In a Hawaiian genesis story, a stillborn baby’s grave site grows the first taro plant, which feeds his younger brother, the first Hawaiian. The tale is at the root of the culture’s reverence for taro, called kalo in Hawaiian.
» Where: Haleiwa Farmers Market, at Kamehameha Highway and Leong Bypass near Haleiwa Beach Park
Recipe contest (call or e-mail for details), poi-pounding demonstration, talk story with North Shore kupuna, taro farm tours, dishes by Hawaii chefs, makahiki activities and entertainment. Plus, taro submissions to break the Guinness world record (call or e-mail for details).
"Poi and family are one and the same," says Aunty Betty Jenkins, a North Shore kupuna who is one of the guiding forces behind Haleiwa Farmers Market’s taro festival on Sunday. "Kalo connects us to all Hawaiians, to all of our neighborhood, to all community. It’s very spiritual."
A new generation is now standing alongside elders like Jenkins to perpetuate taro’s cultural relevance. For Daniel Anthony of the organization Mana Ai, that effort centers on eating. "First and foremost, Mana Ai promotes the eating of taro in any way, shape or form," Anthony, 32, says.
But Anthony is particularly focused on paiai: pounded taro corm that is the essence of poi before water is added. Paiai is a thick, elastic, versatile food that, wrapped in ti leaf, "keeps almost indefinitely," he says.
Key to paiai’s longevity is that it grows lactobacillus, bacteria friendly to the human intestinal flora. Lactobacillus is present in yogurt, kim chee, beer and sauerkraut.
At Downtown @ the HiSAM restaurant, chef de cuisine Hoku Kupihea buys paiai weekly from Anthony and tries to create new paiai dishes each week. "I want to be versatile like the Hawaiians were, and we have a wider range of ingredients than they did."
Kupihea has prepared paiai seared in Naked Cow Dairy butter and seasoned with salt and pepper, then paired with Sumida watercress, Hauula tomatoes and Maui onion. He’s also served it as part of a variation of the "spud burger," seared and stacked on a bun with Kuahiwi Ranch beef, Nalo Farms bib lettuce and Kamuela tomato.
An ulu (breadfruit) paiai was turned into a flat bread.
"Customers were asking what that nuttiness at the end was from," says the chef. "It was the paiai."
Anthony is something of a paiai chef himself. He makes everything from pizza dough and beef stew dumplings to paiai poke and "sashimi." He grates paiai like cheese over chili and has stretched it out 30 inches long to serve and slice as an accompanying starch to ribs.
Because paiai doesn’t spoil, it was the foodstuff ancient Polynesian voyagers took on journeys. "It’s great for getting lost in the middle of the ocean," Anthony says.
Taro itself is a good source of potassium, magnesium and fiber. It is also gluten-free and nonallergenic, which is why nutritionists often recommend it as a first solid food for babies.
The festival will feature some of the more than 150 varieties of taro grown in gardens and farms in Hawaii.
"Most are from older Hawaiian varieties, but a number of them are imported and some are new, conventionally bred varieties," says Jim Hollyer, farm food safety coach at the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.
While solid figures aren’t available for pre-Western-contact taro acreage in Hawaii, breaking research on ancient Hawaiian farming indicates that as much as 45,960 acres were devoted to taro. By the mid-19th century, acreage began declining, in part because land was diverted to rice farming or housing. Also, plantations acquired rights to the water that had fed loi, the flooded terraces in which much of taro is grown.
According to the Hawaii Agricultural Statistics Service, 110 taro farms occupied 445 acres of land in the state last year.
Though the decline has been dramatic, there is a movement today to expand taro acreage and return to traditional farming methods.
Juanita Kawamoto, manager for the community farm project Mahuahua Ai o Hoi, run by the nonprofit organization Kako’o ‘Oiwi, says that in returning to past practices, farmers promote sustainability and address environmental issues.
"Traditional Hawaiian taro farming is an affirmation of organic Western farming," she says.
Mahuahua Ai o Hoi’s loi is in the Heeia marshland that borders Kahekili and Kamehameha highways. The presence of the loi helps mitigate flooding and the movement of sediment into Kaneohe Bay. Sediment had been killing the reef after the land was developed for housing and highways.
"If we can restore Hawaiian farming of kalo around the islands, we can bring back health to the ocean and the community. The food alone would be amazing," Kawamoto says.
The idea for the taro festival began with Pamela Boyar and Annie Suite, who run and own the Haleiwa and Hawaii Kai farmers markets. Boyar has been involved in agriculture for 30 years and owned one of the top five farmers markets on the mainland. Since moving to the isles, the duo has received a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to promote specialty crops.
"One of the most important things we want to encourage is more land use on this island for growing taro," Boyar says. "You can make a good living at it, and there’s definitely a future in farming taro — and the traditional ways work."
They say it was easy to select taro as their grant project. "Kalo is the most culturally significant crop grown in the isles," Suite says. "We wanted to learn from people who knew about kalo and share that with others."
Recipes for using the leaves and the corm of the taro plant:
HAWAIIAN CHEF LUAU STEW
Courtesy Juanita Kawamoto
4 pounds boneless chuck or stew meat, preferably local, grass-fed
1 tablespoon Hawaiian salt or kosher sea salt
1/2 tablespoon pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 quarts beef broth
1 quart water
2 stalks celery, diced
3 pounds fingerling potatoes
2 pounds baby carrots
3 pounds Tahitian luau leaf or prepared luau leaf, rinsed and cut into strips (see note)
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 medium Maui, Ewa or other sweet onion, diced
Rub salt and pepper into meat and brown in olive oil in pot. Add broth, water, celery, potatoes and carrots; bring to boil, lower heat to medium and simmer 90 minutes or until liquid is reduced by half.
Add luau leaf, garlic and onions; simmer an additional 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serves 8.
Approximate nutritional information, per serving: 600 calories, 13 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 80 mg cholesterol, greater than 1,600 mg sodium, 55 g carbohydrate, 14 g fiber, 13 g sugar, 68 g protein
Note: Tahitian luau leaf is lower in calcium oxalate, which causes itching in the mouth and throat, than other types. Rinse, cut off stems and slice leaves.
Hauula Green Growers Farm sells Tahitian luau leaves at St. Clement’s Farmer’s Market, 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, corner of Makiki Street and Wilder Avenue; and Hawaii Kai Farmers Market, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays at Kaiser High School.
If using other varieties of luau leaf, prepare as follows to prevent itching:
Rinse leaves, cut off stems, cut leaves into strips and boil in 2 quarts water with 1 tablespoon Hawaiian salt; simmer 10 minutes and drain in colander. Rinse until water is clear and drain again. Fill pot again with 1 quart water and boil, then simmer for 10 more minutes. Drain. Add to stew pot.
CUSTARD POI MOCHI
Kathryn I. Yanagisawa, "HGEA-AFSCME Cooks III Cookbook"
1 cup melted butter or margarine
1-3/4 cups sugar
4 cups mochiko (rice flour)
1 12-ounce can evaporated milk
1 pound fresh poi, undiluted
1 tablespoon baking soda
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 9-by-13-inch pan.
Combine all ingredients and pour into prepared pan. Bake 1 hour.
Cool and cut with plastic knife. Makes 48 pieces.
Approximate nutritional information, per serving: 130 calories, 5 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 30 mg cholesterol, 120 mg sodium, 19 g carbohydrate, no fiber, 8 g sugar, 2 g protein
Nutritional analyses by Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S.