“Ka i‘a lauoho loloa ka ‘āina”
(The long-haired fish of the land) ‘Ōlelo No‘eau, #1361

The saying above is from Mary Kawena Pukui’s “‘Ōlelo No‘eau,” a collection of sage wisdom of our Hawaiian elders. This ‘ōlelo compares the importance of vegetable greens eaten with poi, such as lū‘au, hō‘i‘o (fern), kikawaiō (fern) or sweet potato leaves (palulā), to the importance of fish in our ancestor’s daily diet. Poetically speaking, the leaves are the hair, the oho or lauoho of plants.

Many are surprised to learn that our ancestors’ daily diet was almost vegetarian, especially compared to the diet that Hawaiians consume today. In kahiko Hawai‘i, kalo (taro) and poi were staple foods. Lū‘au (kalo leaves) and other greens with limu (seaweed), sweet potatoes, yams and breadfruit comprised nearly 80 percent of our ancestor’s daily food. Back then, reef fish were the choice for daily protein, as small limu-fed fish were tasty and easily available. Hawaiians ate kalo or poi with other vegetables and limu (seaweed), along with an ounce or two of fresh fish. These foods, rich in numerous vitamins, minerals, protein and fuel, protected the health of hearts, digestive tracts and all body tissues of our Hawaiian ancestors – and can still help us today. Current health literature speaks of the protective nature of folic acid and vitamin B6 against heart disease. The traditional Hawaiian foods described above provide these protective nutrients and more.

Health professionals agree, if modern Hawaiians ate as their ancestors did – and did not smoke cigarettes – Native Hawaiians could improve overall health. Thus, by adopting the ancestor’s foods and cooking methods, Hawaiians would be markedly healthy again, and could create a great model for all Hawaiian children and grandchildren.

In an article on poi-making, Kawena Pukui mentioned how cooked lū‘au was occasionally substituted for pua‘a (pig) in offerings to the gods. These lū‘au offerings were called pua‘a hulu ‘ole, or “hairless pig.” This practice indicates the deep reverence our ancestors had for lū‘au. It was considered an appropriate offering because of its importance in the ancient cultural mo‘olelo (story) of Häloa. lū‘au was appropriate as offerings to the gods, and as medicine and food for man and animals. Today, kalo leaves are no longer plentiful in supermarkets, however, they can be found at community open markets or farmer’s markets.

The Hawaiian riddle, “He ‘ai ko lalo, he i‘a ko luna,” translates to, “The food is below, the meat is above.” You see, on occasion, Hawaiians made a meal of cooked lū‘au and poi. Kupuna Elizabeth Ellis told us how her family made pūlehu lū‘au, by turning a t#299; leaf wrapped packet of lū‘au over hot embers until it was cooked. That became their fish-substitute for dinner. Obviously, real fish was usually eaten but the practice of eating just pulehu lū‘au and poi was frequent enough to occasion to this riddle.

Among my childhood memories is sitting with my sister in the kitchen at Aunty Molly’s house in Waiala‘e, O‘ahu. We watched Aunty’s mother, Tutu, make “keko palai” for us. These were pancakes made of a chopped hāhā (lū‘au stems) and kalo mixture, fried in butter in a cast-iron skillet over a kerosene burner. Tutu smiled, sang and spoke to us in Hawaiian the entire time. We sat, smiled, watched and listened. Of course, we didn’t understand every word, but the aloha that she shared was clear. Then, she served us our first-ever “keko palai” pancakes. We sat and ate together, Tutu and the kids, while the “adults” talked on the porch. What an absolute treat!!

Our ancestor’s nutrition options were far healthier those we have today. Improving our health by changing our food choices would take significant effort, especially due to the scarcity of our cultural food. We can start by choosing to eat vegetables and fruits that are seasonally plentiful and affordable. Then, we need to advocate for improved access to traditional food in Hawaiian communities, perhaps through farming subsidies, farmers markets and food pantries. Let’s work on this with our community leaders.