By Léo Azambuja
Aside from the obvious reason of feeding the population, food has been a significant component of Hawaiian life since the early days of Polynesian settlers more than a thousand years ago.
Today, any holiday, party or family gathering in the Islands will certainly have an array of local foods. But to early Hawaiians, who sustained themselves in isolation from the rest of the world for several centuries, food was much more than just something to eat or to throw a party. It was a way of life.
To those Hawaiians, food meant hard labor in taro fields and other food crops. It was the product of a lifetime learning and honing fishing skills. It was part of the taxes the commoners paid to the ali‘i, or chiefs, and it was also a bartering good. It was a central part of important religious ceremonies, being the offerings to Hawaiian gods.
As hospitable as the Hawaiian environment seems, the first human settlers in the Islands likely didn’t find a large variety of foods here.
The late historian Te Rangi Hiroa wrote in his last scholar publication, Arts and Crafts of Hawai‘i, that “the early, Menehune settlers of the Hawaiian Islands brought no cultivable food plants or domestic animals with them. Thus they had to depend entirely upon native plants for their vegetable foods and upon local birds and fishes for their proteins.”
The indigenous flora of Hawai‘i, however, was of poor quality and insufficient nutritional value, according to Hiroa. Some of the indigenous wild food plants those first “Menehune settlers” may have eaten included various kinds of limu (seaweed), noni fruit, berries from ‘akala, ‘ohelo, lama and ‘ulei, kupala roots, fern corm, piths and leaf shoots, and leaves from ‘aku, popolo and ‘aweoweo.
It wasn’t until after seafaring voyagers from the Society Islands arrived in Hawai‘i that food production, preparation and handling reached a whole new level in the Islands.
In the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Lawa‘i, Kaua‘i’s South Shore, a section of the lush property may be relatively small in size but huge in importance. NTBG’s Canoe Garden houses about 27 plants known to have been brought to Hawai‘i by seafaring voyagers in their canoes. Some, such as the ma‘ia (banana), and the ‘ulu (breadfruit), are propagated through suckers. Hiroa wrote the presence of cultivable plants, especially the banana and the breadfruit, shows the Polynesians planned the sea voyages carefully with the intent of finding land to settle.
Jon Letman, with the NTBG, said the importance of those canoe plants cannot be overstated — they were critical to the survival of the voyaging Polynesians.
“Plants like kalo (taro), ‘ulu (breadfruit), ohe (bamboo), ki (ti plant), and others provided food, medicine, clothing, shelter, essential tools, and other objects of practical and spiritual importance,” Letman said. “Most of these so-called ‘canoe plants’ remain common today and their utility and beauty is well-known.”
The Polynesians introduced at least eight plants that were used for food. These included kalo, ‘ulu, ma‘ia, niu (coconut), ‘uala (sweet potato), uhi (yam), pia (Polynesian arrowroot) and kō (sugar cane).
All these plants, with the exception of the sweet potato, came from Southeast Asia. The sweet potato comes from South America, and it was likely introduced to Polynesia after contact between indigenous peoples. In the indigenous Peruvian language Quechua, sweet potato was called kumar. In most of Polynesia, it was called kumara. In Hawai‘i, the name ‘uala is phonetically close to the rest of Polynesia.
Hiroa wrote that after these cultivated plants were introduced, the wild food plants were abandoned and only used in times of scarcity.
“In Hawai‘i, the fertile soil, the genial climate, and the industry of the people produced a rich and abundant food supply. The people grew well-nourished, robust, and healthy; and in physique, and intelligence they became one of the most advanced branches of the widely spread Polynesian people,” Hiroa wrote.
It wasn’t just plants that the early Polynesians brought in their canoes to Hawai‘i. They also brought the domestic fowl, pigs, dogs and rats, though this last one was likely a stowaway.
Some domestic fowl was trained for cock fighting, but their primary use was for food. They were also used in offerings to the gods. Hawaiians ate most kinds of birds found here, including sea birds, despite the fishy flavor.
Pigs were bred in large numbers for food, for rent payment and religious offerings. Dogs were also bred in large numbers, and baked dogs were usually the main meat in feasts. Their teeth were used for leg ornaments in hula.
Hawaiians also ate most kinds of freshwater and saltwater fish, octopus, squid, turtles (though not the poisonous ‘ea), crustaceans and shellfish.