Kalo, Poi and the Legends of Hāloa
If you’re a traveler looking to taste authentic Hawaiian culture, you’ll most definitely want to familiarize yourself with taro. In Hawaii, taro is called kalo and, while we’re not any sort of authority on such matters, we feel comfortable describing it as one of the most culturally important plants in Hawaiian history. Let us tell you a bit about it!
Taro was brought to Hawaii around 1,500 years ago, by the Polynesian voyagers that discovered and settled the islands. This tropical, broad-leafed root vegetable is one of the world’s oldest cultivated crops and can be grown in a variety of conditions. Where water is scarce, taro can be grown in upland conditions (usually requiring irrigation), and where water is plentiful– the crop thrives in swampy low-lying paddy fields. Given Kauai’s average of forty to sixty inches of rainfall per year, it’s no surprise that our island lends itself handily to the latter! In Hawaii, paddy-fields of kalo are called lo’i and they’re cultivated year-round.
This versatile and nutritious plant yields purple-hued tubers (called corms) with a unique, starchy richness that can be developed into everything from pie, to burgers, to chips, and perhaps most historically significant, into poi.
Poi is a traditional and sacred Hawaiian staple food that can be described as a pasty, purple puree. It’s made by first cooking kalo corms (traditionally in an imu oven), and then pounding the cooked corms on a wooden board using customary tools and adding water until the desired consistency is reached. The viscosity of the finished product is traditionally classified as “one-finger poi”, “two-finger poi” or “three-finger poi” in reference to how many fingers it takes to scoop up a mouthful. Poi can be consumed fresh or fermented.
According to Hawaiian mythology, poi represents Hāloa, the very first Hawaiian person. Here’s an elementary version of the legend:
At the beginning of time, Wākea (the skyfather) and Ho’ohōkūkalani (the beautiful descendent of the celestial bodies) fell in love and had a child. Sadly, the baby was stillborn, and the deities buried him on the side of the east side of their home – the side of the morning sunrise. A plant with heart-shaped leaves began to grow from that very spot, and lo and behold– it was the very first kalo plant. The gods treasured the plant and named it Haloanakalaukapalili, meaning “the long stem whose leaves tremble in the wind.”
Ho’ohōkūkalani became pregnant again, and this time, gave birth to a healthy baby boy who they named “Hāloa” in honor of his older brother, the kalo plant, Haloanakalaukapalili. They used the starchy root of the kalo to nourish their young son, Hāloa, whose name means “everlasting breath.”
Some important Hawaiian words are derived from the names Hāloa and kalo, including hā and ohana. Hā means “breath” and is half aloha, which means “presence of breath” and is used as a common greeting as well as to express love, compassion, mercy, and peace. The young shoots that sprout from the main taro plant are called oha, which lends itself to ohana, the Hawaiian word for family.
Because poi represents the revered ancestor Hāloa, it’s taboo for anyone to argue while there’s an uncovered bowl of poi at a table. To harbor hard feelings while consuming poi is to disrespect Hāloa, the first Hawaiian person, or kanaka.
A wonderful place to view some of Kauai’s lo’i is from the Hanalei Valley Lookout, which is immediately north and west of the Princeville Center, on the Kuhio Highway. Here you’ll see Hihimanu Mountain towering above a colorful checkerboard of lush and reflective lo’i, in different stages of growth across the Hanalei River Valley floor. This particular property belongs to W.T. Haraguchi Farm Inc., a 100+ year old, 6-generation family farming operation. Visit their food truck in Hanalei on Saturdays and Sundays to try a variety of kalo products (all based on family recipes) such as Poi, Taro Mochi Cake, Zesty Taro Hummus, Hanalei Taro Veggie Burgers, Kulolo, & Taro Smoothies.
Other local brands of fresh poi can be found at most of Kauai’s grocery stores, usually in the refrigerated section near the hummus. We also recommend Braddah Dave’s Taro Burgers, which are island-made and can be found in various grocery store freezer sections, as well as on some local restaurant menus.
Just remember—good vibes only when consuming poi or kalo products!