Sky Barnhart | Photography by Jason Moore | Courtesy of Sky Barnhart
“Ready for ku‘i [ready to pound]?” Adelaide Kaiwi Kuamu Sylva asks expectantly. A slender Hawaiian woman in a blue dress, she wears her 92 years gracefully, a silk flower pinned in her silvery hair, her clear brown eyes taking in the family assembled around the picnic table in her Lahaina carport.
“Yes, Mama,” says her daughter June. She helps Adelaide to stand at one end of the table, facing a wooden board on which are piled chunks of soft, boiled kalo (taro). With both hands, Adelaide grasps the pohaku ku‘i ‘ai, the heavy stone pounder, lifts it high, and brings it down onto the sturdy papa ku‘i ‘ai, the poi board that was once her grandfather’s. “Ku‘i i ka poi, this is the way we pound the poi!” she sings gaily, as kalo flecks fly.
Rhythmically, Adelaide scoops water out of a bowl and slaps it onto the base of the poi pounder, briskly scraping the mashed kalo from the board’s raised sides with one sure hand. As she continues to pound, the purple paste gets smoother and shinier.
“It smells good, the poi,” says her elder daughter, Mary Bud. Everyone leans in for a fresh, earthy whiff.
June and Mary Bud grew up watching their father, Frank Ho‘oululahui Sylva, pound kalo at their home in Olowalu. Frank is one of the last people alive who can helu (recite) the old place names of West Maui. Adelaide is the last manaleo, Native Hawaiian speaker, of Olowalu. She is known for her skill at making poi palaoa (pounded kalo combined with flour to stretch the yield) and poi ‘ulu (poi and pounded breadfruit).
“We Hawaiians, we live on the poi,” Adelaide says. “We like our poi. It’s healthy; make your bones strong. That’s why Hawaiian boys get big muscles!”
Kalo is low in fat, high in vitamin A, and abounds in complex carbohydrates, making it easy to digest for even the most delicate stomachs. Brought to Hawai‘i by migrating Polynesians, it was a fundamental food of the ancient Hawaiian diet.
Hawaiians revered the plant for its mana, or life force. The cultivation of kalo was associated with the god Kane, giver of life, provider of water and sun. Only men were allowed to plant, harvest and pound kalo.
According to the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation chant, kalo is the elder brother of the Hawaiian race. Haloanakalaukapalili was the first-born son of the union between the god Wakea (Sky Father) and Ho‘ohokukalani, Wakea’s youngest daughter with Papa (Earth Mother). The baby was stillborn, and from his grave grew the first kalo plant. Wakea and Ho‘ohokukalani had a second, healthy child who was named Haloa (meaning “long breath”). Named after his elder brother, Haloa was the first Hawaiian.
In the Hawaiian ‘ohana (family), older siblings take care of younger. Thus, kalo, the elder brother, nourishes the Hawaiian people, just as they nurture the plant.
In the 1800s, if you looked out from ‘Iao Valley, you would see a vast green sweep of kalo growing in lo‘i (irrigated terraces) from Waihe‘e to Waikapu. Known as Na Wai ‘Eha, the Four Waters, this was once the largest kalo-growing region in Hawai‘i, with over 5,000 lo‘i kalo counted during the time of the Great Mahele, the division of Hawaiian lands that occurred in 1848.
Out of the approximately 1,800 lo‘i kalo counted in Waikapu at that time, there are only three today—and they are all on one family’s kuleana land (property granted to native tenants) in Waikapu.
As a child, Hokuao Pellegrino used to stumble over rock walls and the remains of ancient housesites when he played outside in the tangled fields. One day about 10 years ago, while exploring in Waikapu Valley, he found an old ‘auwai (irrigation canal) once used to supply water to the many ancient lo‘i. There among the weeds, he found two varieties of kalo still growing. “I picked one with a pure black stalk (mana ‘ele‘ele) and one that was the brightest reddish-pink (kumu ‘ula‘ula), and I took them home and planted them,” he says.
In doing so, he planted the seed of a lifelong ambition. The now 28-year-old Hokuao, his father, Victor, and mother, Wallette, are the caretakers of one of Na Wai ‘Eha’s few restored kalo farms: Noho‘ana (meaning “way of life”). The two varieties Hokuao brought down from the valley have flourished as the most prolific of the 45 varieties now on the farm.
Farming kalo was once a way of life for 25 percent of the population of ancient Hawai‘i; today, kalo is farmed by less than 1 percent of the state’s population. It’s endless, backbreaking work, as Hokuao can attest, but he finds it ultimately fulfilling.
“When I get into the lo’i, I feel a deeper connection with my ancestors who worked very hard to feed their families every day,” he says. “It’s a very humbling experience.”
The Pellegrinos regularly bring in school groups and others who help to restore, plant and harvest the kalo. “We really wouldn’t have come as far as we are without the support of Waikapu community,” Hokuao explains. “There’s a Hawaiian saying: ‘Those who have no help have small lo‘i.’ One person can’t do it unless people help each other.”
Although the Sylvas no longer grow their own kalo, they continue the traditional methods of preparation. And judging from the steady flow of observers in the carport during Adelaide’s kalo-pounding demonstration, the interest level is high.
The “best” poi is ultimately a matter of personal preference. How do you like your poi? Thick or thin? Lehua or ‘ele‘ele? Sweet or sour?
Adelaide likes hers three days old: sour. June likes hers fresh. Another visitor to the carport, Pua Lalea, says she likes to put poi in muffin tins in the freezer, “then pop them out and put them in the microwave.”
Many Hawaiian babies are raised on the traditional staple. “You have to start from small to get them used to it; otherwise, they don’t like,” Mary Bud says. “You can eat it with anything: canned salmon and sardines, poi with limu [seaweed]—that’s a meal in itself!”
The ideal is miki poi: two-finger. One finger (super-thick): “Only for professionals,” the Sylvas say. Three-finger (runny): “You gotta be shame.” Serve it pu‘upu‘u, or lumpy, and you insult your guests.
The group in the carport is momentarily transfixed by the emergence of Frank, who at 95, is “close to Paradise,” Adelaide says with a sweet smile. He is wheeled to the head of the table, where like a man in a dream, he grasps the heavy pohaku ku‘i ‘ai with arms knotted like wiliwili branches, and pounds vigorously, scraping the sides, calling for more water.
Then, it’s over and he pushes away from the table, and they clean his hands. But the moment has cast a spell on everyone at the table, as though they had watched him, young and lean again, pounding his family’s food with strong, sure strokes at the farm in Olowalu.
“Poi represents the ancestors,” says Hailama Farden, a professor of Hawaiian language at Kamehameha School, Kapalama. “The poi is traditionally served in an ‘umeke, a communal bowl with a cover. When the lid is taken off, there’s no more grumbling at the family table”—the spirit of Haloa, ancestor of the Hawaiian people, is present.As Hawaiian culture and language continue their steady resurgence begun in the 1970s, an awareness of the importance of kalo is reemerging as well, strengthened by the efforts of Noho‘ana Farm and other family farms that involve the community in their success.
For the Pellegrinos, culture and raising kalo go hand-in-hand. “The main thing is trying to incorporate more of the kuana‘ike Hawai‘i (Hawaiian perspective) in the educational experience that we give,” Hokuao says. “It’s not just the planting and the harvesting, but we talk about the water [essential to productive lo‘i], traditional farming practices, Hawaiian terminology, the chants.”
Now that the sugar industry’s thirsty acres of cane are slowly fading from the Hawaiian landscape, families throughout the islands are fighting for long-diverted water to be returned to the lo‘i. For kalo to again reign in the valleys, it must be nurtured by the interest and understanding of the younger generation—an interest fueled by exposure.
“The first time we had a group up here, just to see a river flowing and taro patches up in Waikapu was exciting for them,” says Victor Pellegrino. “People don’t associate Waikapu with a taro-growing region, yet if you were to have gone up just 100 years ago, the valley would have been full.”
Hokuao says he sees increased interest in kalo farming among his peers. “A good 10 or 15 years ago, if you were to go to a kalo patch, the average farmer would be in their 60s or 70s,” Hokuao says. “Now you see the younger generation coming out . . . they’re starting to see the value of returning to the ‘aina [land].”
From its ‘oha, or offshoots, the kalo plant is reborn, generation after generation—replenishing the lineage that began with the elder brother of the Hawaiian people.
Recipes for Poi
All kalo should be thoroughly cooked to dissolve calcium-oxalate crystals, which can irritate the mouth if eaten raw.
Boil kalo corms, scrape off peel with spoon, and mash while still warm. Add water bit by bit. Pound ‘til smooth.
Poi for Babies
Add a little milk to poi, stir it up, and feed the baby with a spoon.
• 1 cup milk
• 1/4 cup poi, or to taste
• Sugar to taste
• Cinnamon and nutmeg to taste
Simply beat the mix with a fork and serve.
Taro chips have become very popular. And expensive! Here is one recipe for them.
Boil whole unpeeled taro till cooked through. Chill. Then slice as thin as possible. Fry in hot oil until crisp (about 10 minutes). Use frying pan or deep fryer. Drain on cake rack using absorbent paper or newspaper, and sprinkle with salt or garlic salt.
—D. Leilehua Yuen
of Kau Kau Kitchen