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Lunch at the Lo’i: An afternoon in a Hawaiian valley

I should just start every blog post with the words, “I am such a lucky girl,” and it is so true, regarding the day I got to spend as part of the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival, called “Fish & Poi: Lunch at the Lo’i” for my mainland friends, a  “lo’i” is a taro patch, but that is too simple an explanation. It is an engineering marvel, where the farmers figured out how to bring water from the mountains, into the muddy terraces to grow the different varieties of Kalo. The root of the plant is what is pounded into poi, a staple food in the Hawaiian diet.

The event took place at Papahana Kuaola, set deep in He’eia valley. It is an organization dedicated to Hawaiian cultural practices, reclaiming and restoring the original lo’i and making the land productive again. The Hawaiians created an ingenious land division system of ahupua’a. These sections ran from the mountain down to the ocean, based on water flow. The farmers in the valleys brought water into the taro patches, but also kept the streams clear so that  fresh water flowed down to the sea, bringing fresh water to the fishponds.

Arriving at Papahana Kuaola
Arriving at Papahana Kuaola

We arrived in the valley and were greeted by the workers there. Then we hopped back on the bus and got to visit the He’eia Fishpond.

Reclaiming an 800 year old Fishpond
Reclaiming an 800 year old Fishpond
You can see the baby fishes entering the sluice gate.
You can see the baby fishes entering the sluice gate.

Another non-profit, Paepae o He’eia is working to rebuild the walls, cut out invasive mangrove trees and bring back the fishpond to productivity. We learned that at one point there were 400 working fishponds in Hawaii. At this one, they are using the methods the early Hawaiians devised for farming fish, using sluice gates and the tides to bring in the young fish who are attracted to the brackish water in the pond.

Both of these organizations and the event organizers, Kamehameha Schools, are working together to create sustainable sources for fresh food to our island. Unfortunately, here in Hawaii we have to import 80 – 90% of the food we eat. These groups recognize how the early Hawaiians managed to feed hundreds of thousands of people with the food they produced from the land and sea.

And the luncheon featured dishes prepared with locally grown ingredients. Here are just a few of the dishes we sampled:

 

Hawaii island Beef Mole with heirloom tomato salsa.
Hawaii island Beef Mole with heirloom tomato salsa.
Octapus (caught in Kaneohe Bay) prepared Tahitian style with lime, onion, tomato and fresh coconut cream
Octapus (caught in Kaneohe Bay) prepared Tahitian style with lime, onion, tomato and fresh coconut cream
Free range chicken and eggs smoked in Mamaki tea, served over a bed of organic greens and topped with a lilikoi and akulikuli vinaigrette
Free range chicken and eggs smoked in Mamaki tea, served over a bed of organic greens and topped with a lilikoi and akulikuli vinaigrette

And there was so much more. More food, more fun, tramping through the stream to see the taro patches, and I got my hands dirty and learned how to pound poi.

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several varieties of taro are grown at Papahana Kuaola
the stream we had to cross to get to the taro patches
the stream we had to cross to get to the taro patches
fresh water bubbles up through the water table in a natural spring
fresh water bubbles up through the water table in a natural spring
This is poi that I pounded myself -- delicious
This is poi that I pounded myself — delicious

It was a spectacular day out in one of the prettiest spots on the island. And for my local Hawaii peeps, you don’t have to wait for a special occasion to visit these places. Both organizations offer community days to come out, learn more about the land and farming practices, and to really appreciate the bounty that surrounds us.