HONOLULU — Some essentials to bring to Maui: golf clubs, swimsuit and sunscreen. Binoculars during whale-watching season. And there's the less obvious: breath mints.
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Visitors to Hawaii's gorgeous Valley Island should consider keeping some handy when attending the annual Maui Onion Festival, which celebrates all things related to the beloved, homegrown, super-sweet bulbous plant.
The upcoming onion party, it its 16th year, runs Aug. 6-7 and will be held at the open-air Whalers Village Fine Shops & Restaurants on Kaanapali Beach. It will feature demonstrations from local chefs complete with tasting, a Maui onion recipe contest, Maui products and produce, entertainment and games - including the onion toss.
The highlight of the two-day festival is the celebrated raw Maui onion eating contest, including a kid's division. Last year's adult winner was 400-pound professional human vacuum Eric Booker of New York, who gobbled 9 ounces of raw onion in a minute and dethroned hometown favorite and seven-time Maui onion king Eric Siegmund.
Visitors shouldn't leave the festival without sampling some savory Maui onion rings that sell for $4 for a serving that contains nearly two entire bulbs. About 900 pounds of onions were served at last year's festival.
The soft ocean breezes swirl the fragrant fried onions throughout the courtyard and open areas of the outdoor shopping center, where the booths are set up. In between the eating and lounging at the beach, there are numerous nearby resorts to stroll through and plenty of shops to browse.
There's not many places in the world where you can brush the sand off your feet, scarf down some Maui onion rings and then shop for handbags at Louis Vuitton in your swimsuit.
But don't be fooled by the festive atmosphere.
Onions are a serious business on Maui.
The "authentic" Maui onions are grown by only a handful of farmers in the Kula area on the slopes of Haleakala, a massive dormant volcano. Farmers say the mild and cool temperatures at the 1,200 to 4,000 foot elevation, combined with the rich volcanic soil, give the onions their special flavor.
The Maui Onion Growers Association owns the federal trademarks of "Maui" and "Kula" onions, but say counterfeiting is still rampant.
The association's president, Ricky Kametani, said an authentic Maui onion has a label certifying it is from Kula.
"Theoretically" all onions grown on the island are Maui onions, Kametani said, "but it's not the genuine sweet onion that's grown in the upcountry region. It's the climate and soil that makes the difference."
Maui onions are sold across Hawaii and in some West Coast cities, but can be difficult to find. They generally cost much more than the common yellow onions.
About 2 million pounds of Maui onions are harvested every year from about 150 acres in Kula, according to the state Department of Agriculture.
The boutique onions can be used to flavor to almost anything including salsa, potato chips, macadamia nuts, omelets and seafood dishes. Some say the Maui onions are so mild and sweet, they can be eaten like apples.
Kametani wouldn't go that far, but he does recommend eating it raw.
"When you cook it, it kind of loses its value a little bit, but there's still a different taste," he said. "When you eat it raw in sandwich or a salad, you get the true taste."
This year's Maui Onion Festival is expected to attract between 5,000 to 8,000 visitors per day, mostly tourists from across the United States. The festival began in 1989.
"We wanted to put an event together that promoted a Maui-grown product, we then talked with farmers and selected the Maui onion because of its reputation," said Don Reaser, manager of Whalers Village.
Many tourists compare the Maui onion with its sweet cousins, the Vidalia onion from Georgia or the Walla Walla onion from Washington state.
"Of course, we say that our Maui onion is a sweeter product than the Washington or Vidalia," Reaser said. "It's an interesting comparison."
On the Net:
Maui Onion Festival: http://www.whalersvillage.com/active/onion.htm
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