Hawaii seems, by most standards, a piece of heaven on earth, her beauty and climate idyllic. However, in the late 1700s relative poverty was introduced into this paradise, a stark example of the way the bounties of nature become worthless for people at the hands of an enforced culture. Kaori O’Connor carefully recorded the cultural details of Hawaii’s early food struggles. Her story, Kapu and Noa: Food and Eating in Old Hawai’i, appears in The Anthropologists’ Cookbook, edited by Jessica Kuper.
It seems in 1782, King Kamehameha I chose to enforce early religious practices, and with them, many taboos about eating, especially directed at women, who in many societies are considered unclean. As a result, “Males performed virtually all the work of food acquisition, cultivation and preparation. This meant the women were removed from the enjoyment of those foods they most prized.” While they ate from separate dishes in distanced eating houses, they were forbidden to eat pig, bananas, coconuts, turtle, the meat of the niuhi shark, the whale, the porpoise or the stingray and a number of other foods. This system, the kapu system continued for some forty years until the 1820s. Even today in the islands, it is Hawaiian men who are reckoned to be the better cooks.”
Physically, the Hawaiian Islands are composed of eight large islands and 134 islets, reefs and shoals, totaling 10,932 square miles. Their average year ‘round temperature is 75 degrees F. Each island represents the top of one or more shield volcanoes, the type which form from quiet lava flows which rise from the ocean floor.
Before the years of taboos, the earliest humans arrived in the 3rd century bringing edible plants, pigs and dogs. They found the most important plant was the taro root which they planted in the wetlands while they placed sweet potatoes in dry areas. Other early foods were breadfruit, yams, sugar cane and coconut.
Taro was made into Poi, taro leaves became vegetables. The major protein was fish, pig and dog. Capt. Jas Cook, European and American drifters and missionaries later introduced cows, horses and goats and many more plants.
Sugar wasn’t introduced as a crop until 1876. Following this, Chinese, Japanese, Okinawans, Koreans, Puerto Ricans and Portuguese settlers arrived. Each group wanted their own food. Small farms, market gardening and fishing operations spring up along with arrangements to make sake, tofu, noodles and other Asian foods. Rice became Hawaii’s third largest crop; the Japanese took over most of the fishing. From all these cultures came their food of today, a Creole food known as Local Food.
Pineapple didn’t reach Hawaii until 1813, brought by a Spaniard from the new World. By the 1950s Hawaii was producing three-quarters of the world’s pineapple. Currently, all pineapple canning is done in Thailand, Philippines and Kenya. Another export, macadamia nuts, originated in Australia. Today the island of Mauna Loa is the world’s largest grower.
HAWAIIAN FOOD WAYS:
French toast made with sweet breads
Furikake, a Japanese blend of sesame seeds, seaweed, bonito and salt
Inamona, roasted, salted and ground kukui nuts
Kava, a nonalcoholic, euphoria-producing beverage made from the root of the pepper plant
Luau (early): An early luau: poi, dried fish and shrimp, kalua pig baked in the ground, seaweed, sweet potatoes, chicken baked with coconut and taro leaves
Manapua, a steamed bun filled with Chinese barbecued pork
Poi: Taro root baked in earth oven (imu), pounded on a large wooden board and mixed with water to form a paste. Seafood and/or vegetables were added.
Poke, a local fish dish, raw fish cut into small chunks dressed simply with salt and seaweed or with chili peppers, sesame oil or soy sauce
Popular noodles: chow fun, bean thread, ramen, pancit canton, soba and udon
Teriyaki-flavored Spam: Spam fried and wrapped sushi-style with rice. Hawaii consumes five million pounds of Spam every year.