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Hāloa (Genealogy of the Hawaiian People)


The origin of kalo is a fundamental aspect of the Hawaiian culture and the genealogy of the Hawaiian people. One moʻolelo (story) of how kalo and humans came to be, was through the gods. Wākea (father, widespread-sky) and Hoʻohōkūkalani (daughter of Papa, the mother earth) gave birth to a stillborn child. They named him Hāloanakalaukapalili. Hāloanakalaukapalili was buried near their house and from his earthen grave grew a kalo plant. Wākea and Hoʻohōkūkalani gave birth to a second male child and called him Hāloa. Hāloa was the first kanaka and ancestor of the human race. Therefore, kalo was the older brother and man the younger, which is why the kalo plant is important and sacred to Hawaiians.


Mahiʻai (Agriculture)

Farming kalo can be accomplished in two soil environments, loʻi (irrigated wet flooded field / patch) and māla (non-flooded garden that receive sufficient moisture from rainfall), Both styles can produce high yields to feed people. Each ahupuaʻa and area within an ahupuaʻa incorporated one or both of these styles of kalo farming. A lot of work is required to build and maintain loʻi kalo and māla. Loʻi kalo needs cool fresh running water through the patch which comes from an ‘auwai (irrigation system). ‘Auwai traditionally divert a small portion of a kahawai (stream) at a poʻowai (stone dam). Daily maintenance of the ‘auwai is required to ensure enough water is feeding the loʻi kalo. The water temperature in the loʻi should always be below 73°F.



Prior to 1850, there were over 400 varieties of kalo. Today, there are only about 80 native varieties left. There are 5 main kalo families; lehua, mana, piko, lauloa, and ‘eleʻele. Each variety of kalo has unique features with different color leaves, stems, and piko. Kalo varieties also make different colors of poi ranging from red, pink, yellow, white, grey, purple and brown.


Planting kalo is done by digging a hole with a wooden ‘ōʻō (stick) and placing the huli (cutting) into the ground between 5-7 inches. Each kalo variety has a different growth cycle depending on the style of farming, ranging from 8-14 months. The word for planting kalo is kanu.


Wai (Water) 

Kalo requires a lot of water, especially when it is planted using the loʻi kalo method. Hawaiians managed their water resources very carefully which meant they did not take all of the water out of the streams. The poʻowai (stone dam) took no more than 25% of the actual stream flow for use in an ‘auwai irrigation system. This traditional process of diverting water was taken very seriously and luna wai (irrigation overseers) made sure that water was not wasted and that it eventually went back into the stream. Those that did not manage their water properly faced severe consequences.


Today, many streams no longer flow due to modern diversions which have cut off mauka to makai stream flow. These diversions have impacted traditional loʻi kalo farming in a negative way by either giving them insufficient water flow or no water at all. These diversions were first established by sugar companies that diverted water out of a stream for irrigating fields of sugarcane. This practice continues today on Maui, along with stream water being taken for golf courses, hotels, housing developments, ranching, and municipal purposes. Since the 1860’s, Hawaiians had to leave their land to find another means to survive and feed their families.


Currently, many kalo farmers and community groups on each island are working to restore stream flow so that they may grow kalo again on traditional kuleana lands. The restoration of mauka to makai stream flow is also important for the survival of stream life such as ‘oʻopu, hīhīwai, and ʻōpae as well as recharging the ground water in the aquifer.


‘Ai (Food)


Kalo can only be harvested by hand, which means no machines can be used. The heel of the foot is used to loosen the soil around the kalo and to break off the huluhulu (small roots). The plant is then pulled above the water line and the ‘ohā (young kalo shoots) are carefully broken off the mākua (parent) plant. The leaves and the kalo are cut off to prepare huli to replant. The word for harvesting kalo is huki.


The kalo (corm) needs to be cooked thoroughly because it contains calcium oxalate crystals which is a chemical compound that forms needle-shaped crystals. This can cause a maneʻo or itchy feeling in the mouth if it is not cooked well. Traditionally, Hawaiians cooked kalo in the imu.


Today, cooking kalo can be done by boiling, steaming, or pressure cooking. After the kalo is cooked, the skin is peeled (hoʻopohole) with an ‘opihi shell or spoon. The kalo is then placed on a papa kuʻi ‘ai (poi board) and pounded with a pōhaku kuʻi ‘ai into a smooth mass called paʻi ‘ai. Many kūpuna and others prefer to eat this stage known as paʻi ‘ai. In order to make poi, the paʻi ‘ai is taken off the board and put into an ‘umeke (wooden bowl) and mixed with water until it becomes wali (thinned out) and not as sticky as paʻi ‘ai. Today, poi is usually bought at the stores and comes from a number of different poi mills throughout the islands. It can be very expensive too.


Cooked kalo can also be cut into pieces and eaten. This is called table kalo. Raw kalo grinded into fine pieces, mixed with coconut milk and sugar can be made into a desert pudding called kūlolo. Either pork, chicken, or fish can be put into young leaves called lūʻāu, wrapped with kī (tī) leaves, and steamed in a imu for a dish called laulau. The leaf stems were also eaten by peeling and cooking them down for greens.


Lāʻau Lapaʻau (Medicine) 

The stem of the raw leaf was rubbed on insect bites to relieve pain and to prevent swelling. A raw corm could be used by rubbing it on wounds to stop bleeding. Poi was used as a poultice or bandage on infected sores.