Connecting to Culture Through Food

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More than a decade ago, Kealoha Domingo was invited to attend hoʻokuʻikahi ceremonies at Puʻukoholā heiau. The experience was transformative, igniting his interest in forging deeper connections with Hawaiian culture. Where others found their cultural connections in hula or ʻōlelo, Kealoha found his niche in preparing traditional Hawaiian foods. He finds joy in preparing food that is grown pono and can nourish the body and naʻau. As a chef and owner of the NuiKealoha catering company, Kealoha is well-known for his mouthwatering preparations of traditional Hawaiian foods.

We met Kealoha at Papahana Kuaola where he serves as a board member. He’s been involved with the ʻāina restoration project since 2008. Surrounded by the beauty of Waipao, Kealoha shared how he has developed a richer connection to culture through food.

Why are locally grown ingredients important to you?
It shows an appreciation for the ʻāina, and all the mana that it provides. That mana goes directly to the people who eat the food. It’s empowering. It’s reconnecting to the ancestors, to our kūpuna.

Do you cook a lot with your family?
I grew up with it around the house, from both ends of my family. My Chinese grandfather loved to cook. He always cooked these lavish meals for us. It kind of transferred to the rest of the family, all the way down to my son, even my little ones. For some reason, we have this need to cook. We’re always around food. Whether people realize it or not, it seems like hard work at times but it really brings the family together. For me, that’s what keeps me motivated, knowing that it’s nourishing people, and teaching the next generation exactly what we do.

How does it make you feel to be able to feed your ʻohana food that you have had a hand in growing?
Well, it’s definitely something that we should all aspire for. For myself, on Oʻahu, it’s not as prevalent, but thanks to Papahana, I’m able to be a part of it. I wouldn’t say I’m here every day tending to the weeds, but being active enough to support what happens here. It feels good to see the fruits of everyone’s labor here. A lot of people put energy into the product here. Mālama ʻāina is very rewarding.

I always try to utilize ingredients that I know came from here, that came from this soil, that came from these people. It is grown pono, and in a pono place. To me, it equals good food. Being able to see it through the whole process from keiki to harvest, it’s like seeing your child grow up and go to college. It’s rewarding, but it seems to taste a little better. The ʻono is there. Like when you catch your own fish. The ʻono is always better.

STEAMED ʻULU
> Rinse the whole ʻulu before cutting into quarters.
> Fill rice pot with one inch of water.
> Wrap ʻulu with ti leaf or foil to keep the sap off of your pot.
> Place in the pot and cook on brown rice cycle. *Or cook for 20 to 30 minutes in a pressure cooker.
> Once cooked, remove skin and core.
> Cut into slices and serve.

FIRE ROASTED ʻULU
> Rinse the whole ʻulu.
> Place the whole ʻulu on to low burning coals.
> Cook for 20 to 30 minutes.
> U se a skewer to poke the ʻulu to test if done. Should be soft and dry.
> Carefully remove from fire and scrape or trim off charred skin.
> Cut out core. Cut into slices and serve.

Recipes courtesy of Kealoha and Kahikinaokalā Domingo.