Expansive Fields of Green Greet Hanalei Visitors
When you think about Hanalei inevitably you are going to think about taro! The first thing you see when you come down the hill from Princeville and reach the historic Hanalei Bridge is taro, and lots of it!
Taro plants fill the whole lower Hanalei Valley, stretching across the coastal plain from the Hanalei River all the way to the base of the mountains. Hanalei produces more than sixty percent of the taro used for poi in Hawaii.
Many visitors to Hanalei are at first unaware of what it is they are seeing as they marvel at the sea of green, even pulling over to investigate the huge, heart-shaped leaves rising up from the flooded ponds.
Quickly enough someone will tell them that the plants are taro, and that these are Hanalei’s famous taro patches. Many respond: “What is taro?”
Here is some basic information about Hanalei’s signature plant:
Hawaiians consider the taro plant to be the oldest ancestor of all humans. Taro was brought to the Islands by the first Polynesian settlers on their voyaging canoes and was one of their most important food crops. Taro was grown in Hanalei beginning nearly 1,000 years ago.
The taro plant has a tuber-like underground corm that is somewhat similar to a large potato. Different taro varieties have different colored corms including purple, bluish, red, yellow and white. Since ancient times this corm was mashed into poi, a staple of the Hawaiian diet.
All parts of the taro plant are edible when cooked, including the leaves which are known as lū‘au. Lū‘au is also the name for a traditional Hawaiian feast that includes pork wrapped in taro leaves and many other delicious items.
The healthy bone structure and teeth of ancient Hawaiians is attributed to the calcium and phosphorus they got from taro which is also rich in other minerals as well as vitamins A, B and C, and protein.
Hanalei Poi Making in Ancient Times
In ancient Hawaii the poi-making process involved using a sharpened ‘opihi (limpet) shell or a stone to peel the cooked taro corm. Then a stone pounder known as pōhaku ku‘i ‘ai was used to break up and mash the corm into poi as small amounts of water were added to prevent sticking.
To irrigate their taro patches the Hanalei residents of ancient times built well engineered canals called ‘auwai that diverted water from the Hanalei River into the taro patches known as lo‘i kalo. Eventually the water is channeled back into the river.
Though most taro is mashed into poi, taro can also be baked, steamed or fried and prepared in various ways to create tasty dishes. Popular are taro chips, taro flour, taro pancake mix and the bluish-purple taro bread.
Since ancient times Hawaiians have made a traditional pudding-like mix called kūlolo by sweetening grated taro corm with kō (sugarcane) and mixing it with the grated flesh and water of niu (coconut), wrapping it in ti leaves and baking it in an imu (underground earthen oven). Kūlolo is still popular today.
Calabashes to hold poi were made from ipu (bottle gourds). Poi bowls were made from hardwoods such as kou, milo or kamani but not koa because the wood contains tannic acid that spoils the poi’s flavor.
Taro Patch A Model of Extended Hawaiian Family – ‘Ohana
A mature taro plant puts out shoots called ‘ohā that grow in a circle around the parent plant, and these ‘ohā eventually mature and produce their own circle of ‘ohā. The ever-widening circle of taro plants serves as a model for the extended Hawaiian family which is known as ‘ohana (many ‘ohā).