But what outsiders may not know is that Maui—an island filled with world-class chefs and some of the state’s top restaurants—has a sweet culinary secret: It’s famous for what many call the world’s best banana bread.
Drive through the remoter parts of the Valley Isle—the far West Side, for instance, or Heavenly Hana—and chances are you’ll be delightfully startled by the abundance of farm stands marketing dark, spongy loaves. As one of the world’s favorite comfort foods—there’s nothing quite like a slice of banana bread topped with butter—it’s a welcome surprise for many. But how did this beloved baked good hit the islands—and what’s the history behind America’s quintessential loaf?
In a land where apple orchards and pear trees prevailed, the banana—botanically considered to grow from an herbaceous plant (though, in contradiction to pop knowledge, is not an actual herb but a berry)—was once an exotic breed in North America.
But in 1870, Captain Lorenzo Baker—a Massachusetts sailor and businessman—arrived in Jersey City with 160 bunches of bananas he’d picked up in Jamaica. (Prior to then, ship captains were unsure how to transport a fruit that ripened—and rotted—so swiftly.) The bright, sweet banana was readily embraced, but given its cloying flavor, tender meat, and high price, it was most commonly thought of as a glamorous accent to desserts, popping up as garnishes on puddings and cakes.
The introduction of modern refrigeration in the 20th century rendered bananas less a special treat than a brilliant possibility. Americans began integrating it into their breakfast menus, while Baker’s enterprise, the Boston Fruit Company, expanded into two of the best-known fruit brands on Earth: Dole and Chiquita.
In the century-plus that followed, the rarity surrounding bananas dramatically shifted. Bananas are now a ubiquitous part of the American and global diet, with estimates suggesting that three million tons of Chiquita’s claim to fame are eaten in the U.S. annually. It’s deemed the fourth most valuable food crop on the planet, coming right behind wheat, rice, and milk. Or, as National Geographic says, “It’s the world’s most consumed fruit and spans generations as food for both toothless babies and the toothless geriatric…It crosses historical eras, has been responsible for entire governments rising and falling, and has propped up beleaguered economies.” In other words, “If fruits were countries, the banana would be the world’s superpower. If fruits were pop stars, the banana would be Beyoncé.”
Hawaii’s history of bananas carries a different story. It’s believed that Polynesians brought bananas with them on the canoes they sailed across the Pacific, giving rise to the proliferation of varieties that bore resemblance to the Cavendish—the most prevalent type of banana—but were distinctly their own: the spiky Iholena, for example, and the yellow-orange Maoli.
Bananas thrived in Hawaii and throughout the Western Pacific Islands—indeed, bananas grow best in the tropics—and the fruit joined the ranks of taro (kalo), sweet potatoes (‘uala), breadfruit (‘ulu), and fish as one of the biggest staples of the ancient Hawaiian diet.
But where Hawaii and the mainland converge in terms of bananas may be in the onset of the largest financial crisis America has ever seen: The Great Depression.
People were loath to eat overripe bananas but its inherent qualities—sweetness, softness, and nutritional merit (to say nothing of the fact that not a morsel of food was wasted during the era)—made the fruit both necessary and attractive. The advent of chemical leaveners like baking powder arrived at the same time, rendering yeast irrelevant—and rendering “quick” breads with “rotten” bananas a boon for the American diet. Cookbooks caught onto the trend—notably, Pillsbury’s 1933 classic, Balanced Recipes—while housewives followed suit, prepping loaves with fruit that otherwise would have been tossed (and, to note, echoing early 19th century voyagers from the West Indies, who often baked their creations in the hot sun). By the 1960s, banana bread was a frequent sight on the table; by the 1970s, it had transformed from a basic, rough-textured quick bread—made with the inexpensive bulk filler wheat bran—into a treat that incorporated everything from vanilla and orange peel to almonds. Today? It’s the most searched-for recipe on the internet.
While the Great Depression may be behind us—at least the Depression of the 1930s—bakers across Maui continue to consider banana bread a must. “Banana bread was born of necessity,” the owner of Grandma’s Coffee House (more below) says. “We had too many bananas, so we made bread.”
Maui reflects the widespread popularity of banana bread in general—and then some. (As Hawai’i Magazine writes, “On Maui, banana bread is serious business.”) Some speculate that it’s due not only to the glut of bananas around the island, but also because of the type: the apple banana. Smaller and squatter with a telltale tang, the creaminess and sweetness of this fruit lends itself beautifully to bread. What’s more, a number of local bakers utilize organic sugar harvested on the island and butter churned on their own farms. The result? Divine creations that celebrate the island’s bounty. (So divine, in fact, that Maui’s leading banana bread chefs have a cult following, with the internet—from Facebook to Chowhound—teeming with pages on who’s most deserving of the crown for Maui’s best banana bread.)
Mouth watering yet? Read on.
From Foodland’s special recipe (which, ahem, includes a dash of triple sec), to coffee stores abetted by crafty bakers and Wailuku’s Chevron, banana bread can be readily found across the island. But to experience the best Maui has to offer, make your way to one of these prime locations:
Manned by Wailele Farm—just east of Paia on the Road to Hana—this buzzy, much-loved stand is conveniently located outside one of the most popular waterfall hikes on the island. The bread has much to lust after: The bananas used for baking are pulled from the surrounding valley.
Nestled in Keanae—a former fishing village on the Road to Hana—Aunt Sandy’s yellow stand, now in its 34th year, is synonymous with banana bread, while Sandy herself is often dubbed one of the top contenders for queen of the baked morsel. Claiming it’s the butter in her recipes, Aunt Sandy also admits that the key to her superlative bread rests in the effort she puts behind it: “We can cook from the same recipe, but it’s the love in the hand that stirs that makes the difference.” Her ultra-moist bread is the perfect way to break when driving along the secluded eastern coast; Keanae’s lovely historic church and breathtaking black lava beaches are the icing on the proverbial cake.
Located near Mile Marker 17, the Halfway to Hana stand is, for many, a welcome sign for those traversing the twisty Road to Hana. Run by Auntie Marilyn and Nita Chong, this east side staple—which has been in business since 1982—asserts that it’s home to the original banana bread. Loaves are rich and luscious, while other treats—like Banana Mac Crunch ice cream—are just as delicious.
Six types of banana bread (including pineapple and chocolate chip) are offered at this prominent stand at Mile Marker 34 on the Road to Hana, where the farm’s culinary masters hand-craft small batches made with farm-grown bananas, raw organic sugar, and fresh butter—and top it all off with what they call a “tropical crunchy crust.” Done in by banana bread? Don’t distress: Hana Farms also offers fresh-baked, wood-fired pizzas and equally fresh produce, as well as coconut ice cream and hot coffee—a welcome treat for those who are accustomed to making road trips accompanied by Starbucks.
“Chef Dave” proves why he’s a legend at this tailgate stand near ‘Oheo Gulch. Souvenirs are also sold—many crafted by local artisans—as well as jellies and jams. His banana bread is a stand-out but no surprise there: Hana and Kipahulu are two of the lushest, most fertile regions on the island.
Tucked into Keokea, Grandma’s Coffee House is a local favorite—and an absolute must-stop for those braving the “back road” to Hana. Here, “Grandma” Minnie Franco’s grandson Al experiments tirelessly with banana bread recipes, many of which taste just like Hawaii. (Think: Kula strawberry, macadamia nut-chocolate, and coconut.)
If pineapple is more your thing, you’re in luck: their Pineapple Dream Cake is a downright marvel.
Located in Kahakuloa—a predominately Hawaiian village on the far west side of the island—Julia’s is a destination in itself, requiring keen banana bread-purveyors to travel a harrowing road to reach her globally-known outpost. 94 loaves of banana bread begin baking daily at 7 am in the Molokai native’s kitchen, serving the international guests who make special trips to her kiosk just to taste some of the phenomena. (Six guest books are filled with signatures from people the world over—Singapore, Egypt, Maine—while two of the islands’ most popular cruise ships take docked visitors on a banana bread tour to Julia’s.) While she claims her recipe is standard fare—she found it in a cookbook many years ago, and uses eggs from Costco—she doesn’t shy away from divulging her famous bread’s most fundamental ingredient: “lots of aloha.”
Located in the county seat of Wailuku, Four Sisters Bakery has a matchless reputation for its terrific American, Filipino, and Hawaiian food—as well as for its scrumptious banana bread. (So scrumptious, in fact, that they bake 1,000 loaves per week.) Celebrated for its moistness, this banana bread uses vanilla pudding to give it an extra-creamy texture.
Can’t cross the Pacific for the world’s best banana bread? Try this recipe at home for your own version of aloha:
3 ripe, freckled bananas
1/4 cup butter, melted
3/4 cup raw organic sugar
1 1/2 cup flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tbsp. vanilla
1/8 tsp. salt
1/2 chopped/crushed macadamia nuts
1/2 chocolate chips or flaked coconut (or go wild and include both)
Mash the bananas in a large bowl. Add the melted butter, sugar, vanilla, and chocolate chips/coconut. In a separate bowl, mix the dry ingredients; add to the mix; stir in the nuts. Pour the batter into a loaf pan and bake at 350 degrees for 60-65 minutes. Bon appetit—or, rather, ono.
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