Resurecting an old article I wrote for Edible Hawaiian Island Magazine 9 years ago... 2017 celebrates the 54th year of the Merrie Monarch Competitions in Hilo! Note: I've added some photos that did not appear in the original article.
The Foods and Colors of Merrie Monarch
By Sonia R. Martinez
For Edible Hawaiian Islands Magazine
Spring Issue 2008
Merrie Monarch! These words alone bring a sense of excitement and electricity through Hilo Town on Hawaii Island every year. This is our time to shine!
This year is the 45th of the Merrie Monarch Festival, when Hilo Town buzzes with the excitement of visitors from far and wide for the whole week of the
Hula halau perform in various venues at noon everyday during the week; craft vendors set up their wares all around the city; the merchants dress their
windows with traditional ancient Hawaiian artifacts, hula implements, and banners; and rain or shine, the big parade on Saturday morning will feature
local and visiting mainland bands, floats dressed with hundreds of colorful tropical flowers and the stately and traditionally dressed pau riders
representing each of the Hawaiian Islands on their magnificent horses who also wear their own leis.
Photo: Car hood decorated to participate in the Merrie Monarch parade.
The festival is named in honor of David Kalakaua, known as the Merrie Monarch, the last king of Hawaii who was instrumental in bringing back the Hawaiian
language, culture, music and hula after it had been banned by the missionaries who had settled and brought western religion to the islands.
Held in the spring, the festival has changed completely from the first Ho’olaule’a or street festival style happening back in 1964, which consisted
of Barber Shop Quartets; Hula demonstrations; exhibits; bicycle races from Kohala to Hilo; a baton relay race around Liliu’okalani park (by the way, the
baton was a fish!) and much pageantry.
First conceived to bring business to the sleepy Hilo downtown area, the Merrie Monarch Festival has grown into an event of international renown, with visitors
arriving each year from almost every State of the Union and many foreign countries.
Eventually the festival evolved into what is now a major three day competition for Hula Halau from all over Hawai'i and also from the mainland who meet in Hilo to compete. Visiting Halau from Japan, Mexico, Tahiti, Guam, Alaskan tribes and New Zealand Maori groups have also come through the years, to perform in front of an appreciative audience of hula aficionados.
The Merrie Monarch Festival has been instrumental in bringing back the sense of pride in the Hawaiian culture and its main purpose ‘is the perpetuation,
preservation, and promotion of the art of hula and the Hawaiian culture through education’.
The music, the mele (chants), the colorful traditional attire, the sometimes sensuous movements of the women’s Hula 'Auana as the modern hula is called,
or the powerful and vigorous dance steps of the Hula Kahiko, the ancient hula; the sometimes playful or warrior-like movements of the strapping men, … all
work together weaving a lei creating a sense of enchantment and fascination with an ancient culture that is being revived by music and dance.
Of course, there can never be a festival of this magnitude without food!
Walking through the riot of colors, tastes and sights at the Hilo Farmer's Market is a must. The cornucopia of vegetables in all their blazing colors
are amazingly vivid…as if an artist had visited the market in early morning and splashed his rainbow soaked paint brush with total abandon…
The bright green of leafy vegetables and fiddlehead ferns; dark bluish hue of the Hawaiian purple sweet potatoes; prickly looking rambutan; warm orange and yellows of the locally grown oranges, lemons and limes; and the shiny purple of the Japanese eggplants all compete for your attention with loud shouts of
`look at me…buy me!'
The Merrie Monarch Festival sets up a food booth outside the Edith Kanaka’ole Stadium as part of their fundraising efforts to finance the yearly competitions.
From Wednesday through Saturday the Kuali’i Catering Company offer Hawaiian Plates, kalua pig, poi, lomi lomi salmon, haupia and chicken long rice, as
well as chili, stews, spareribs, nachos and cheese, along with veggie garden salads are all part of the offerings with specials on certain nights of the
event, such as Chicken Hekka on Thursday and Saturday and Mochiko Chicken on Friday.
Hilo can also surprise you if you prefer to dine in a restaurant instead of visiting the food booths during the events.
A few cutting edge restaurant chefs are taking advantage of the abundance of locally grown produce and the freshly caught fish available from our teeming
These chefs, using elements of traditional Hawaiian foods, infusing them with their own twists and that of the many ethnic cuisines present in our area, are
creating memorable and adventurous dishes.
While at Merrie Monarch come and experience the excitement and freshness of our Big Island grown foods.
“Hula is the language of the heart….therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people…”
At Hilo Bay Café, Chef Joshua Ketner serves locally caught Opakapaka and white tiger prawns, slowly poached in lemon olive oil. The completed dish
includes tomato and caper polenta with a layer of fresh wilted spinach, bits of smoked pork, slices of pickled garlic and shallot beurre blanc sauce with
a finishing touch of Hawaiian red Alae salt delicately melting in the sauce.