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CRACK SEED

WRITTEN BY MELISSA CHANG 

AN AUTHENTIC TAKE ON HAWAII THROUGH IMMIGRATED CULTURE 

ASK ANYONE WHO GREW UP in Hawaii what they love about crack seed, and the salivary glands at the back of their jawlines will react with a quick, strong tingling as they remember their favorite, small-kid-time treat. 

Rock salt plum! Lemon peel! Honey ginger! And across the board, everyone will have an opinion about the tart and super salty li hing mui. The funny thing is, very few people know what the specific “crack seed” is anymore. 

Here’s a quick history lesson on this favorite local treat: Li hing mui (旅行梅) means “traveling plum,” which was the perfect thing to take on a long trip across the Pacific Ocean. These preserved fruits — particularly li hing mui — were brought to Hawaii in the mid-1800s by immigrant workers from Zhongshan, China. 

Although li hing mui is dried to the point that each one resembles a rock, most of the other preserved fruits are moist or soft. In one preparation, the seed of the fruit is cracked open to enhance the sweet and salty flavors of the syrup it is soaked in. This is the original version of “crack seed,” which is rarely, if ever, sold anymore — probably because it could potentially injure your mouth if you don’t eat it carefully. 

When it was widely available, crack seed was weighed and served in brown paper bags. Snackers would eat the meat of the dried fruit, then suck on the seeds and seed fragments, then turn the paper bags inside out to enjoy the sticky flavored syrup left behind. (The emergence of plastic bags was a much cleaner alternative.) 

Although Chinese candy stores sold every kind of Asian preserved fruit imaginable, including crack seed, the term “crack seed” came to be the general term for anything sold in there. These treasured local snacks have evolved over the years, but Hawaii’s craving for that flavor profile has not. In fact, it’s amazing to see what big business these humble treats have become. 

Through high school and college, I worked at what was then one of the oldest crack seed stores (and an original Ala Moana Center tenant), Crack Seed Center. If you were around in the 1980s, you might have seen me amidst the 50 or so glass jars filled with every variety of the preserved, dried fruits: about a dozen different kinds of wet and dry li hing mui, a dozen gingers, three kinds of rock salt plum, wet and dry lemon peel, several versions of shredded mango and mango seed, even a few different presentations of olives. We even had rare, special items like baby seed, apple seed, cherry seed, kam cho mui (aficionados will recognize it as the one that looks like horse poop) and, yes, even traditional crack seed. 

The dry seeds tend to be much saltier than all the rest, cured in licorice and a blend of salt, sugar and other unknown spices to create unique sensations of sweet, sweet-sour, or extra salty. 

The wet seeds tend to be sweeter, with a more jammy profile. True old school seed shops will add simple syrup to kick up the sugar flavor, or salt — preferably rock salt — to offer a more salty-sweet plum with crunch. 

If you’re new to crack seed, I usually recommend you start with the milder wet ones and work your way up to the ones with more concentrated flavors. If you start with li hing mui, you may feel like you’re eating pure salt. 

Due to the extreme salty, sour, or sweet sensations, many people use crack seeds in home remedies when sick. The most common one is li hing mui or lemon peel for sore threats, as the salt helps to soothe the scratchiness. Many of my customers swore by eating red cured peaches with brandy when dealing with a cold, but I usually cut up a preserved lemon and throw it into hot tea. 

The seeds are typically shipped from Asia in 25-pound bags. Back then, the li hing mui bags would always have a lot of the salt, sugar and spices at the bottom. My coworkers and I used to save the powder to add custom touches to our rock salt plums, apricots and mangoes, as well as for kakimochi upon request. 

It was probably this unique touch that made the Crack Seed Center seeds much more delicious. Actor Robert Conrad, when in Hawaii filming “Jake and the Fat Man,” would often send his assistant to buy five pounds of rock salt plum #85 at a time — his favorite munchies between takes. 

We also experimented with li hing powder on our own snacks, as an exclusive perk for people who worked in the store. Oddly enough, we never thought to market the intensely salty powder as a separate ingredient.

You can imagine our surprise — and regret — many years later, when some genius figured out how to sell that precious powder, even to the point of grinding li hing mui seeds to make more of it. Today, you can find the powder sold in bags at stores, used as an enhancer for almost everything, including: salad dressing, margaritas, fruit sprinkles, cookies, barbecue ribs, gummy candies and shave ice. Mixed with simple syrup, it makes an amazing and addicting addition to the popular Icee drinks. 

The combination of old school snacks and contemporary snacks continues with a recently booming trend in mincing dried lemon peel and sprinkling it on gummy candies. Lemon peel is also salty, but has a milder flavor than li hing mui, plus the citrus essence. 

Lemon peel on candy has become such a huge trend that even the wholesalers can’t keep up with the demand. Seed City in Pearlridge is often sold out of lemon peel. Sing Cheong Yuan in Chinatown, which also owns the Crack Seed Store in Kaimuki, sells bags of lemon peel pre-minced so you can sprinkle it on your favorite confection to your liking. 

My niece, Morgen, loves to eat her li hing mui in a different way now: Big Island Candies in Hilo takes the seeds and dips them halfway in chocolate, which helps to temper the initial extreme saltiness and balance the flavor as you chew the meat of the fruit. 

One of my new obsessions is getting a bag of kakimochi pre-mixed with li hing powder from Aloha Gourmet Products (sold in stores like Longs, as well as online), crushing it coarsely, and sprinkling it on poke — any kind of poke. It sounds odd, but it works. The subtle crunch of kakimochi adds texture to the fish, as well as an infusion of comforting flavors from my childhood. 

Prepackaged seeds can be found at grocery and drugstores all throughout Hawaii. For a true crack seed store experience though, go to a store that scoops your order straight out of the jar. [ eHI ]

LEI DAY

WRITTEN BY REBECCA ARÉCHIGA 

MAY DAY IS LEI DAY IN HAWAI’I – THE FRAGRANT SMELL OF TRADITION 

DORA IS STRINGING YELLOW ‘ILIMA with a long lei needle, one she says she was born with in her hand. She sits behind a fold-up table at a lei stand beneath a sign bearing her name outside the Honolulu Airport. Along a strand of similarly christened lei stands identical to Dora’s is Sophia’s, Arthur’s, Martha’s, Irene’s and about a dozen more, all with their full rainbow of aromatic goods on display.

The original Dora is her grandmother, ninety-six years old and still making lei. She began the business at age fourteen, selling from Aloha Tower and later moving to Keehi Lagoon Park. Then came another Dora, Dora’s daughter, or Dora’s mother, depending on which you’re talking about. That Dora had fourteen children and supported them all with lei making. One of those children is coincidentally the Dora that currently runs the lei stand, who herself has been stringing lei for sixty years, and who has taught all of her children, and now grandchildren, how to make lei. 

The history of lei making is the history of humankind. Neck chains of shell and bone have been discovered in the most ancient of human graves, suggesting that the primitive man may too have felt compelled to adorn himself with attractive elements of the natural world. If this is true, lei traditions have been around for 17,000 years.

It is perhaps because the people of Hawaii have for so long perpetuated the practice of making, wearing, and giving lei and with such ardent spirit that it has become the epicenter of modern lei culture. Lei can be used for any occasion that involves flowers; weddings, graduations, funerals, a gift for the hostess or for a date to the prom. It’s entirely acceptable to buy a lei for oneself or to wear one for no occasion at all. Men wear lei as casually as women, always draped over the shoulders, never hanging directly down from the neck. One should not refuse a lei, nor present a closed lei to a pregnant woman due to the taboo that it is bad luck for the unborn child. 

Lei can be made out of much more than flowers. The Hawaiians of old would make a lei out of anything; cloth, shells, boar’s husk, nuts, seeds or feathers, also fresh materials like berries, fruit, or vegetables. The grandest, most chiefly lei was made of human hair and ivory. 

In caring for a lei, most will do well in the coolness of a refrigerator or wrapped in damp newspaper or paper towel and placed where it is shaded and breezy. To properly dispose of a lei, simply return it to nature, being mindful to remove the natural material from the string; not all lei stringing is decomposable.

While in old Hawai‘i, materials were gathered entirely from the immediate environment, and in more recent times, flowers were grown in backyard gardens and harvested to string and sell, the business of lei making is changing. Purple orchids from Thailand are imported to Hawai‘i en masse; they’re cheap and wilt slower, a huge bonus when working with such delicate, perishable goods for such little profit to begin with. Also, new generations are finding that it’s easier and better paying work to find a job doing almost anything other than growing and selling backyard flowers to lei makers. 

“I like making double carnation, no one makes that anymore,” says Dora, “Vanda leis should be treasured now. Gardenia are so hard to find, most people now don’t even know how to string them.” 

Dora gets most of her flowers from vendors that come to the lei stands at the airport once a day, but there are still people like “Mama” who approaches her with plastic bags strung along both her arms. She is probably closer to the age of Dora’s grandmother than to the age of Dora herself and she catches the bus from Wahiawa everyday, transferring two times, to sell bags of flowers grown in her backyard and in the backyards of her neighbors to the lei makers of the airport. Dora greets her warmly, buys one bag for $15, and “Mama” moves down the line of stands. 

Dora is optimistic: “I don’t think there will ever be a time when all the flowers will come from elsewhere, people plant their own to keep costs down,” she says, “I take my little grandkids and gather when I can, it’s part of the culture.” When asked where she goes to pick her flowers, Dora smiles and points ambiguously, “The mountains,” she says. 

And yet, there is now constantly a great shortage of many of the flowers traditionally seen on Hawaiian lei. Flower availability depends on the season and who’s growing what locally. The phone inside the stand rings and Dora answers it, asks, “How much do you need?” then laughs hard and says with sincerity, “Good luck!”

She returns to her seat, returns to her lei stringing, she’s still smiling, “They wanted nine double chains of ginger today. It takes four bunches to make one double chain, that’s thirty-six bunches! I can’t even get one.” 

Though I am not an invited guest, and I’ve offered her nothing, before I go, Dora pulls a gardenia lei from inside the stand and ties off the ‘ilima lei she’s been stringing all this time and says, “Here, I have something to share with you,” and gives me both. And in that one gesture, she explains to me the enduring lei culture of Hawaii. [ eHI ]

Each of the eight main Hawaiian Islands is associated with a different lei based on the prevalence of materials naturally found there. The colors of these distinct lei have also become symbols for the islands, used in such ways as the gowns of the island princesses on Lei Day. 

  • Hawai’i Island, Lei Lehua, Red: The flower of the endemic tree, ‘ōhi‘a lehua, usually the first to grow on new lava flows. The tree is traditionally sacred to Pele, the volcano goddess, and lei made with the lehua flower resemble a strand of scarlet feathers. 
  • Maui, Lokelani, Pink: Though not native to the Hawaiian Islands, the flower of the Maui lei is a pink Damask rose. Introduced in the early 1800’s and immediately loved by the Hawaiian people, it was adopted as lokelani, or “rose of heaven”.
  • O‘ahu, Ilima, Orange-Yellow: A relative of the hibiscus but far more seldom seen, the ilima used to be called the royal lei because its use was restricted to high chiefs. The flowers are strung flatly across and hundreds are needed for a single lei.
  • Kaua‘i, Mokihana, Purple: This lei is made of the fruit of the mokihana, which grows only on Kaua’i. The berries are tiny and green, strung like beads on a thread, with a subtle fragrance of anise which becomes stronger as they dry.
  • Molokai, Pua Kukui, Silver-Green: Tiny clusters of white flowers and silvery green leaves of the native kukui tree are braided or bound together to make the lei of Molokai. Nuts of the kukui tree can also be found strung into a lei.
  • Ni‘ihau, Pupu, White: Tiny white and sometimes red sea shells, grown by an creature resembling a small snail which lives on the rocky shoreline of Ni’ihau make up this lei. Usually multiple long strands are worn together, sometimes with strings of alternating colors.
  • Lāna‘i, Kauna‘oa, Orange: Perhaps the most unusual of the islands’ lei is made of the kinked, threadlike vines of the Hawaiian doddler. The kaunaoa is in fact a parasite which spreads a net over the tops of its shrubby host plants and can be easily gathered and twisted loosely together to form a lei.
  • Kaho‘olawe, Hinahina, Silvery-grey: The now uninhabited island was once represented by the silvery grey leaves and tiny white and yellow flowers of the beach heliotrope, hina-hina. Since it is very difficult to obtain, its silvery grey color is now most often rendered with spanish moss.

VETIVER

Vetiver grass, or Chrysopogon zizanioides, is a perennial bunchgrass of the family Poaceae, native to India. Vetiver is most closely related to Sorghum but shares many structural characteristics with other fragrant grasses, such as lemongrass, citronella, and palmarosa. Vetiver was brought to Hawaii by the USDA for two main reasons: to help with soil erosion and to absorb toxins from the soil. 

The grass grows rapidly with a very strong root system. Although technically invasive, it is considered tolerable because of its uses and can be eradicated easily once the roots are removed and destroyed. Livestock have also been known to eat the grass. 

The roots have two medicinal qualities. Once harvested and cleaned, an oil can be extracted from them; you can rub vetiver oil on the bottom of your feet to encourage relaxation and promote a great night’s sleep. Because of its grounding effects, vetiver oil is commonly used in massages. It can also be made into a tea, which, when drunk, will induce a similar tranquil effect.

FARM DAY

WRITTEN BY DENISE LAITINEN

IT’S AN IMPORTANT TIME TO EXPERIENCE VISITING A FARM

ON A RECENT VISIT TO THE MAINLAND, someone suggested buying groceries at the Dollar store. As a long-time food writer and avid supporter of local farmers, I was dumbfounded. Another friend then described how there are no grocery stores near where she lives and farmers markets are few and far between. 

It got me thinking how very fortunate we are to live in Hawaii. Yes, it’s true that (too) much of our food is imported. Yet Hawaii’s agricultural industry is a key part of our local economy. The Aloha State leads the nation in production acreage of macadamia nuts, papaya, passion fruit, taro, coffee, pineapple, bananas, and ginger root. And the number of farms in Hawaii continues to grow, increasing 5 percent to 7,328 farms in 2017 compared to 2012, according to USDA Census of Agriculture data. 

Living on Hawai’i Island also known as the Big Island, there are nearly half a dozen farmers markets near me where I can get fresh local produce. When I go to a local restaurant and ask where the beef is from, more often than not they can name the specific ranch – and it’s local and one I personally know. 

It’s this ability to know where your food is from as well as explore local farms and learn how food is grown, harvested and made, that makes me so excited for the seventh annual edible Hawaiian Islands Farm Day on Saturday May 16, 2020 – #EHIFarmDay20. This is a statewide social media event in which anyone can participate. You can even participate in other parts of the country – or the world. Every year I make it a point to visit a local farm, go on a farm tour, and/or shop at a farmers market. For me, it’s an opportunity to ask myself, ‘What do I want to learn this year? What foods do I want to explore?’

It’s super easy to participate in #EHIFARMDAY20. All you have to do is invite family and friends to SHOP at a farmers’ market, VISIT a farm, TAKE a farm tour, THANK a farmer, and SHARE what you experience on social media using the hash tag #EHIFarmDay20. 

Making it even easier – you can find the HAWAII FARM GUIDE inserted in the 2020 Spring issue or on the edible Hawaiian Islands website. 

During past Farm Days I’ve gone to local farmers markets and talked to different vendors. If they could not name where the food was grown that they were selling– I didn’t buy from them. For the most part though, I’ve found local farmers to be passionate about the food they grow. They want to tell you how they grow their produce and what makes it special. 

Shopping at your local farmers market means the food is fresher, in season, and offered in greater variety. Knowing where your food is grown not only adds a sense of security about food safety but also keeps money in our local economy. 

Other years during #EHIFarmDay, I’ve gone on farm tours and learned how vanilla extract is made (so easy to make yourself once you know how!) and how turmeric is grown. I think the thing that amazes me the most is how chocolate is made. Last year I toured a cacao farm and I still find it incredible that those odd-looking cacao pods can create a substance as rich and delicious as dark velvety chocolate. 

To me, #EHIFarmDay is food adventure day. I can’t wait to go on another adventure exploring farms during this year’s event. What will you explore during #EHIFarmDay20?

TARO CILANTRO SOUP

Serves 6

INGREDIENTS:

2 pounds of taro

4 cups homemade chicken stock or broth 

Juice of half a lemon 

½ bunch kale, stems removed and roughly chopped.

½ bunch fresh cilantro roots, stems and leaves.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

7 cloves crushed garlic 

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon ground pepper

METHOD:

1. Peel and cut taro into 1” cubes.

2. Heat broth in a deep pan and add taro. lemon juice and boil about 25 minutes or until tender.

3. In a large fry pan add ½ cup water and the chopped kale and cilantro along with the salt and pepper. 

4. Stir over high heat until the kale has wilted. Transfer the kale-cilantro mixture to a blender and puree.

5. Melt butter in a frying pan, add garlic and fry until beginning to brown. 

6. Add the pureed greens and cook for a further 5 minutes.

7. Add the kale mixture to the taro and bring to a boil. Serve and enjoy.

TARO – THE PRESENT

THE PRESENT
WRITTEN BY LINDSEY KESEL

THE DAYS OF PROLIFIC LO‘I KALO in Hawai‘i are a distant memory, dwindling from 35,000 acres grown across the Hawaiian Islands at the crop’s peak to the less than 350 acres currently in production. Hawai‘i Census data shows a loss of half during the seven-year stretch from 2000 to 2017, down from 7 million pounds to just over 3.5 million pounds. Since Hawai‘i eats nearly double the amount it produces, kalo imports from Fiji and other Pacific locales are needed to help fill the gap.

These shrinking numbers don’t faze the fiercely loyal community of kalo growers, activists, advocates, and fans. Despite setbacks, a kalo comeback is being made manifest in countless different ways, thanks to an army of supporters working to reinstate the plant in its rightful place as Hawai‘i’s most vital staple.

POUNDING PROBLEMS

In 2009, the Hawai‘i Department of Health shut down restaurants and independent poi and pa‘i ‘ai makers claiming that traditional preparation methods violated local food and safety laws. The mandates that pa‘i ‘ai and poi be pounded in a commercial kitchen—and that the porous pounding implements be sterilized—starkly infringed on Hawaiian tradition. From a practitioner’s perspective, the papa ku‘i ‘ai (wooden board) and pohaku ku‘i ‘ai (stone pestle) carry the mana (spiritual power) of those who use it, and sterilization is akin to sacrilege.

After tireless rallying and education by founders and allies of the permeative Legalize Pa‘i ‘Ai movement, on May 5, 2011, SB 101 was unanimously passed by the Hawai‘i Senate and House of Representatives. The Pa‘i ‘Ai Bill (aka, Poi Bill) succeeded in providing pa’i ‘ai and poi with their own set of conditions—such as permitting sun bleaching of implements as an alternative to chemical sterilization—free from the narrow restrictions of general health and safety laws.

Not only did SB 101 mean more kalo could be shared and sold among neighbors and local communities, the movement surrounding the bill invigorated interest in learning to prepare poi and pa‘i ‘ai. In Hawaiian immersion hubs like Kamehameha Schools and cultural preservation centers like Kaua‘i Historical Society, opportunities abound for people of all ages wanting to learn how to pound kalo root—and fashion kalo pounding tools—the way Hawaiian ancestors once did.

COOL KALO

Hawai‘i’s cherished root vegetable is enjoying a mainstream renaissance thanks in large part to the Legalize Pa‘i ‘Ai movement. Once reserved for dinner tables, potlucks, and backyard pa‘inas (parties), kalo as an ingredient or stand-alone dish can now be seen everywhere from five-star hotel banquets to late-night club menus. Poi, pa‘i ‘ai, kūlolo (kalo pudding) and lū‘au (cooked kalo leaves) are showing up in donut shops, food trucks, and farm-to-table restaurants— not simply for their unique flavor and versatility, but also because chefs and business owners are responding to the growing demand for a return to Hawaiian roots.

While kalo’s culinary coolness is doing a lot to raise awareness at present, the road from peripheral plant to central staple is still long and winding. Unlike the low-cost, readily available staple of rice, at up to $10 per pound the high cost of store-bought poi and kalo’s more complex cooking requirements remain barriers to regular table integration. For farmers, crop threats including climate change, shrinking farmland as a result of commercial and residential development, and short-term leases make for uncertain kalo-growing futures.

“AS AN ANCESTOR OF THE HAWAIIAN PEOPLE, KALO IS REGARDED AS THE PINNACLE LIFE SOURCE WITH THE ABILITY TO HEAL THE BODY”

KALO KEEPERS

Vast stewardship from multifarious kalo advocacy groups throughout the Hawaiian Islands is helping fuel the mission to restore kalo as a universal food source. Recent initiatives on Maui are battling for streamflow restoration at Nā Wai ‘Ehā—once the largest contiguously cultivated loʻi kalo growing region in Hawaiʻi, diverted after the fall of commercial sugar cane—in hopes of irrigating starter wetland taro farms. Nonprofits like Kumuola Hawaii in Mānoa, O‘ahu offer cultural experiences where visitors can tend to plants and join workshops that make absorbing the rich history behind kalo interactive and fun.

Onipaʻa Nā Hui Kalo, a statewide organization of kalo farmers, has been uniting community volunteers around the restoration of lo‘i kalo for more than two decades, with thriving projects on every island except Kāho‘olawe. In Maui’s Haleakalā National Park, Kipahulu `Ohana spearheads ongoing restoration of ancient wetland lo`i. At University of Hawaii at Mānoa (UH), the students of Hawai‘inuiakea School of Hawaiian Knowledge run Ka Papa Lo‘i ‘o Kānewai, a one-acre kalo farm that hosts 25,000 volunteers annually for educational outreach. Ho‘okua‘āina on O‘ahu’s east side teaches at-risk youth life skills and delivers Hawaiian cultural values-based coaching through kalo cultivation.

STRAIN SECURITY

Though Hawaiian kalo varieties once numbered in the several hundred, with distinct strains featuring a full spectrum of flavor, textures, and colors, 90 percent of commercial kalo here is dominated by a single strain—the muted purple Maui lehua hybrid. With this devastating loss of diversity, and modern mono-cropping practices, kalo is becoming increasingly vulnerable to disease, pests, weather, and other crop disruption forces.

Fortunately, the integrity of kalo is a high priority for many local policymakers. In 2009, the Hawai‘i State Legislature enacted SB-1099, a bill that protects the plant’s genetic biodiversity by prohibiting “the development, testing, propagation, release, importation, planting, or growing of genetically modified kalo” across the state. The thoughtful wording of SB-1099 highlights the undeniable importance of kalo as a cultural touchstone:

“Kalo intrinsically embodies the interdependency of the past, the present, and the future, the essence of procreation and regeneration, as the foundation of any sustainable practice. Kalo expresses the spiritual and physical well-being of not only the kanaka maoli (Native Hawaiian) and their heritage, but also symbolizes the environmental, social, and cultural values important to the State.”

SPIRIT FOOD

As an ancestor of the Hawaiian people, kalo is regarded as the pinnacle life source with the ability to heal the body. Its roots, leaves, and stem are extremely adaptable in cooking: With the application of modern culinary techniques and technology, kalo inspires all kinds of creative uses, from chips and pancakes to veggie burgers, curries, desserts, and even bubble teas.

In addition to the multitude of nutrients it provides as a superfood, kalo is an alkali-producing food with a low glycemic index that serves to balance the body’s pH factor, assisting in both the prevention and treatment of disease. Kalo as medicine is playing a role in combating chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Along with other traditional Hawaiian diet staples of breadfruit, sweet potatoes, fruit, and fish, the addition of kalo can spark life-changing rejuvenation in people with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and low blood sugar.

Kalo remains an enduring link tethering the Hawai‘i of today to a time when Hawaiians didn’t just eat the vegetable for energy, but also to nourish their spirits and stay connected with the ‘aina (land) and ‘aumakua (ancestors). As the push to revive kalo through new farms—and even backyard gardens—

marches on, the hope is that planting and harvesting kalo feeds the reciprocal relationship between man and earth, and consuming it sustains life and completes the cycle.

Many who enjoy kalo in its various forms today find the Hawaiian proverb “oi no i kalo m‘oa” to be truthful. Literally translated as, “one can eat cooked taro,” the sentiment celebrates the traditional belief that when poi is served, worry and conflict has no place at the table: “The work is done; one can sit at ease and enjoy himself.” [ eHI ]

TARO – THE FUTURE

THE FUTURE
WRITTEN BY LAUREN RUOTOLO

KALO MAY HAVE DWINDLED, but it never disappeared from the islands. The question remains— will we continue to see kalo, a highly revered staple crop, decline? Or will we collectively lift kalo back into the spotlight of our lives where it deserves to be? The loss of kalo, due to eating habits and increased cost of the starch per pound, is akin to a loss of cultural identity in Hawai‘i. To support the future of kalo, we must consider the current and future patterns of our entire food system. We are at a major crossroads within science, education, and consumerism and our choices within the food chain will have a ripple effect for generations to come. To say the future of food is high-tech, genetically-modified, imported, fast, and processed speaks volumes about the values of the food system we’re building for future generations. As consumers, we can either continue to ride the wave of convenience by buying imported, packaged foods, or we can put in the work as a collective that is needed to create resilience. The work to radically change current consumption patterns will take many hands.

The local food movement is the leading edge of a change that ultimately will transform the Hawaiian food system from imported to sustainable and local. It will take education, joint community efforts, and a willingness to participate.

DEEP-ROOTED HERITAGE

The sustained success of kalo won’t happen without fundamental changes to the industry. According to many Hawaiians, the hope for kalo remains with the sentiment that it is our kuleana (responsibility) to maintain and protect the gifts of kalo and Hawaiian knowledge of growing and cooking it for the benefit of future generations. These values symbolize the spiritual and physical well-being of not only the kanaka maoli (Native Hawaiians) and their heritage, but also the environmental, social, and cultural values important to Hawai‘i.

The future of kalo lies in our ability to build these values into the places where we consume and purchase food. With this in mind, the future needs to support local farmers, access to land for farming, garden education in our schools, and community infrastructures such as food hubs and cultural resource centers. If we can restore Hawaiian farming of kalo around the islands, we can bring back health to the land, people, and communities. The plant alone is amazingly versatile, nutritious, and delicious in many forms. These innovations can point to a different kind of future—a future that includes an abundance of locally grown food embedded within the Hawaiian values of health and integrity for Hawai‘i’s people and land.

CULTIVATING STEWARDSHIP

Biodiversity was once the key to kalo longevity through naturally and selectively bred Hawaiian varieties that were cultivated for generations. This important indigenous food crop depends on humans to keep it alive and thriving. We need to do what we can to keep kalo around for the next generation to inherit the benefits of this traditional and culturally significant food. Safeguarding the kalo collection comes with many challenges, and modern threats are more manageable with proper intervention and good horticultural practices.

Sharing information through creating a network of farmers, researchers, and gardeners could prove helpful in documenting cultivar characteristics, best-growing conditions, preferred growing sites, pest and disease resistance, and productivity under a range of conditions, sites, and growing practices. Additionally, we could establish huli (mature kalo) banks with clean (disease-free) plant stock on each island to revitalize lo‘i kalo diversity. Through prevalent techniques that are environmentally and culturally aligned, the future can include collaboration among science and education institutes that are based on a foundation of respect for plants, culture, and people. This would also include thoughtfully engaging with communities to understand what, specifically, is needed to proactively protect and steward kalo and other traditional crops. Impactful programs can emerge to strengthen the ongoing restoration of kalo, agricultural landscapes, and Hawai‘i’s food system.

SERVING THE FUTURE

To perpetuate the ancient traditions around kalo production, it will take hands-on education to encourage the next generation of farmers. We can no longer separate ‘ai pono (healthful eating) from the productivity of our ‘aina; we must solidify this relationship. In valuing our local food system, we need to redefine farming as not a low-class job to avoid, but as a viable career. Educators must begin to highlight kalo farming as what it is—holistic, fun, and nurturing. Contemporary Hawaiian culture-based charter schools are leading the way, as farming has been painfully absent from local public education for the last century. A resurgence of career technical education pathways like agriculture and culinary classes that feature kalo through experiential elements is needed. Schools could even feature their own dry or wetland lo’i kalo to explore not just agriculture, but history and culture as well.

The more opportunities there are in getting students’ feet wet in the lo‘i or getting their hands emerged in the soil, the more youth will want to step into the future by connecting with the past. Imagine agriculture teachers sharing newly harvested kalo plants with students after teaching them how to build a proper lo‘i kalo, or culinary teachers sharing creative kalo gnocchi and pa’i ‘ai pizza recipes alongside traditional recipes like laulau and luau stew. By nurturing the connection between the land, food, and our youth, we can restore the health of both the ‘aina and the families who inhabit it.

COLLECTIVE RESURGENCE

It is through producing one’s own food and feeding others that people can thrive. The technologies developed by Native Hawaiians not only allow for sustainable and prolific food production, but also encourage the growth of cooperative community relationships. Envision a future where individuals come together to help strengthen, contribute to, and benefit from resilience within our food system.

Imagine a regional food hub that holds community poi, pa’i ‘ai, or laulau days where folks can share labor and rewards with their neighbors. A place where you can share tools, seeds, crops, and other resources. A center that shares family-based cultural experiences based on Hawaiian traditions, like how to hand-carve a papa ku‘i ‘ai (wooden poi board) and a pohaku ku‘i ‘ai (stone pestle) with natural materials gathered from the land. A communal kitchen where you can share rituals of cooking and eating with your neighbors. Activities like these can draw Hawaiian communities closer by celebrating kalo for all it was and continues to be for our island.

ROOTED IN THE FUTURE

Education, better consumerism practices, and community infrastructure can help propel kalo cultivation far into the future to ensure a vibrant internal and external market. Instead of local families quietly holding the burden of buying local poi at $10 to $15 per pound, they can participate in traditional practices to preserve a culture. The market also rests on our ability to grant tourists their desire for an authentic Hawaiian cultural experience through sampling kalo products.

As we plant more of this ancient dietary staple and work to align education, community infrastructure, and our markets, greater attention to indigenous thought and relationship with kalo will grow. Let us celebrate this culinary tradition to sustain the kalo industry far into the future. [ eHI ]

HO’OMOE WAI KĀHI KE KĀO’O

LET’S ALL TRAVEL TOGETHER LIKE WATER FLOWING IN ONE DIRECTION

TARO – THE HISTORY

PHOTO CREDIT: DRY LAND TARO FARMER, BOBBY PAHIA IN WAIKAPŪ AT HOALOHA FARMS

THE PAST
THE HISTORY OF KALO: THE FACTS, FOLKLORE, AND DOWNFALL OF HAWAII’S KALO
WRITTEN BY SARAH SCHULTZ

BEST KNOWN FOR ITS STARRING ROLE in poi, the popular (sometimes polarizing) Hawaiian dish, kalo, was a staple starch in the precontact diet of Hawaiians and has been grown across the archipelago for a millennia. But kalo, also known as taro, is so much more than a complex carbohydrate: Specific varieties were reserved for royalty or ceremoniously offered to the gods, and it‘s integral to the genesis story of the Hawaiian people. To truly understand Hawaiis reverence for this root vegetable, let‘s dig a little deeper, shall we? 

TALES AS OLD AS TIME

Radiocarbon data unearthed within the last decade puts Polynesian settlers in Hawaii sometime between 1000–1200 AD. Their voyage spanned across the uncharted waters of the Pacific, aboard archaic canoes. The stars, trade winds, and sea swells were their only maps. Be it by luck, advanced algorithms, or some sort of divine intervention, paradise was found. 

With them came the flora and fauna that had sustained their people for generations prior. The roots, cuttings, and seeds were later coined as “canoe crops,” noting their wildly adventurous journey. Archaeological evidence indicates that kalo, banana, breadfruit, coconut, mountain apple, sugarcane, and yam were among these foods. They became the very heart and soul of Hawaiian culture, but kalo is arguably the most sacred, the most storied. 

Early texts describe the creation of the islands as a partnership between Wakea (sky father) and Papa (earth mother); who also gave birth to the beautiful goddess Ho‘ohokalani. Through royal ancestral union, or ni‘aupi‘o, Wakea and Ho‘ohokalani conceived a child, a son. He did not survive but was named Hāloa, or long breath. From his resting place rose the first kalo plant. Their second son, born healthy and strong, is said to be the first human Hawaiian. The Hawaiian word for family, ‘ohana stems from the word ‘ohā, the bud of the kalo root. Herein lies the unrivaled kinship that Hawaiians had— and still have—with both kalo and the land. 

HAWAII‘S PRIDE AND POI

Not too far a departure from Ireland‘s potato or the mainland‘s corn, kalo’s starchy root was always on the menu, regardless of age or class. (More colorful varieties and tastier pois were grown or reserved specifically for royalty, or ali‘i.) In addition to its energy-sustaining carbohydrate content, kalo is packed with potassium, fiber, calcium, and iron. When properly cooked, every part of the plant can be eaten. 

The cooked root, or corm, was commonly hand-pounded into a pulp, or pa ‘i‘ ai. The pulp was saturated with water and the fibers were strained, then the mixture was eaten fresh or left to ferment for days. Voila—the purple-gray paste known and loved as poi. 

E KANU I KA HULI OI HA‘ULE KA UA

PLANT KALO STALKS WHEN IT RAINS

Before the modern marvel that is refrigeration, a nutrient-dense food with an extended shelf life was something of a godsend. The pudding-like consistency and wealth of health benefits made it especially important for infants and the elderly. Early Hawaiians did not traditionally use utensils; poi was characterized as one-, two-, or three-finger, denoting how many you needed to scoop up a mouthful, and they could allegedly eat up to 15 pounds of poi daily.

Beyond its place at the table, kalo was used in medicine and ritual. The stalk could zap the sting from insect bites and reduce fever, while thick (think one-finger) poi was applied as a topical remedy. Rain water caught in the leaves of the ‘apuwai variety was considered sacred and aided in spiritual healing.

PUTTING DOWN ROOTS

It can be reasoned that for a population of about 400,000 ancient Hawaiians, tens of thousands of acres were utilized to sustain kalo as a principle food source. The early settlers would have likely confined production to the wet, windward sides of the islands,but as the population spread out, they adapted to new natural resources and growing conditions. 

Wetland kalo was first planted near river mouths and marshes, then eventually in flooded fields known as lo‘i. This ingenious irrigation system followed the land‘s natural contours and the laws of gravity; fresh water was diverted down man-made canals that were reinforced by rocks to the uppermost lo‘i. The water flowed down from patch to patch, finally returning to the stream. The construction and cultivation of kalo lo‘i was back-breaking, muddy work, but it did yield a higher-caliber poi than its upland cousins.

While not all corms are created equal, farming in non-irrigated upland areas was just as important as lo‘i cultivation. Upland, or dryland, kalo thrived in regions with rich, mulched soils and reliable rainfall. These tougher corms could take up to a year to mature and became ‘table kalo,‘ cut and cooked into pieces like a potato.

For centuries, these sustainable traditions were upheld under the code of mālama ʻāina, or caring for the land. Kalo was the connection to everything—earth, ‘ohana, and the divine13—but it was with the fateful arrival of European settlers that this deep-rooted bond began to loosen. 

GROWING PAINS

As with the totality of Hawaiian culture, kalo‘s lineage can be traced closely against immigration patterns. Polynesian settlers brought Hawaiian kalo to life; with the arrival of Europeans in the late 1700s, it went through its first major decline. Europeans lacked both a palate for poi and a regard for kalo‘s sacredness. The island‘s population and plant life were struck with new diseases brought from the west, reducing the supply and demand for kalo. 

An influx of Asian migrants in the mid 1800s soon took the reins on kalo farming and poi production. The ancient lo‘i systems began to mirror the design of rice paddies, and at the very start of the 1900s, Chinese farmers were growing 50% of the total kalo crop and mass-producing 80% of all poi. With this, the art of lo‘i and handcrafted poi was pushed even further out of sight. As demand for kalo continued to dwindle, many of those paddies made the final switch to rice production. An estimated 1,280 acres were being used for kalo production in 1900; rice occupied almost eight times that acreage by 1907.

In the 1930s, the University of Hawai‘i‘s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources undertook a massive research project to collect, identify, and give safe haven to heirloom Hawaiian kalo varieties before they became merely a part of the past. It‘s believed that there were once 150-175 unique kalo plants in Hawaii, of which 84 were found and preserved during this effort. In the past three decades, a handful of those have been lost at the hands of natural disasters and budget cuts.

Proverbs are quite simple by nature, but sage in wisdom. Still waters run deep. Every cloud has a silver lining. E kanu i ka huli oi ha‘ule ka ua, meaning, ‘plant kalo stalks when it rains‘, is an old Hawaiian adage that says do the work when you‘re afforded an opportunity. Today, we‘re at yet another crossroads in kalo‘s history. This plant is woven into the fabric of Hawaiian culture, the thread that binds people to their land and ancestral roots. The opportunity to preserve the past, navigate the present, and fight for kalo‘s future is here. Let‘s get to work. [ eHI ]

7TH ANNUAL HAWAI‘I FARM GUIDE – SPRING 2020

Letter Of Aloha – Spring 2020

SPRINGTIME IS MY FAVORITE TIME OF YEAR. In Hawai’i the weather starts to warm up just a bit, and – depending on what part of the island you reside on – the rain begins to ease. We are fortunate to have a nearly year-round growing season, but make no mistake, springtime is special. What is your favorite season? And why? Send me an email and share your thoughts… I am listening.

ADVISORY COMMITTEE

edible Hawaiian Islands magazine published our first issue in 2003 and I took over the helm in 2013. For the most part, I don my farm boots and travel to each island seeking people whose passions, projects, and stories align with the edible Hawaiian Islands values and give their voices a platform within our pages. Beginning with this issue, however, I’m calling on you, our loyal readers and leaders in our community, to join our first ever statewide advisory group. Simply send us an email at info@ediblehi.com and ask for more information. We are seeking a small group of passionate individuals who are willing to check in with us once a month to share what’s fresh, what’s new and what’s happening in their community. The reward? Becoming a part of something larger and gaining more knowledge about what our local statewide food-scene has to offer.

7TH ANNUAL STATEWIDE HAWAI’I FARM DAY – SATURDAY MAY 16, 2020

Let’s gather and support: join us for the seventh consecutive year, on the third Saturday of May, to celebrate Hawai’i Farm Day. We ask you to SHOP at a farmers’ market, VISIT a farm, TAKE a farm tour, THANK a farmer and then SHARE your experience through social media by using the hashtag #EHIFARMDAY20. This year we are kicking it up a notch…check out the story on page 50 and see how you can participate.

SUBSCRIBE 

Finally, for everyone who is reading this and has professed a LOVE of edible Hawaiian Islands magazine: we need you to become a subscriber. No shame here – we need the readership, we need the financial support, and we want to continue to provide and share this publication. We also need to support our advertisers. If edible Hawaiian Islands has won your heart, or even just piqued your interest, we encourage you to give back to this community resource by becoming a subscriber today.

See you at the farmers’ market!

Dania Novack Katz