story by Julia Steele
photo by Brad Goda
Mark Okamura is a candy man—and if you remember the hit from the ’70s, you know that means he’s one of those guys who can take a sunrise, sprinkle it in dew, cover it in chocolate and a miracle or two. He can also fashion one hell of a coconut. He uses everything from balloons to blowtorches to hone his craft, and he has mastered the engineering of an eye-fooling, mouthwatering confection that you would swear is an actual coconut: When it’s presented on a plate, you hardly know whether to crack it open, applaud or eat it. But one bite, and you know the most advisable course of action is the last. The dark brown shell? Bittersweet chocolate. The sennit “hair” that covers it? Toasted coconut flakes. The other other white meat that fills it? Coconut sorbet. Okamura’s faux nut could be the signature dessert for our post-modern world of hyper-shifting realities. And it is delicious: not too sweet and given over to the rich flavor of the nut. “We use coconut milk from Thailand that’s 25 percent fat,” says Mark. “That’s what makes the difference in flavor.” As he tells me this, he’s deftly making the dessert, which will be served at Alan Wong’s restaurant where Mark is the pastry chef.
What led him to design this dessert? Two things, says Mark: a love of sorbet and a local upbringing in which haupia (coconut milk cooked with cornstarch and sugar) was ubiquitous. In fact, haupia’s ubiquity has led to the creation of all manner of coconut desserts in the Islands as local chefs reared on lu‘au fare have taken the simple gelatinous block and transformed it. In just one example: Arren Higashi, pastry chef at Roy’s in Hawai‘i Kai, has created a sampler that features haupia mousse, haupia sorbet and haupia tapioca. Yes, he loves haupia, he says. No, he’s never climbed a coconut tree. Neither has Mark. But clearly both enjoy cooking in the Islands. “Hawai‘i is unique,’ says Mark. “It’s the only state that produces its own chocolate, coffee, vanilla and lots of exotic fruits.” And, of course, its own coconuts—real or not.