“Do you dirty your poi?”
I’d never been asked the question before, and the look on my face proved as much to Kealalokahi Losch. He leaned back against a desk at Oahu’s Kapiolani Community College, where he teaches, and rephrased his question.
“Do you know what it means, to dirty your poi?”
Standing 6 feet 5 inches tall, arms crossing his chest, Losch was intimidating. He sighed at my silence, then shared some family-learned lessons about taro, whose cooked and mashed corm, mixed with water, is poi's sole ingredient.
Taro, or kalo in Hawaiian, is more than just a staple food of the traditional Hawaiian diet. In explaining the cultural connections of food to students in the college’s acclaimed culinary arts program, Losch teaches that kalo is spiritual, connective and represents important values in Hawaiian culture. To mix anything into a bowl of traditionally-served poi—the definition of “dirtying” it—is hugely disrespectful.
Losch has infused the history and importance of food to Hawaiian culture into his curriculum for more than a decade. Food, he explained, was the way to show aloha to other people, making it central in Hawaiian culture.
Losch gained much of his Hawaiian culinary knowledge from his mother, Naomi, a well-respected Hawaiian language and culture professor, who instilled in him a deep respect and reverence for food. His job, he says, is sharing that knowledge with others.
Returning to the subject of kalo, Losch had one more thing to teach me before we moved on to his thoughts about what he loved about it.
“You also never talk about business over an open poi bowl,” he said, sternly. “You cover it or you change the subject.”
Lesson learned, sir. Mahalo.
5 things I love about kalo
“In the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation story, the kalo is said to be the older brother of humanity. Haloanakalaukapalili, the long, trembling stalk of the quivering leaf, was born first but did not survive. He was buried, and from his grave grew the first kalo. A second child born was named Haloa, in honor of his elder sibling. This was the first human being. As long as we continue to care for our elder brother, even today, he will feed and nourish us in turn.”
“Of all the varied Hawaiian foods, poi is the dish that carries so many rules of etiquette. Some are practical in nature, but they also refer back to showing respect to the first Haloa and to each other. Nothing is ever dipped in, poured over or mixed into the poi. Not kalua pig, not lomi lomi salmon, not even milk or sugar. If your poi is not sweet enough, then you should have used better kalo.”
“Hookipa, or hospitality, is a central tenet of Hawaiian culture. The giving of food to a guest, especially poi, is an opportunity for a host to demonstrate the level of aloha and compassion that they have for their fellow human beings. Thus, it is considered rude and very stingy to hold back on serving food and, especially, to serve thin, watery poi to a guest.”
“The kalo connects us to the rest of Polynesia and reminds us that we are all cousins. Nearly every Polynesian culture consumes kalo as its staple starch. While our methods of preparing and serving it may be quite diverse, we still value the food as a core part of our culture.”
“Whether more traditional in origin—such as poi, or kulolo (a taro and coconut dessert)—or from one of our cousins—palusami from Samoa, or lupulu from Tonga—or part of modern culinary arts imagination—poi bread, kalo chips—(kalo dishes) are all so ono. As if the flavors weren’t enough, the nutritional value of kalo is also phenomenal.”
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2012 print issue of HAWAII Magazine.