I grew up on Oahu in the ‘90s. My grandpa taught me to eat poi with sugar mixed into it, balancing out the sourness that would increase with every passing day. (“Do you prefer fresh poi, day-old poi or two-day-old poi?” is a question you may get with some frequency in Hawai’i. The older the poi, the sourer it gets. I’ve since learnt that poi is more delicious without sugar.)
We bought poi in plastic bags at Foodland – Taro Brand Poi – for family gatherings. We picked up bundles of lau lau and squid lu’au, a thick, savoury stew made from taro leaves, at okazuyas (casual lunch spots) and plate lunch joints, served in white Styrofoam bowls. And that was the extent to my family’s consumption of taro. A handful of traditional dishes, served in non-biodegradable containers.
A couple decades later and I, along with many other chefs of my generation, some from Hawai’i, have a few people to thank for moving far beyond the dearth of taro in our lives. The HFWF, working with Hawai’i Executive Collaborative and Kamehameha schools, is pushing the gospel of kalo far beyond expectations and beyond the ocean that borders our islands. As part of this year’s HFWF, there was a Kalo Recipe Contest for HFWF chefs to create an original dish using kalo as one of the featured ingredients – so no poi, lau lau, or squid lu’au.
One of the delicious kalo creations at the Hawai’i Food and Wine Festival
I spoke with Denise Yamaguchi, the founder and CEO of the Hawai’i Food and Wine Festival about their new initiative, Kalo – Nourishing Hawai’i and Sharing It with the World.
Are any restaurants and chefs on the mainland currently using Hawaiian kalo?
“Currently, I do not know of any restaurants or chefs currently serving Hawaiian kalo on their regular menu. This Kalo programme was developed to create opportunities for world-class chefs to learn from our farmers about kalo and have them commit to putting Hawaiian kalo on their menus in their restaurants. A few of the chefs who participated in the kalo recipe contest, like Michael Ginor of Restaurant Lola, have run their kalo dishes as specials on their menus with great feedback and are excited about opportunities to put Hawaiian kalo on their menu.”
What are the long-term goals of exporting Hawaiian kalo?
“Recently, there has been a resurgence of families and small kalo farms emerging across the state. While Hawai’i is still unable to produce enough kalo for the current local demand, we anticipate a time in the future where supply will exceed demand. The long-term goal is for Hawaiian kalo to have markets outside of Hawai’i so that price will remain competitive, and our farmers can continue to be profitable. The kalo plant has a multitude of uses and our initiative is aimed highlighting the whole plant. The kalo (corm) can be pounded into a paste-like texture called poi, or used to make sweet desserts, while lau (leaves) can be cooked and steamed to make lūʻau stew or laulau. We often look only at the corm, but the leaves are also delicious, nutritious, and versatile in preparation. The harvest cycle for the lau is 50% faster, and exportable in fresh and frozen forms. We hope that lau will also be exported for various preparations.”
What do you hope exported taro will look like?
“Currently, Hawaiian kalo is generally cooked and exported in chunks either fresh or frozen. The leaves are exported fresh or frozen. Because raw and uncooked kalo and lau contains a bitter-tasting compound called calcium oxalate that causes itching on the skin, throat and mouth if consumed raw, it will be better to have kalo and lau cleaned and cooked for export.”
What do you hope the consumption and cultivation of kalo will look like 25 years from now?
“We hope that cultivation and consumption of kalo and luʻau will be much greater than it is today - both in Hawai’i and around the world. As a main staple of the Hawaiian diet pre-contact, the native Hawaiian people once thrived on Hawaiian kalo. Today, it is key to the restoration of a once thriving food system that connects the native Hawaiian people to their ‘āina (land), culture, health and community. If we are to grow consumption and demand of Hawaiian kalo beyond our shores, we not only help our kalo farmers, but help all of Hawai’i and its people in many ways.”
Do you think farmland is being ‘reclaimed’ through the cultivation of kalo? After years of sugarcane, pineapple, and rice farming?
“Because of the connection between Hawaiian kalo and cultural identity, there has been much more interest by the younger generations in farming kalo. Kalo has a deep history and cultural significance to the Hawaiian people as well. In the Hawaiian culture, kalo is the source of life. A stillborn child became a kalo plant and his sibling became the first Hawaiian. Metaphorically, the kalo and land are the older siblings to the Hawaiian people. This symbiotic relationship is a reminder of what mālama ʻāina, to care for the land, means. The movement to reclaim and regain a connection to cultural identity has also been driven by the recognition of ingenuity and knowledge that existed among the ancient Hawaiian people more than 800 years ago to cultivate and connect with the land. Growing kalo and inspiring future kalo farmers not only helps Hawai’i remain connected to the past but also moves the state into a food sovereign and food secure future.”
A bright future for kalo?
The Hawai’i Food and Wine Festival has come a long way to promote Hawai’i’s food, produce, chefs, and restaurants and it is difficult to overstate how much its work has changed the landscape of Hawai’i’s food scene, ushering it onto a world stage and bringing in talent from beyond the islands to come and care about our ancient foodways.
Even for chefs familiar with cooking and eating kalo, it has been eye-opening to see it manipulated into non-traditional foods. The chef finalists of the Kalo Recipe Contest —Bonny Davis, Ben Ford, Michael Ginor, Dean Max and Jason Peel—are now working to adapt their original recipes and work collaboratively to create a five-course, wine-paired dinner featuring kalo at the Twelfth Annual Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival.
The kalo initiative indicates that there’s still a long way to go before kalo re-takes its reign as Hawai’i’s staple starch but it will, and hopefully, travel far beyond our island shores.