Ways to the Heart: Food and Foodways in Hawai'i

Hawaiian Foods and their Preparation


The pioneer groups of Polynesians who settled in Hawai’i had to depend, at first, upon the plants and animals they found upon their arrival. In time they were able to harvest the crops that grew from the slips, roots, and seeds which they had brought from their homeland. (Look on-line for a Polynesian triangle map to show distances and approximate times of travel from points of origin such as the Marquesas, Tathiti, and Samoa to Hawai’i.) Also, the offspring of their domestic animals could be eaten when they became numerous.

Some of the foods the Polynesians brought with them and which became a regular part of their diet were:




1. Kalo/taro Colocasia esculenta

The Hawaiian people were unique among Polynesians in preferring poi to the unpounded taro corm as their staple food. When mature taro plants were pulled by hand from the pond (lo’i) the leafy tops were cut and set aside to be cooked. The washed unpeeled corms were steamed in the imu (underground oven) until tender. The peeling was scraped off with a shell and once cooled the corms were placed on a board for mashing with a stone pounder. It is believed that over 300 varieties of kalo were developed by the Hawaiians and folklore says that kalo is the older sibling to Haloa, the ancestor to mankind and for this reason was considered sacred.



2. ‘Uala or sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas)

The root of the sweet potato is second in importance to taro as a staple starch food. It can be grown in a variety of localities and matures in three to six months. It requires less work than taro cultivation. Sweet potatoes are eaten after being cooked in the imu. They are mashed and water added to make a poi ‘uala. Also raw sweet potatoes are peeled and grated on a rough stone and mixed with coconut cream to make a pudding. The green leaves at the tips of the vines were cooked and eaten as a vegetable. Though the plant is associated with Kanepua’a (man hog) because his snout nose would burrow into the ground, it is not considered sacred like the taro.



3. ‘Ulu or breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis)

Breadfruit as a starch is of secondary importance since the principal crop ripens from May through September with small numbers at other seasons. The mature fruit is broiled over coals or cooked in the imu. It is eaten in this form or may be pounded into poi ’ulu. Ripe uncooked fruit is mashed, mixed with coconut cream, wrapped in ti leaf bundles and steamed in the imu to make the food pepeie’e ‘ulu. This may be sliced when cold and dried in the sun until an oily film forms. If sunned occasionally to prevent mildew, this food will last from one breadfruit season to the next.


4. Niu or coconut (Cocos nucifera)

The coconut tree has more uses than any other plant known to man. Aside from food the coconut trunk was used as houseposts, small canoes and the base of drums. The leaves were woven into baskets and used for thatching. The husk was used for cooking fuel and for making cordage and the mid-ribs were used for brooms and shrimp snares. A sprouted nut was planted in a hole in which an octopus had been placed. The octopus, it was believed, gave the tree roots a firm grip and spread like its own arms and gave the nuts a round shape like the octopus head. In preparing the coconut for food the husk is removed from the mature nut by forcing it onto the flattened point of a stout stick about a yard long, the base end of which has been securely driven into the ground. The husk is pried off the shell in several sections and saved for fuel or to be made into cordage. The nut is tapped sharply with a stone in one or more places along its circumference to break it into halves. The water is collected in a bowl. The flesh is scraped from the shell and mixed with the water and kneaded or stirred with a large spoon to release the oil. In earlier days a strainer made using the stems of the ‘ahu’awa sedge was dredged through the mixture to remove the gratings and retain the rich coconut cream. Several recipes incorporated the use of this cream.

5. Pua’a, pig or hog

Although pigs were raised in large numbers they were used chiefly in important feasts (‘aha’aina) or as offerings in religious ceremonies. Tabu in eating required that pork be restricted to men and boys 10 or 11 years and older. Small pigs were cooked in the imu. After removing the entrails the body cavities were filled with hot stones, the flesh was salted and the carcass placed on ti or banana leaves which had been laid over more burning stones. Large hogs were dressed, salted and the body cavity filled with hot stones. The hogs were wrapped in coarse kapa (bark cloth) or mats made for and used only for this purpose. The hog was left until the stones cooled. The cooked meat on the inside was cut away and eaten. The outer, underdone parts were cut into pieces and placed in the imu for re-cooking.

6. Chicken, seafoods and gamebirds

Fish and seafoods of all kinds were the primary protein of the masses supplemented with domesticated chickens and wild birds of all kinds.

7. Pa’akai or salt

Salt of excellent quality was gathered along rocky shores or produced in vessels or ponds by evaporation. The Hawaiians were the only Polynesians to use salt in its crystal form in their diet. White salt was used in preparing dry fish and was eaten with certain foods. Meats were salted before cooking, but vegetables usually were not salted. The red brown iron-bearing earth (‘alaea) was added to white salt make pa’akai ‘ula’ula, the attractive red salt served at a l!’au.

Methods of cooking food

a. Kalua—baking and steaming in the imu or underground oven.

b. Ko’ala—broiling unwrapped food over hot coals

c. P!lehu---cooking food in embers and hot ashes

d. L"walu –food wrapped in ti leaves and broiled over coals

e. Hakui --- boiling and puholo is steaming food in a closed calabash using hot stones