FOOD STORIES SERIES: “I like my fish and poi…” Hōkū Young


Cooking Project Themes: Food, Family and Ethnicity + Food and the Community.

Hōkū’s love for food has its roots in the Hawaiian Islands, where she was born and raised. Here she shares about the intimate connection kanaka maoli, the Native Hawaiian race, have with the food they eat, and how that relationship is foundational to understanding the deep nuances of Hawaiian culture and tradition at large. 

“I like my fish and poi…”

Hawaiʻi tastes like poi from the koa board, ʻulu from the tree, poke from the Pacific. Like fresh steamed laulau, kalua pig straight from the imu, and honi from aloha stained lips. It tastes like home.

Mixing poi.

When I eat foods embedded in Hawaiian culture and tradition, I connect back to my deeply entangled roots in the islands. I eat the way my kūpuna (ancestors) ate hundreds of years ago, pulling kalo from the earth, fish from the sea. I touch oceans, walk lands, tell stories I did not live through, but am tied to when I eat the foods of my people.

Food is a source of social creativity in the construction of my racialized identity as a Native Hawaiian. It is at the heart of the Hawaiian community today, and is central to my own experience of self. 

Since moving to the continental U.S. to earn my bachelors degree and pursue a career, I have never felt it more necessary to root myself in my Hawaiian identity, and to educate people who do not belong to a Hawaiian identity on the connection we have with the traditional food we eat. It comes from a deep sense of privilege to be able to experience other cultures through their food, and when we do so, we are participating in a mindful cultural exchange that has deep respect for the significance and nuances behind the foods we eat.

‘O Hāloa ke kuamoʻo o ka lāhui.

‘O Hāloa ke kuamoʻo o ka lāhui: Hāloa is the backbone of our nation. To understand and appreciate Hawaiian identity and Native Hawaiian food is to know Hāloa. By telling the story of Hāloa, you are telling the story of the kanaka maoli, of the Native Hawaiian race. Hāloanakalaukapalili is celebrated and respected as the eldest brother of the Hawaiian people.

Hawaiian moʻolelo (mythology) tells that Hāloanakalaukapalili was born without life to Hoʻohōkūkalani and Wākea. Hoʻohōkūkalani is the daughter of Papahānaumoku, the earth mother of the Hawaiʻi islands, and Wākea is the sky father of the Hawaiian people. Because he was a stillborn birth, Hāloanakalaukapalili was planted in the ʻāina (earth), and from him grew a plant with a strong stalk and a heart shaped leaf, the first kalo (taro) plant. Hoʻohōkūkalani and Wākea later gave birth to a healthy baby boy, the first Hawaiian, naming him Hāloa, after his older brother. All Hawaiians trace their roots back to Hāloa.

Kalo parts, courtesy of Keolamauloa.

Kalo, the fruit of the taro plant, pounded out with water to become poi, is the staple food of the traditional Hawaiian diet. Kalo fed generations and generations of kanaka maoli, and continues to nourish the Hawaiian body and soul. 

To prepare poi, the taro was first washed and cooked in an imu, an underground oven. The cooked taro was then peeled or scraped, and then pounded out in to paʻi ʻai, an undiluted poi. The traditional method of pounding kalo utilizes a pōhaku (rock) to smash the kalo against a wooden board until smooth, using water to slowly thin the thick paste in to poi. You can watch this process in the video by Mana ʻAi below. 

The mana, the power, in poi has everything to do with reconciling the relationship between kanaka maoli, and the food that connects us, reviving that relationship through aloha ʻāina, literally “love for the land.”  Daniel Anthony, “Uncle Danny,” a prominent poi and paʻiʻai pounder on Oʻahu, says, “eating is a powerful form of sovereignty.” By being less reliant on imported foods, and realizing that our ʻāina has the ability to feed our generation, and our keiki (children) after us, we are moving towards returning to a greater independence for our people. 

Mana ʻAi.

Uncle Danny runs Mana ʻAi, a small business operating out of the ahupuaʻa of Kaneohe, in the district of Koʻolaupoko, on the island of Oʻahu. Here is an excerpt from their website: “We believe in the power, the mana, of our aina and its ability to continue to feed us and our keiki…By purchasing paiai, you are supporting local and Hawaiian farmers, putting your dollars behind sustainable food sovereignty, and taking greater ownership of where your food comes from. We support local farmers practicing sustainable agriculture. Fund community and educational kui clubs. And steward and maintain several dry-land taro patches in Koolaupoko.” For recipes from Mana ʻAi utilizing kalo, click here.

Steamed kalo, ready to be pounded into poi, courtesy of I am Hāloa.

As I reflect on my own understanding of my racial identity, and how,for me, food is the most fluid way I can connect to my Hawaiian ancestry, it is integral for me to address how Hawaiian food is understood outside of Hawaiʻi, and to bring my own understandings of Hawaiian identity through food in to the conversation. Making and eating foods with a cultural identity, with a tradition rooted in the experiences of a racial/ethnic group, is about giving proper care to the  preparation of that food, as well as respecting the cultural value in the food you are eating. Cuisine is an opportunity for cultural exchange, education, and ultimately an experience beyond our tastebuds. 

Though the honey sounds of my mother language roll naturally from the tongue when I speak of poi, and poke, and laulau, I cannot speak Hawaiian fluently. I did not grow up learning traditional hula (dance), and I canʻt strum an ʻukulele to the completion of a song. I graduated from an all-Hawaiian institution, where I sang Hawaiian mele (song), and cultivated an appreciation and pride for my Hawaiian identity that you just canʻt teach, but it has been years since I graduated from Kamehameha Schools. Throughout my life, food has consistently been an accessible way for me to experience my Hawaiian identity. Food brings me home.

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