoprotein.
“It was about two years ago when I had the honor of meeting Jehu Fuller, general manager of Makaweli,” says Chef Michael Gallagher of HFM Foodservice on Maui that distributes wholesale to restaurants here.
“He introduced me to the Niihau eland (giant African antelope) that are running wild on the island of Niihau. Being a chef for over 25 years I was very curious and wanted to try some,” the chef continues.
“Its healthy attributes and the fact that it comes from Niihau made it even more intriguing,” Gallagher adds. “I sold my first tenderloins of eland to Roy’s Kaanapali as Chef Roy Yamaguchi is a strong supporter of the ranch and Niihau.”
“I made reservations that night for my wife and I to have the tenderloin and it was out of this world!” says Gallagher. “Not gamey at all, lean, yet sweet, tender and luscious and cooked to perfection.”
HFM is the sole distributor of Niihau Ranch lamb and Makaweli grass-fed beef at some of the best restaurants on Maui.
“I strongly recommend you try a Niihau lamb slider at Leilani’s in Kaanapali,” says Gallagher.
“Mark Ellman serves the lamb at his Frida’s Mexican Beach House in Lahaina and Ka’anapali Beach Hotel chef Tom Muromoto also uses it on some of his super famous holiday buffets.”
“We braise Niihau lamb at Frida’s for tacos, enchiladas and quesadillas, and serve it with tomatoes and guajillo chilis,” Ellman says. “We love it.”
Chef Alex Stanislaw of Sea House in Napili spice rubs Niihau lamb loin for his Na Hoku private menu served oceanfront under the stars and serves it with harissa, panzanella salad and roasted garlic vinaigrette.
“I find that a lot of Colorado lamb is bland. It’s supposed to have a more full flavor than beef. This Niihau lamb is more pronounced but not gamey like New Zealand lamb can be. It’s almost more sweet as it must have something to do with its diet,” says Stanislaw.
Grand Wailea Executive Chef Ryan Urig and Chef de Cuisine Michael Lofaro made lamb tartare at a Maui Calls benefit for the Maui Arts & Cultural Center on Friday and it wowed lamb-loving, well-heeled and gourmet diners. They served it on rye crostinis with mango spears and it rocked.
“We utilize it a lot for VIP dinners and banquets and we are in the process of bringing it to showcase it at Botero and Bistro Molokini,” says Urig of Grand Wailea’s plans.
“More and more Maui chefs wanting to go farm to table are getting a chance to try different lamb cuts and the customers get the benefits of healthier, cleaner and leaner products that are all natural and sustainable,” adds Gallagher, who hopes someday to visit Niihau to see the animals in their environment.
“For now I fully support, educate and distribute the best of the best from Kauai and Niihau to top chefs and customers all over Maui,” says Gallagher.
Buying the product is all about helping to keep their Hawaiian way of life alive on Niihau.
“They speak Hawaiian as a living language so that it won’t get lost,” Fuller says. “But if you listen to them, it’s not like the Kamehameha Schools Hawaiian or the UH Hawaiian. It’s different with a unique dialect.”
It’s been reported in newspapers and on the internet that some of the Niihau kids attend school on Kauai and learn English.
The little Niihau school is also reportedly the only Hawaii school entirely solar powered so students may use computers.
“Yes, some have solar and we bring over some generators. But the lifestyle is still in the past. There are a few old trucks from the World War II era but that’s it,” says Fuller.
‘There are no paved roads. No cellphones. No electricity. And no running water. It’s just the ancient Hawaiian way. They barter fruit for vegetables and also vegetables for fish. There’s no commerce. Their needs are brought by that old World War II landing craft. So the commercial business of raising and processing livestock and selling meat keeps it going.”
Fuller goes on to say that Bruce Robinson’s main goal is to make the island more sustainable and protect the way of life there for the residents.
“So it’s a privilege to build the slaughterhouse. It is rough water shuttling the sheep back and forth and we take it really slow. So this project is just history in the making for Niihau and all of Hawaii. This construction project is the biggest on island since the 1860s.”
This new development is the biggest thing since sliced bread, since the internet. With it will soon come more lamb and eland meat being sold not only to restaurants but to stores.
“The only retail store is Hoku Foods on Kauai at the time,” says Fuller. “We are looking for a retail partner right now.”
“We really do not know how much lamb the state consumes, but I would safely say that Niihau has enough lamb to make Hawaii more sustainable and rely less on outside sheep ranches,” Fuller adds about projections.
“The beauty of it all is, we are making the island sustainable so that the younger generation can stay there and also maintain their identity and keep alive their truly unique Hawaiian culture.”
* You may email Carla Tracy at firstname.lastname@example.org.