This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Meet Taro, the Poke Bowl’s Missing Secret Ingredient, first released on March 14, 2023. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
SCOTT FISHER: What I’ll do is I’ll just do our oli komo. And then that’s just, you know, a chant that we do that welcomes people who’ve never been on the property.
FISHER: [CHANTING IN HAWAIIAN] Aloha-e. Aloha-e. Aloha-e.
CYNTHIA GRABER: This is Scott Fisher. He works for the Hawai’i Land Trust, and he was welcoming us to an ancient archaeological site on Maui where some of his ancestors once farmed taro.
NICOLA TWILLEY: For those of you who like us are not fluent in Hawaiian, Scott helpfully provided a translation.
FISHER: Okay, so basically it’s, it’s talking about the wind starts off with the wind that blows here, [SPEAKING HAWAIIAN], is the wind that carries the scent of the o’opu. Which is a, also refers to the fish pond. Because the fish pond was a freshwater fish pond and it grew taro and, the fish, the, particularly the freshwater, fish species, the o’opu.
GRABER: We visited this site because once upon a time, it helped support an entire empire in Hawaii—and while the fish were critical, what was really amazing was the taro that was growing there. It might be gray and wintry in a lot of the northern hemisphere, but this episode, we at Gastropod are going on a tropical adventure. That’s right, you’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, I’m Cynthia Graber—
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And this episode is not just sun sea and sand—we’re also meeting a root veggie that a lot of North Americans have never tried but that experts think is among *the* most ancient crops cultivated by humans—and it’s one that some 500 million people still depend on today.
GRABER: Before we went to Hawai’i, my only relationship with taro was in the form of taro chips purchased at Whole Foods. Sure, they’re delicious, but it’s kind of hard to imagine taro as a staple food.
TWILLEY: But that’s exactly what taro was in Hawai’i. The entire island chain built their cuisine around taro, they considered themselves physically related to the taro plant, taro was life.
GRABER: Although it’s not originally from Hawai’i. This episode, we have the story of an easily overlooked root that is actually kind of a lot of work and is also a little poisonous, but it once supported an entire civilization in the middle of the Pacific.
TWILLEY: But doesn’t anymore. So why did taro nearly die out on the islands where it was so essential and beloved, and what needs to happen to bring it back today?
GRABER: Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network, in partnership with Eater.
FISHER: You’re, you’re at the Waihe’e coastal Dunes and Wetlands Refuge. We’re on the island of Maui.
TWILLEY: Picture lush green mountains in the distance, huge sand dunes, like fifteen stories tall, and the gorgeous blue Pacific in front of you.
GRABER: The site where we were standing was beautiful, but it also is one of the oldest known inhabited sites on Hawai’i, it’s one of the earliest places on Maui where Polynesian settlers first set up a home.
FISHER: People have been on the Waihe’e Refuge for over a thousand years. The first evidence we have of people living on this property is actually about 15 or 20 feet away from where we’re standing.
TWILLEY: One thing to know about Hawai’i is it is one of the most isolated places on Earth, maybe *the* most isolated. It’s two and a half thousand miles away from the next decent-sized chunk of solid land.
GRABER: It is smack dab in the middle of the Pacific, and there were no people living on Hawai’i until about 1500 years ago. That’s when Polynesians traveled in massive canoes all the way across the ocean, again, two thousand five hundred miles in their canoes, and then out of the wide ocean expanse they suddenly found the Hawaiian islands.
TWILLEY: Paradise, right? But actually, weirdly, Hawai’i wasn’t very hospitable. The islands are volcanoes, and they’ve only emerged from the ocean pretty recently, at least in geological and evolutionary time. And because of that, there were basically no edible plants there—they just hadn’t evolved. There’s a great book called Foods of Paradise, by Rachel Laudan—she’s been on the show before, and she says that after that long canoe trip, those hungry Polynesians would have found a couple ferns and some birds.
GRABER: There were plenty of fish to eat, of course, and seaweed, which is tasty and basically a vegetable. But that wouldn’t have been enough to live on—there aren’t any indigenous carbohydrates that grow on Hawai’i, and we humans typically need carbohydrates. But luckily, the Polynesians had packed not only snacks for the long trip, but they also brought seeds and seedlings for the journey that they planned to plant and farm once they landed somewhere.
TWILLEY: One of those seeds was the coconut—we told you that story last fall. They also brought sweet potato and bananas, which were super popular back home, and breadfruit, also a traditional Polynesian staple as well as the subject of a future episode of Gastropod, stay tuned for that.
GRABER: They brought around 30 different plants with them, things like ginger and sugarcane, too, and they bought pigs and chickens—and, of course, they brought taro.
BOBBY PAHIA: If you talk to anybody in the culture, if you mention kalo. Kalo is revered. It’s not like another crop, right? It’s not like uala, sweet potato. It’s not like Ava. But ulu, kalo and Uala, that’s the three main canoe plants, right? The kalo, being the most important one.
TWILLEY: This is Bobby Pahia.
PAHIA: I’m a mahia o’ke kalo, so I’m a farmer of the taro, the kalo.
TWILLEY: Kalo is Hawaiian for taro, and taro is also Hawaiian for survival. Back in Tahiti and the Marquesas and other Polynesian islands, taro was part of the rotation but not central. But in Hawai’i, the climate—everything was just right for taro, and the island’s growing population absolutely depended on it. It was like the wheat or corn or rice of the Hawaiian islands.
GRABER: Some sources say that native Hawaiians pre Anglo colonization might have eaten as much as about 15 pounds of taro a day. That’s kind of hard to even imagine, it’d be nearly all the food you’d be eating. And so it’s really because of taro that the Hawaiian islands could be self-sufficient, the reason people could keep living there.
FISHER: You know, for, for those of us who are Kanaka Maoli, for those who are Hawaiian, it is our story and we need to tell that. One of the most important things to get across is how we survived on these islands for a thousand years, completely independent. You know, we did not rely on Costco and Target and all the things that we do right now. And the strength of our community is based on the on, on our ability to, know how to live on these lands sustainably.
GRABER: These first Hawaiians couldn’t have survived and grown and created a thriving society of more than a million people without taro, and so taro became literally, at least in the Hawaiian creation story, it’s literally a part of the family.
PAHIA: If you go back in, in mythology about the, the culture, I mean, Haloa was the first, stillborn son of Wakea and Papa Hu Nua. They, they planted their son in the, in the corner of, on the outside of the house. And lo and behold, up sprang the first taro plant.
TWILLEY: But then the couple, who by the way are also known as Sky Father and Earth Mother, they tried for another baby and they were rewarded with a little baby human—the first Hawaiian.
GRABER: The point is that the first Hawaiian human was the little brother of the first taro—so taro is like everyone’s great great great great uncle.
PAHIA: So if you look at the genealogy, of course, like in the Hawaiian culture, they’re very, hip on the genealogy. So when you look at the genealogy, it goes all the way back to that first Hawaiian man.
TWILLEY: So back at the sand dunes on Maui, those early Hawaiians—maybe not the very first, but some of the earliest ones—they got their brother taro and they did something different than their Polynesian ancestors. They started growing it in a pond.
FISHER: So we’re looking at this seven acre, fish pond. So of all the people of Oceania, only the Hawaiians develop fish ponds.
GRABER: The fish pond we were looking at is dry now, it just looked kind of like an empty shallow pool, but a pool that’s the size of about three entire city blocks. We walked over to look at walls that used to hold in the water, they were built out of black volcanic rock. There was no cement or anything, everything was just carefully wedged together.
FISHER: You are standing on ku’auna, or the wall of a taro patch. Right here. So you can see it aligns just like this.
TWILLEY: A taro patch in a fish pond basically looks like a rice paddy—it’s a little flooded field. And building one required quite a bit of engineering. You had to build the walls of the pond, and then you had to fill the pond.
FISHER: And so the way that this particular system operated was, it, it, was built near the coast, so you had to have some connection to the ocean. But it was fed from a river that was not too far away.
GRABER: The river might have been close by but it wasn’t here on this site. Hawaiians had to build an aqueduct to divert the water flowing down from the mountains over huge dunes and bring it into the pond. Scott pointed out where we could see traces of that, too.
FISHER: Anyway, this is the au-ai here. You can see it’s rock. Yeah. So it would’ve been coming around. We had an engineer look at it and you can kind of see from this distance, you know, kind of seeing where the, where the water would’ve been. Five to seven million gallons a day is what he estimated. So, pretty amazing system.
TWILLEY: The whole system put together was super clever. There was a sluice gate to let little fish in from the ocean, but it was designed so big fish couldn’t get out. And then the fish would poo in the water, which was free fertilizer for the taro.
GRABER: In general taro need fresh water to grow, but some varieties were able to grow in a mixture of fresh and salty, basically brackish water, in the parts of the pond that were furthest away from the ocean.
FISHER: What it seems like as we’re piecing the, the puzzle together, the, the taro seemed to have been cultivated, in the back end, and then the front end would’ve been better habitat for the fish.
TWILLEY: And the whole combination, together, produced a lot of food. Scott estimates that this one pond could produce a ton of fish a year. And even more taro.
FISHER: Let’s just say, 12,000 pounds of, of kalo being produced annually per acre. That’s a, you know, that’s, that’s a lot for seven acres? That’s, you know, 92,000 pounds of kalo annually.
GRABER: This fish pond fed people on Maui for hundreds of years, right up until the turn of the last century.
FISHER: From what we can tell, by about 1906, it was abandoned. It was abandoned, because, it was going to be turned into a dairy. But definitely by 1919 they’d dredged out the wetlands entirely, and that, and they stopped the, the flow of the, of the au’ai or the aqueduct. and so that really put an end to the fish pond.
TWILLEY: Scott and his colleagues started working on restoring this fish pond in 2003. It’s taking a long time—partly because no one really farms this way anymore, so no one knows exactly how to do it. As we walked around, we came to a set of two narrow walls together, like a corridor.
FISHER: The feature we’re standing on right now seems to be a, a system designed to regulate flow. And we’re not exactly sure how it operated. This is why we’re, you know, we’re still very much novices. So what we’re looking at is basically two walls parallel to one another and with a trough in between. And we’re not exactly sure how it functioned. Until we make that connection to the ocean, we won’t know. You know, we’re, we’re, we’re all novices because this knowledge has really been lost.
TWILLEY: This fish pond system was Hawaii’s unique contribution to growing taro. But it wasn’t the only way taro was and still is grown on the island.
PAHIA: What about the dry land taros? Well, those were grown along the cloud line on the mountains. Right, because that’s where the moisture was.
GRABER: Once upon a time, there were hundreds of varieties of taro growing in both the fish ponds and on the mountains. Scott estimates there were maybe 600 different kinds of taro. All of these different root veggies were different sizes, they matured at different rates, some were starchier, some were sweeter. Some were used for medicine. Some were reserved for the nobility, some were the varieties everyone could eat.
TWILLEY: It’s like apples for us—we made an episode all about apples, and there are hundreds and hundreds of varieties, ones that grow better in different places, ones that are better for eating raw or cooking, ones that store well. Taro was the same. Emphasis on was.
PAHIA: Today, if you can find 60, you’re lucky.
GRABER: That’s if you really know where to look, like even in university collections. But if you were to just ask most Hawaiians, they only really know one kind of taro.
PAHIA: People think we only have purple taro. No, we got all kind of taros. We got yellow taro, orange taro, blue taro, green taro, white taro. We got all kind of taros.
TWILLEY: Bobby knows all the taros, all over the world. Taro isn’t native to Hawai’i, like we said. Researchers think it originally came from India or Southeast Asia, but these days its grown all over. Nigeria, China, Vietnam—they’re are all major taro producers.
PAHIA: When I was working at the University of Hawai’i doing research work in with, taro production. One of our jobs was to go around the world and collect all these different varieties of taro.
GRABER: It might not surprise you listeners to hear that Bobby’s favorite is the home grown variety.
PAHIA: In my opinion, the Hawaiian Taros is superior to all the other taros around the world. You know why? Because I had to eat ’em all. I ate over 2000 varieties of taro. And not because I’m Hawaiian and I’m from here. It’s just the quality. They took it to another level. Really. My kupunus, they really did. Especially the flavor. CUT Very full bodied, nutty
TWILLEY: Like he said, Bobby farms his superior Hawaiian taro in a dry field, not in a pond. And he brought us to his farm to see what the fuss is all about.
GRABER: We’ve been talking about how taro is really THE taste of Hawai’i, but we hadn’t seen it—or tasted it—yet. That’s coming up, after the break.
JAKKE AOGA: So you can see here we have one, two, three, four, five, six, seven rows, the varieties, that looks like a monalulu here. And then we have turmeric in the middle and then we have two more lines of taro. And that looks like Mahi Lehua
TWILLEY: This is a young taro farmer—he’s called Jake Aoga, and he is part of a collective that grows taro on some land that Bobby manages. Because Bobby doesn’t just grow his own taro.
PAHIA: I’m a farmer of farmers, so I help people grow.
GRABER: Jakke is one of three people farming this particular taro patch. He and his partner Whitney Cunningham came to Maui a couple of years ago, and they met Winsome Williams, she’d already started farming these seven acres with Bobby’s support.
WINSOME WILLIAMS: Here on our farm, we grow about 12 different varieties, and the colors can range from purple to white. We have one that has, like a green hue in it, and then a monaulu is like a yellow. There’s also like red hue taros as well. So there’s a whole like beautiful spectrum that you can play around with.
TWILLEY: The taro look kind of like most root vegetables—big green leaves on chunky stalks, some of the stalks are colored too, like Swiss chard. The ones that were big enough to harvest, we could see the shoulders of the big knobbly corm—the taro root itself—kind of poking out of the soil.
WILLIAMS:This is a really nice variety. This is the [01:12:58]Mauna Loa [0.6s] variety. You can tell from the really dark color of the the stalk. And this one is interesting because like the longer it stays in the ground, the more starchy it gets.
GRABER: Bobby says the corm, the root, it gets all the attention, but the whole plant is edible.
PAHIA: I eat the leaf, the stem, and the corm. Yeah, you can use it in different ways. Cook it like a spinach.
TWILLEY: That said, you do have to be careful. Whitney told us taro is not at all palatable straight out of the ground.
WHITNEY CUNNINGHAM: So there’s a ton of Axis deer here and-won’t eat that because they know, it gives them a scratchy throat. So that’s kind of a nice deterrent that we don’t have to worry about.
AOGA: And the same thing with the wild boars. They won’t, they won’t eat taro. They literally will come and eat cassava right next to it and will not touch thetaro like at all.
GRABER: And that’s because taro has a chemical in it called calcium oxalate that can be really painful if you eat the plant raw — it hurts deer, it hurts pigs, and it hurts our throats, too. Bobby told us never ever to eat any part of the taro plant raw. He said we’d really regret it.
PAHIA: Oh, you going to be one sorry camper. You don’t want to eat that because your throat is going to—Oh, you going to get all itchy, and some people get hives and. It’s bad, bad news. Don’t ever, ever do that.
AOGA: It’s like akin to swallowing glass, is how people describe it.
GRABER: I think I’m going to pass. [LAUGHS]
AOGA: I wouldn’t recommend it, I wouldn’t recommend it.
CUNNINGHAM: It’s like an itch you cannot scratch.
TWILLEY: It’s not just eating it—apparently even handling the plant can given you hives.
WILLIAMS: If you clean a bunch of it and I mean we’ll do 500 to 1000 pounds like in a harvest sometimes. It will make your hands and your legs a little bit scratchy from working with it too much.
GRABER: So if you do want to eat the greens, first you have to take the stem out and then you have to cook the greens for a long time. And if you want to eat the root, prepare to wait for hours—
PAHIA: So you harvest it and then they’ll either boil it or steam it. Usually they’ll cook it in an earthen oven, an imu.
TWILLEY: Whichever method you pick, just don’t start out completely ravenous, because this is not a 15 minute meal. Whitney told us she steams taro for four hours before the next step in the process. Today, there are shortcuts, Scott says he just throws it in the pressure cooker for 40 minutes, which is a lot more manageable
GRABER: Once it’s steamed and no longer going to cause you to feel like you have broken glass in your throat, then you can start to do all sorts of things with it. You can eat steamed taro as is. But probably the most traditional thing to do is to pound it with a volcanic stone, the stone is like a cone shape and there’s a handle to grip at the narrow end so you have a big wide surface to smush all the steamed taro with.
WILLIAMS: This is the stone right here. So this is called the po haku. And it’s a river stone. Very difficult to make. I’ve tried to make a couple and I always end up breaking them, but yeah. So this, the weight of this — I’ll show you the board as well. Let me grab it real quick.
[TARO BOARD SOUND
TWILLEY: Winsome grabbed a taro board for us — it was about the size of small child, and shaped kind of like a long, flat dish, like a skateboard with a rim. She told us that you have to wet it a little before you get started. And the other thing you have to do is grab a bunch of friends. Taro pounding is a group activity.
WILLIAMS: And then we might steam up, like, say, 50 pounds of taro. Everyone arrives, cleans the taro together. And then you put the steamed taro on the board. And then you have your stone and you’re literally— [HITTING NOISES]
GRABER: Winsome pretended to push the taro with the stone and then pull the stone towards her, like she was almost breaking down and mashing up the taro in long narrow circles over the board. She said if she’d had real cooked taro on the board, she’d be getting out lumps and flattening and mashing it all against the board.
WILLIAMS: You’re literally hitting the taro with a stone kui, like cutting the taro with a stone. And the act of hitting it switches the molecular structure and helps with that fermentation process because taro is a fermentable starch. And so then the consistency sort of changes from this like starchy potato texture to more of like a dough. It’s really malleable dough.
TWILLEY: These days, there are machines that can pound taro, but for purists, it’s not the same.
PAHIA: The texture is different. Versus kui, what we call kui with the stone. It’s, it’s, it stays more heavy, the pounded one with the stone. Its a, is a heavier texture, not as fine.
GRABER: Either way, you add some water to the mash, and you start to make poi—that is probably the most traditional of all Hawaiian foods made of taro. It’s basically thinned out taro dough that turns into a lightly sour saucy kind of porridge-like dish.
WILLIAMS: So with the poi, you would just leave it out. Oftentimes it would be in like a calabash, in a big bowl. And so that fermentation process would like slowly start to happen as it sat out.
TWILLEY: This is just like making sauerkraut—the bacteria and yeasts that are naturally on the surface of the taro root get to work and start feeding on the starches and excreting acids, and the poi gets more and more sour as the days go on.
WILLIAMS: So if you go to like some of the grocery stores here, they have a bunch of like — a shelf with all these pois on it and it’ll have a different color twist tie. So you’ll have one that will be from Monday, Wednesday and Friday — are the delivery days. And so people who like it more sour will go towards, like, that color of twist tie versus like the closer.
GRABER: The reason poi is a big deal is that weirdly, unlike a lot of other root vegetables, you can’t store taro for long, it’ll go bad in a couple of days. So, originally, fermenting taro into poi was a useful technique for preserving it.
TWILLEY: Like we said, you can eat taro just steamed, you can do a bunch of different things with it, but poi was and is THE main way to eat taro in Hawai’i.
PAHIA: When I was growing up, there’s poi. A bowl of big, big bowl of poi on everybody’s table, no matter where you went.
GRABER: Noa Kekuewa Lincoln agrees with Bobby. He’s a researcher at the University of Hawai’i, he focuses on indigenous crops and farming techniques. And he says he can’t even remember the first time he ate taro, or kalo.
NOA KEKUEWA LINCOLN: Kalo is, in particular favored as a infant food. From a food science perspective, kalo, I believe has the smallest starch grain size of any staple crop, which makes it extremely easily digestible. It wasn’t the only food I ate as a child, but you know, as an infant, as a baby, poi was, one of, if not my first food.
TWILLEY: At this point, It was clearly long past time for Cynthia and me to try some taro, specifically some poi. So we went to find some.
SHELDON SIMEON: Yeah, I am Chef Sheldon Simeon. We are sitting at my new restaurant, Tiffany’s, in Wailuku, Maui.
GRABER: You might have caught Sheldon on Top Chef, he was a finalist in season 10, and he also wrote a book called Cook Real Hawai’i. And we were lucky enough to have him cook for us.
SHELDON SIMEON: Here we have our offerings of taro or kalo, your traditional fish and poi, poi that’s been steamed and then pounded to a paste, with some fresh al-poke or Pacific Blue Marlin that was just caught yesterday. This is going to be almost as how the early settlers, the early Hawaiians had it. Here we have limu lipoa, which is seaweed that is very known to Maui. It has this, you know, flavor of the ocean and the sea. And the fish is just dressed with salt. There’s no soy sauce or sesame or, or mayonnaise. It’s not like how you see poke nowadays, but just beautiful freshness. And then that saltiness is going to pair great with this poi, which is a few days old. So it has a touch of sourness, but I think it lends itself well to the fresh fish.
TWILLEY: The poi was a super thick smooth purple paste, kind of like a scoop of purple pureed potato. Sheldon told us we could put some on the fish cubes, or we could kind of alternate, both were legit.
GRABER: I want to taste the taro first just to see what it tastes like.
[00:25:48] GRABER: Hmm. There is a little bit of that sourness to it. You can taste the fermentation starting.
SIMEON: Yeah exactly, it’s starting to go on there.
GRABER: Now try them together.
TWILLEY: I did not think the poi would be great with the fish. And it is. It really works.
SIMEON: Yeah. I mean, these Hawaians knew what they were doing. [LAUGHS]
GRABER: There’s a real, like, purity of flavor. Like the fish is so fresh and beautiful and the taro is so kind of earthy and a little tangy. And there’s just this kind of very clear flavor profile. You know, you kind of know exactly what it is that you’re eating.
SIMEON: This is, like, my favorite form of what I crave when I get back, with Poké that is, like, super fresh and very of the sea. You can’t get closer to earth than poi. That beautiful synergy of them both, which the Hawaiians understand, understood better than anybody in this world, I believe. You know, that’s a match made in heaven right here.
GRABER: Sheldon also prepared another super traditional Hawaiian taro dish for us.
SIMEON: Then we have kulolo, which is a steamed taro dessert with coconut milk and brown sugar. But, you know, it still has that texture of the poi, of the taro.
TWILLEY: This this looks like fudge.
SIMEON: Yeah, basically…
TWILLEY: like a cross between mochi and fudge.
GRABER: I would eat this every day.
TWILLEY: It’s delicious. It’s not too sweet either. It’s not like your teeth hurt, like fudge. This is really…
SIMEON: Three ingredients: taro, coconut milk and sugar. Kulolo was traditionally made in the imu, so underground in the oven. This one was just made in a regular oven, but when it’s cooked underground, you get the impart of the smokiness. That’s like… that’s heaven to me right there.
TWILLEY: Sheldon’s dishes of poi and kulolo couldn’t have been more delicious or more traditional. But today, they’re not the only way to enjoy taro—and they’re also not so common anymore.
GRABER: Because while taro was once the crop that basically sustained Hawaiians, sustainably, for hundreds of years, today it’s barely grown there at all. What happened to Hawaii’s sacred crop—after the break.
SIMEON: This is our mapo taro. So, like, mapo tofu, but with taro.
TWILLEY: Traditional taro is pretty good, but for Sheldon, dishes like poi and kulolo, they’re just the tip of the taro iceberg. He likes to use taro in all kinds of different dishes—like his version of mapo tofu, which is a dish you can find at Chinese restaurants, it usually has minced pork and tofu in a spicy sauce.
[SCRAPING, PAN NOISES]
SIMEON: We have some crispy taro that we boiled and then diced up and then fried and dehydrated and then tossed with Sichuan peppercorns for some texture over the top of it.
GRABER: Sheldon mixed taro into the dish in a number of ways. On top of that crispy taro, he also diced up some steamed and then roasted taro, he turned the thickened taro he used for the fudgy traditional dessert we had just tried into kind of savory taro dumplings, and he mixed in poi to thicken the sauce.
SIMEON: So you’ve got savory, sweet, crunchy, chewy. I love food with texture.
TWILLEY: Smells incredible.
GRABER: I’m so excited. I can’t even tell you how excited I am for this dish.
TWILLEY: Love it.
TWILLEY:. All right, here we go.
TWILLEY: I mean.
GRABER: Oh my god.
TWILLEY: This is incredible. I’d eat this by the bucket. Wow.
SIMEON: I loved what the poi did to it. Again, the sourness of this poi kind of uplifted the spices in it. Gave that mouthful to the whole dish. So, you know, I’m still discovering new ways to use our traditional ingredients and applying it into this like modern takes of it. Poi might not be for everyone, but if we can get you to taste taro through mapo tofu, so be it.
TWILLEY: Sheldon did not grow up eating a lot of super traditional Hawaiian food, but he did eat taro.
SIMEON: I mean, I’m Filipino, so a Filipino house, so a lot of Filipino food. But yeah, poi was always there.
GRABER: The Filipino community in Hawai’i is one of the largest ethnic groups in the state. Most of them moved there in the 1900s to work on the sugar plantations.
TWILLEY: What happened was that in 1876, the independent Kingdom of Hawai’i signed a big treaty with the US, a treaty that really opened the door to Hawaiian exports to the US. And that changed everything on the islands.
GRABER: This is what spurred the creation of huge plantations in Hawai’i. First it was plantations growing sugar, and then came the pineapple plantations. And lots of immigrants, mostly from Asia, moved to Hawai’i to work on these plantations.
SIMEON: Different cultures that influenced Hawai’i cuisine. Filipino, Japanese, the Chinese workers, Puerto Rican. You know what else did I miss? Portuguese. Did I say Portuguese already? But yeah, all of these different cultures. [LAUGHS] That’s what’s amazing about Hawai’i. You’ve have all these influence from all these different cultures that I feel so familiar with growing up. You know, I’m Filipino, but cooking with Hawaiian ingredients, Chinese flavors, Japanese techniques. It feels very Hawai’i to me.
TWILLEY: This mass immigration to work in plantations resulted in a delicious culinary fusion. But it wasn’t the first big shift in Hawaiian demographics. Noa told us, the big shift happened when Europeans first showed up.
LINCOLN: You know, like a lot of, places, you know, the most devastating impacts were introduced diseases. And so, you know, at the time of contact in 1778, the population is estimated to be between about 400 and 800,000, people. And that number had dwindled to 40,000 only a hundred years later.
TWILLEY: I mean—that’s hard to even imagine. 9 out of every 10 Hawaiians died.
LINCOLN: And so, you know, that really devastated, everything about the society. You know, the, the land management systems, the, the, you know, sociopolitical systems, you know, all of that really lost, you know, most of its power, with the, that decline in population.
GRABER: And you won’t be surprised to hear that there were foreign businesspeople perfectly ready to move into that vacuum.
LINCOLN: And, Hawai’i very rapidly transitioned into a kind of plantation based economy. Most of the state, most of the big Hawaiian ag systems became the, the major, plantation crops of sugar and pineapple.
TWILLEY: These big plantations obviously took a lot of land, land that had previously been used for growing staple crops like taro. And the plantations took another important resource too.
PAHIA: When sugar cane, the sugar cane industry came here, right, so, they had to make water courses to bring water to the arid sides. However, of course, they didn’t check with the natives from that area. Right? They just took it.
LINCOLN: And I mean, just to give you a, you know, scope of the problem. You know, on the East Maui irrigation ditch, there are 27 river valleys in a row that were 100% dewatered.
GRABER: No water means you can’t farm taro. And then all the immigrants to Hawai’i, they wanted to eat their own staples, and so the taro ponds that were left became rice paddies. Growing taro today in Hawai’i isn’t common, some of the taro dishes like poi are made from imported taro.
TWILLEY: Taro has almost disappeared in Hawai’i, but there’s still plenty of it grown elsewhere. The leaves and roots are a staple in many parts of West Africa and Eastern India, taro is big in China, and it’s still popular in lots of Pacific Islands like Papua New Guinea.
GRABER: We mentioned our previous tastes of taro had been through chips we bought at the supermarket, one brand I’ve seen at Whole Foods is grown in Honduras. People are even growing it in the US, there are farmers trying it out in North Carolina because the changing climate might make it a great crop to grow there.
TWILLEY: But back in Hawai’i, even imported taro isn’t that common—today, there just isn’t much taro being eaten in Hawai’i. Remember that before Europeans arrived, historians think that Hawaiians ate as much as 15 pounds of taro a day. By the 1980s, the average was five pounds a year.
PAHIA: Oh, like 90% do not eat it. Do not eat taro. It’s hard to find. You can’t, you can’t even find it. You don’t see it in the stores, so it’s hard to find and it’s expensive.
GRABER: A pound of rice costs less than a dollar, but taro might cost about 7-10 dollars for the same pound of food. Taro is only grown and harvested by hand on a relatively small scale in Hawai’i, which is expensive, there’s pretty much no huge industrial taro farms on Hawai’i. And it doesn’t store well. So it just can’t compete these days.
TWILLEY: Losing taro as an accessible, everyday staple is not just kind of a nostalgia thing. Noa says it’s been a disaster for Hawaiians.
LINCOLN: I mean, most visible perhaps is, you know, the fact that native Hawaiians have the highest rate of obesity, the highest rate of diabetes, you know, of any ethnic group in Hawai’i. And, there has been a number of studies that show a return to our traditional staples, has a huge impact on reducing those health issues.
GRABER: But it’s not just the physical impacts. Colonization destroyed Hawaiian culture in a number of ways. They were banned from speaking their native language in schools. Their culture was considered a tourist attraction. And remember that taro, kalo, in the Hawaiian origin story, it was the buried stillborn brother of the first Hawaiian man.
LINCOLN: Kalo was literally in our genealogy, our elder brother. And to me a relationship with kalo, as a food and as a, symbol, as a icon of our natural environment. To be divorced from that really shattered Hawaiian people’s identity. It is hard to be Hawaiian, you know, without your elder brother. Without having a relationship with kalo and with the environment. And that was such a core part of Hawaiian identity that I think when that was removed, it had tremendous personal and social impact on our people. That is something that hasn’t been quantified the way that diabetes and obesity has, but I would say is, is arguably probably much more impactful.
TWILLEY: In the past few decades, more and more people have realized that the future of Hawaiian food and farming needs to include traditional crops.
PAHIA: And that’s the mission of why I grow taro, is to put food back on people’s tables so they can afford to eat it. I mean, hello, we can’t even afford to eat our native food? Something’s wrong with that.
GRABER: Bobby thinks farming taro shouldn’t just be for farmers in Hawai’i. It should be for everyone.
PAHIA: You should definitely grow taro. That’s automatic. You’re a citizen over here. You should grow Taro. [LAUGHS]
GRABER: None of this matters though if you can’t access land. Bobby’s worked with a rich developer to get access to 300 acres that’s a conservation easement, meaning it can only be used for farming, and he’s managing it and training other farmers who are also farming the land with him. Like Whitney, Jakke, and Winsome.
TWILLEY: You need land to grow taro, but you also need water. And like we said, that was also taken away by the plantations, and when the plantations closed up shop toward the end of last century, their wealthy owners didn’t let go of their water rights willingly. They pivoted to tourism, which meant development.
PAHIA: You cannot develop real estate without water. So they’re banking, they’re water banking. They don’t want to give it back.
LINCOLN: And because, you know, 150 years of infrastructure and industry were built upon those, you know, water sources, it becomes very, very hard to reverse it.
GRABER: Getting that water back, returning it to Native Hawaiians, allowing them to use it for things like farming—that’s been the focus of activism and even court cases recently.
LINCOLN: In the last five years or so, there’s actually been a couple of really important rulings in which, you know, water has been returned to traditional farmers to the native rivers.
TWILLEY: Scott told us that he and his colleagues had to fight long and hard to get the water back to rebuild the ancient taro pond—but eventually they were successful.
FISHER: We have legal right to it. We have a legal claim to the water now, which is a huge step. It took us 10 years to get that. Now we need the process of actually bringing the water back in. And when we do it will be a rebuilt fish pond that will be functioning. That’s our goal.
GRABER: These court fights are still ongoing, there’s still a lot of work to get more of those water rights back. But there’s another problem. And this is something that Whitney noticed in the farmers markets—
CUNNINGHAM: When we went to sell it, not a lot of consumers wanted to buy it.
TWILLEY: Taro may be revered and traditional and tasty and healthy, but it’s kind of a lot of work. The scratchiness and the lengthy cook time—who has time for that anymore?
CUNNINGHAM: That’s kind of what was the inspiration for creating all these value added products. And so we’ve created products that are just really easy for the consumer to eat the taro a lot easier and more adaptable ways that they’re familiar with.
GRABER: These young taro farmers wanted to create new products they can sell at the farmers markets. Whitney, Jake, and Winsome started recipe testing over just the past couple of years, and they had cooked up some products for us to try.
TWILLEY: We tried taro hash browns, which were excellent, and taro-cassava tortillas, which I liked so much I brought a couple packets home to LA, where you already can get a lot of good tortillas. And then we tried their take on a more traditional preparation, little fried squidgy taro squares, made from the poi paste before you add water.
WILLIAMS: And, what we do is put that in a little Tupperware and then put it in the refrigerator. It gets nice and sort of solidified. And what you guys are going to taste today is us slicing that up and frying it in a little coconut oil.
[SIZZLE OF FRYING]
WILLIAMS: We’ll just let it get nice and crispy on the outsides and then it’s going to be nice and sort of, like, almost like a poi on the inside. It’s really delicious.
[METALLIC CLATTER OF COOKING]
WILLIAMS: And then we like to serve it with a little bit of salt and nutritional yeast. And cinnamon and sugar. We’ll do a sweet and a savory version. It’s kind of like a Hawaiian donut.
[SIZZLE, CLANKING OF COOKING]
WILLIAMS: All right, those are crisping up nicely.
TWILLEY: We started with the savory version, which was salty and of course deliciously squidgy.
GRABER: Wow, that’s good.
TWILLEY: But I think most much of the flavor is coming from the salt and the yeast.
TWILLEY: But I feel like it has a really nice texture.
GRABER: And then we tried the sweet ones, they reminded me of mochi squares, and I was really into them.
[SCRAPING OF COOKING UTENSILS]
GRABER: [LAUGHING, HUMMING HAPPILY]
TWILLEY: It’s kind of like a donut now.
GRABER: Mm hmm. Totally like a little donut.
TWILLEY: Yeah. Delish.
TWILLEY: Whitney, Winsome, and Jake have been recipe testing all pandemic—these new taro products are all pre-prepared, packaged, and ready to stick in the freezer and then warm up on the stove and eat. They’ve started including these taro treats in their CSA boxes and selling them to some of Bobby’s customers, and they also have a very popular taco stand at the local farmers market.
GRABER: And Bobby’s a fan. He’s not such a traditionalist that he can’t appreciate what the next generation is doing.
PAHIA: Because I, we are just so used to eating poi all the time. Just poi. Then you get like that flat bread they make with the kalo. They make all kind products, these desserts and, Oh man, all kinds. I like it. It’s good. And what, what is really good about that is that it’s more palatable to a greater number of people.
TWILLEY: This renaissance of taro—it’s part of a larger renaissance in Hawaiian culture. And Sheldon told us, that bodes well for both Hawaiian cuisine and Hawaii’s future.
SIMEON: The Hawaiians understood the connection of the land and the sea better than anyone else. And it’s us understanding that and celebrating and taking care of that that’s going to be key to moving forward for our future of Hawai’i.
GRABER: Thanks this episode to Sheldon Simeon, Bobby Pahia, Scott Fischer, Noa Kekuewa Lincoln, and Winsome Williams, Jake Aoga, and Whitney Cunningham, we have links to their restaurants, organizations, and farms on our website, gastropod.com
TWILLEY: As well as photos from our Hawaiian taro adventures. And as always, thanks to our awesome producer, Claudia Geib. We’ll be back in two weeks with another new episode for your listening delight.
GRABER: ‘Til then!