Along the southwestern Maui coast is Mala Ocean Tavern, a laid-back eatery so close to the water that turtles often pop up to watch diners. Meals there highlight the simplicity and richness of Hawaiian fish and produce—and Owner Mark Ellman’s cookbook is a testament to that simplicity.
As chef, restaurateur, franchiser of the highly successful international Maui Tacos chain, and now cookbook author, Ellman is a major force on the islands. The Mala cookbook (Ellman’s first, clocking in at less than 100 pages) is slim and to the point, but its eclectic mix of his tavern’s most well-known dishes is refreshing in its simplicity. He lets the product do the talking, often with minimal manipulation (he has a list of ceviches and tiraditos, as well as some whole-fried fish recipes). Many of the recipes include explanations of Ellman’s inspiration, like watching Charlie Trotter make an edamame purée or tasting Claude Koberle’s flourless chocolate torte soufflé.
Ellman has lived on Maui for a quarter of a century, and he is known as one of the most influential cooks there (he was one of the 12 chefs, known as the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement, that took the islands out of gloppy hotel surf-and-turf and into fresh, local, and innovative dishes). He also helped produce another quasi-cookbook, Practice Aloha, a collection of vignettes (and a few recipes) from Hawaiian chefs, artists, and even celebrity vacationers (actor Helen Hunt and rocker Mick Fleetwood) on what they think of Hawaiian “aloha” culture. But for chefs looking for an entry into Hawaiian cuisine, the Mala cookbook is a great place to start.