This particular dish is near and dear to my heart. It was first introduced to me as a child by Kumu Kawai Ueoka, renowned Kumu Hula and kapa maker. We made this dish as part of a hō‘ike at a kamali‘i summer program that Aunty Kawai and Aunty Mālia Craver were offering to Ko‘olauloa children. There weren’t many people who made this dish during my childhood years and it honestly drifted from my memories. However in 1995 I began attending Ho‘okū‘ikahi Festivities at Pu‘ukoholā Heiau, and my palate rediscovered the plate at a food booth put on by the Waimea Hawaiian Civic Club.
It’s difficult to provide a “recipe” for kō‘elepālau, especially because ‘uala is not typically a consistent ingredient. Sometimes it could be very dark and sweet, other times a little less sweet, perhaps a little on the watery side. For me, another factor is the maturity of the ‘uala variety, if it has over bits that will be bitter and have that distinct smell.
The other factors are the density of the ‘uala, which is determined by when the mahi‘ai harvested it; the variety; the conditions under whch it was grown; and storage of the harvest. Uncle Jerry Konanui once told me that he preferred to store the ‘uala in a cool dark place like under the house for a week or so prior to use.
The most commonly available variety of sweet potato is the white or red-skinned Okinawan sweet potato with purple flesh. I prefer this variety versus the red skinned orange-flesh yam, and would definitely recommend against using the orange-flesh yam for ko‘elepālau. Of course there are hundreds of different varieties of sweet potato, and I honestly can’t say which variety would be most appropriate. It would be a fun project to try different varieties, but again I’ve always used the Okinawan sweet potato.
Some recipes will utilize sweeteners other than granulated sugar, such as condensed milk, agave syrup and so on. I prefer to lightly sweeten with honey, only if needed. Again, it’s up to your judgment and taste. A pinch of pa‘akai also helps to bring out the natural flavors.
The type of coconut milk used is also a major factor in this dish. The optimal coconut milk will be homemade, from freshly grated and squeezed coconut. If you decide to use a commercial coconut milk, frozen milk would be a good option, but canned would be alright as well. I would offer one piece of advice: allow the milk to sit for an hour or so in the fridge so that it separates. Scoop out and use the thick milk that settles to the top and save the liquid for use in other recipes. Again, the total amount of coconut milk used will be determined by starchiness of your potatoes.
So, with that said, the “recipe” attached is merely a guide and you need to take a moment to taste your product and adjust accordingly.
- 4 large Okinawan sweet potatos
- 12 oz. Coconut milk
- 1/2 cup Organic local honey
Steam potatoes for approximately 1/2 hour. Use a fork to determine that it’s soft and cooked all the way through. Peel potatoes once they are cool enough to handle, I typically use a butter knife. Mash the peeled potatoes preferably while hot. I reheat potatoes by either quick steaming or putting in the microwave for a few minutes. If the potatoes are steaming hot, they’ll be easier to mash. You can use either a hand masher or electric mixer if you have one. Mash all lumps then gradually add the coconut milk and honey till desired consistency and sweetness. My preference is for it to be thick enough to cling to a spoon and not dry or clumpy in texture. It is important to properly cool the ko‘elepālau as it can spoil quickly if left warm for too long. I recommend spreading out thin on baking sheets and allowing to cool in the refrigerator. Once thoroughly cooled, you can recombine into a bowl or sealable container. I prefer to serve cold.