Ark of Taste
Kalo, Hawaiian for taro, is the most important traditional food crop of Hawaii. Kalo leaves and stems are used as a vegetable, and the gray to purple corms are made into poi (pounded kalo mixed with water) or pa’i’ai (pounded kalo, produced with very little water). It is propagated by cutting off the stem where it connects with the tuber, saving the tuber as food. Kalo is among the world’s oldest cultivated crops, and is thought to have originated in the Indo-Malay region before spreading globally.
One of the most valued and cherished varieties of kalo is manalauloa, known for its distinctive mouth feel and delicate, sweet flavor. Manalauloa is a Hawaiian variety, developed in Hawaii. The mother plants were originally brought from Malaysia by Polynesian voyagers centuries ago. It is what Hawaiians call a “canoe plant,” one carried by voyaging canoes as they migrated and spread throughout Polynesia. Other examples include maoli (native) bananas, sweet potatoes, breadfruit, mountain apples, sugarcane.
Kalo is most revered in the Hawaiian islands, where it is firmly tied in tradition and myth to the beginnings of mankind and the creation story. In Hawaiian tradition, Kalo was the older, stillborn brother of mankind, born of Papa, the earth mother, and Wakea, the sky father. Known as Haloa, this stillborn child was buried, and from the grave, kalo appeared. The second child, man, cared for and was fed by his older brother.
Manalauloa has a particularly sticky, gummy quality, which is prized locally. It is sweet and flavorful, generally used for salads and savory dishes at the table, rather than poi. It is considered the best kalo for making kulolo (a traditional dish made with coconut and kalo).
Although kalo does not originate in Hawaii, Hawaiians took kalo to its peak in terms of primacy of use and varieties, producing over 150 varieties prior to 1778 and over 300 all together. Today, there are only about 60 varieties left. There were perhaps as many as 25,000 acres of flooded kalo lo’i (irrigated fields) in the 18th century; today there are less than 400 acres in production.
Some global varieties (like Chinese) are not endangered, but Hawaiian kalo lo’i have been decimated, and various Hawaiian varieties are endangered. Fast-flowing, cool water is needed to produce the favored wetland kalo that Hawaiians depended on for centuries prior to Captain Cook’s arrival, and subsequent contact with Western colonialists. The few commercial growers today produce one variety, Lehua. Other varieties are much more scarce, including Maunalauloa, Moi, and Pi’i’alii.
The biggest issues have been water and land, although the physically hard work of kalo farming is also challenging. The chronic shortage of land with sufficient water is key, especially in the face of continuing pressure for more development in Hawaii. There is sustained demand for kalo and poi but limited supplies, causing prices to soar. This variety, manalauloa, is particularly prized and hard to find. Before contact with Captain Cook and later colonialists, kalo was the mainstay of the population, which is estimated at 300,000 people. The biodiversity contained in that magnificent connection to the Hawaiian populace serves as inspiration for the modern devotees of manalauloa and other heirloom varieties of kao.