Every creation myth has its own base material, be it dust, a clot of blood, or a blot of clay. For the starch-minded Hawaiians, though, it was the knobby, gray-fleshed taro root.
Like some deformed, bulb-shaped, premature baby, legend said that taro (or kalo, as it’s known in Hawaii) was the older brother to humanity, and it flourished to serve as a reminder of the islanders’ link to the land, eaten as an homage to it. Quasi-cannibalistic spiritualism aside, taro is making a comeback on the islands as some chefs are taking the root in new directions—and some very old ones.
While just about every visitor to Hawaii knows of taro’s soupy, machine-made version, poi, few have heard of its hand-pounded progenitor, pa’i’ai, a gray, paste-like substance with much more flavor and plenty of history. Pa’i’ai often is still made by loin cloth-wearing ku’i, slamming and scraping taro roots with pohaku ku’i’ai stones. “For the Hawaiians, it’s not just a starch, but a physical manifestation of a people’s genealogical history,” says Chef Mark Noguchi, who owns Pili Hawaii catering.
Raw taro resembles a cross between beets and horseradish, and it has some of characteristics of fruit, including flesh that sweetens as it ripens and that has the consistency of starchy vegetables. “You treat kalo like any other starch,” Noguchi says. “Whatever you can do with a potato, you can do with kalo.” However, unlike potatoes it’s crucial when making pa’i’ai to get taro that is neither young, when the flesh is too spongy, or overripe, when the paste quickly becomes sour.
Traditionally, pa’i’ai was the center of the plate, served with vegetables, seaweed salad, potatoes, and even meat and fish as accompaniments, says Chef Ed Kenney. At Kenney’s Honolulu restaurant Town, some version of pa’i’ai is usually on the menu. The variation we tasted at his now-closed Downtown was a play on the traditional fish and pa’i’ai and was one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes.
Because of the vegetable’s versatility, Hawaiian chefs are now experimenting with non-traditional pa’i’ai preparations. Besides sautéing pa’i’ai slabs, Kenney also grills, deep-fries, and makes batters out of the taro paste. And fellow newbie restaurant The Whole Ox has created a pa’i’ai take on Joël Robuchon’s pommes purée.
Because Hawaii still imports 85 percent of its food, farmers and chefs have been trying to expand local food sources. Vegetables, cattle, venison, and fish stocks have received plenty of attention, but locally grown starch has been an afterthought.
Rice long ago supplanted taro root as the main carbohydrate in the Hawaiian diet; plate lunches and loco moco are basically rice delivery systems. Heavy Chinese and Japanese immigration in the 1800s—as well as government deals after 1959 to import rice from California into Hawaii—led to taro’s near demise. In fact, land investors in the mid-1800s actually uprooted taro and replaced the crop with rice seedlings.
These days, most every starch is imported into Hawaii—except taro. “How are you going to be sustainable if your most staple food starch is imported?” asks Daniel Anthony of Mana’ai, a “full-time hand pounder” who teaches pa’i’ai crash courses and also sells his product locally, as well as to restaurants in California and New York.
Much of the problem with locally grown taro—and locally made pa’i’ai—is that poi underwent a commercialization in the early 1900s that led to poor quality, Anthony says. “This is our most sacred food, that has been literally … I don’t want to say stolen … but it was so painfully changed,” says Anthony, who admits he “gets a little feisty” about the uptick in obesity on the islands, which he says is connected to the commercialization of poi and limited attention to pa’i’ai.
Pa’i’ai might be one of the most enduring of Hawaii’s culinary dishes, but a few years ago it nearly suffered total extinction, thanks to the Hawaiian government.
In 2009 the Hawaii Department of Health shut down a number of independent pa’i’ai makers, claiming their boards weren’t sterile because they weren’t cleaned with sanitizers (which, according to Hawaiian spirituality, would have nixed the whole familial connection to the land that pa’i’ai is supposed to conjure). Health inspectors even raided the kitchen at Town, which was one of the most well-respected restaurants in Honolulu. “They made us trash all of the pa’i’ai we had in inventory,” Kenney says. “We responded with pounding our own pa’i’ai, a practice over which they had no jurisdiction.”
Following the raids, local pa’i’ai makers like Anthony fought back, and after numerous petitions the state agreed in June 2011 to exempt pa’i’ai from certain food safety laws, requiring makers to simply sun-bleach their boards. “I started a [pa’i’ai] business in 2009, and then later that year had a cease-and-desist,” says Anthony. “But then science spoke to science.” Anthony has since developed a non-chemical ozone system to sanitize his pa’i’ai boards, and he now sells his pa’i’ai at Whole Foods and to a number of restaurants, including Town.
The legal change was more than welcome for Hawaiian chefs who wanted to tap into the healthy heritage of their island and reduce the sugar content in their diners’carb intake by serving taro instead of rice. “From a Western perspective, the liability was understood,” Noguchi says. But “that was the practice of an indigenous population for generations. Pounding with a stone and board is no different than using a molcajete or making tortillas with your hands.”
Chefs are not taking the lead on the issue so much as serving as a catalyst for reviving one of Hawaii’s most revered—and, until recently, overlooked—dishes. "You’re seeing chefs leading the ways and that’s just because we feed so many people,” Kenney says of his involvement over the brief political firestorm. “All I did was serve the stuff.”