By Léo Azambuja

A Hawaiian man pounding taro to make poi, circa 1890s. Taro plants can be seen behind him.

A Hawaiian man pounding taro to make poi, circa 1890s. Taro plants can be seen behind him.

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.

A Hawaiian poi dealer, circa 1870. Photo by Menzies Dickson/National Library of New Zealand

A Hawaiian poi dealer, circa 1870. Photo by Menzies Dickson/National Library of New Zealand

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.