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Lunch at the Lo’i Reveals Traditional Hawaiian Models of Communal, Sustainable Living

From the moment you step on the idyllic grounds of Papahana Kuaola, you can already feel the magnificent energy of the ‘āina (land).

Quietly tucked away at the base of the 37-mile long Ko’olau mountain range in Waipao, He’eia, are the abundant wet-land taro fields, several ponds, rare varieties of banana trees and native plants, and a serene stream that trickles through the valley.

I was honored to be invited by Hawaii’s leading public relations firm McNeil Wilson Communications to attend the Third Annual Hawai’i Food & Wine Festival (HFWF) on the island of Oʻahu and take part in the “Fish & Poi: Lunch at the Lo’i” event on September 5.

For the second year in a row, Papahana Kualoa, helmed by Rick Barboza and Matthew

Kapaliku Schirman, welcomed the HFWF for the Bounty of He‘eia tour presented by Kamehameha Schools. This day-long tour of native agricultural sites allowed guests to not only savor food grown and produced in the ahupua’a, but give them a chance to harvest kalo, experience Hawai’i’s culture first hand, and hear Adam Richman from Travel Channel’s Man vs. Food series and famed chef Roy Yamaguchi share their insights on the event.

Determined to strengthen the relationship between the Hawaiian culture and food, the HFWF proudly devoted a week to showcasing more than 75 internationally acclaimed sommeliers and master chefs.

Making practical and effective use of Hawai’i’s rich bounty of seafood, local produce and beef, the festival promotes sustainability and places a genuine focus on the people of the land and the regions behind the food. It was a fulfilling experience I won’t soon forget.

Before departing on my escapade in paradise, I had hoped to experience the feeling of being barefoot and thigh-high deep in mud while extracting taro from the earth. But things don’t always go as planned, even if you make certain to check-off each item from your itinerary.

When traveling, you have to let go of expectations and go with the flow–trusting that the universe will take care of you. On this particular day, we were guests in a strange, prepossessing land. A land that knew exactly how to take care of us as we began to realize what malama the aina (take care of the land) really means. Upon arrival to Papahana Kuaola, everyone gathered near a steep-sloped hill and stole glances of the natural terrain, marveling at what was once an unofficial garbage dump.

A decade ago, the 63-acres of high-yielding countryside looked nothing like it does today. Following years of restoration work, cleanup, excavation, and a substantial grant from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association, the acreage that houses Papahana Kuaola, as well as Hui Ku Maoli Ola, has been completely rejuvenated.

While we stood in awe of the profound allure of the land, we were asked to step forward and listen as we were welcomed. Getting outdoors in an environment that makes you feel relaxed and welcomed had a deep-seated effect on my perspective of the island. It’s definitely the kind of feeling you wish everyone had the opportunity to be conscious of, mainly because of society’s fast-paced lifestyle.

Learning to manage the sacred space of this land in a respectful way revealed traditional Hawaiian models of communal sustainable living not found in Southern California.

“My perspective is that culture culminates in the form of food,” says Hi’ilei Kawelo, executive director of Paepae o He’eia. “Your practice, your people, your language, your environment–all of that culminates in your ability to put food on the table. If you’re missing part of the equation, you don’t have kalo (taro) or fish of ‘ulu (breadfruit), that’s probably an indication that the culture is not healthy, that people are detached or removed from the place and people. When you have all of those components–place, people, and environment–that are healthy, you have a healthy culture and you’re able to provide food.”

To grow and harvest food from the earth, to have a relationship with the land, is something more communities around the world should consider if they desire to focus on environmental restoration and economic sustainability. Because the harsh truth is: If you can’t eat the bounty of what you plant or grow, it’s worthless. In preparation for our delectable lunch, we headed down the valley to Paepae o He’eia at the 800-year-old He’eia Fishpond, and were warmly greeted by a breathtaking view, Kawelo, and the rest of the staff–who share a vision to create and sustain what Kawelo calls “a full-on, living, breathing ahupuaa.”

He‘eia Fishpond is a walled-style (kuapā) fishpond enclosing brackish water. The kuapā is built on the fringing reef that extends from the shoreline, surrounding the pond out into Kaneohe Bay. This unique and sophisticated form of aquaculture is found nowhere else in the world.

During a tour around the pond, led by Kawelo and founder and assistant executive director Keli’i Kotubetey, we became acquainted with the techniques employed to cultivate limu (seaweed) and harvest fish, as well as how threats to the space, such as tsunamis and mangrove, are dealt with. Kawelo explained to us how the sluice gutters are utilized today just as they were hundreds of years ago by Hawaiians.

These communities understood the changes in both the moon and tides. In times of low tide, outflow of water from the pond would occur, and the abundance of flow and nutrients would often attract small fish to enter the pond. The small fish would feed on the nutrient rich algae and other micro-organisms, and grow too big to leave the pond the way they came in.

At the highest tide, the fishpond was then harvested when the water rose. Our group even got to eat some of He’eia’s akulikuli (succulents), which tasted like getting a little saltwater in my mouth when swimming in the ocean. Delicious.

“The pond had been created to feed a very specific small geographic community that housed the ahupua‘a of He‘eia, about 2,000 people,” Kawelo said. “It wasn’t the sole source of protein but more of a supplement and they would stockpile fish in the pond, creating a reserve. Paepae o He‘eia recognizes that He‘eia Pond will never feed the state of Hawai‘i.”

When it was time to head back to Papahana Kualoa, we were eager to taste the love of the island’s bounty. I couldn’t have asked for a better ‘ohana to join me at the table. To my left was Noelani Schilling-Wheeler, the senior Director of Sales & Marketing for the Oʻahu Visitors Bureau, and Adam Richman and his mother. To my right, sat Stephanie Hua, the fabulous food writer, photographer, and creator of the food blog Lick My Spoon. She won a blogger contest and received a trip to Oʻahu to cover the HFWF.

It was an informative, entertaining, and delectable afternoon. We ate, we laughed, made pa’i’ai (pounded taro), and we talked about life, as live Hawaiian music played in the background.

How often do you get the chance to eat mo’o lele lu’e lu’e (frog legs) grilled on a bed of palula with Waipao chili sauce (prepared by Mark Noguchi and Kapaliku Schiman), Hawai’i Big Island Beef mole with Reppun Farm heirloom tomato salsa and criollo dark chocolate, or belly wrapped Shinsato Farms pork loin stuffed with pancetta and herbs and garnished with Waiahole kalo and crackling pork skin? Never. Even the pa’i’ai made by Richman’s mother was delightful. If you’re thinking about attending an event at next year’s HFWF, you don’t want to miss what takes place at Papahana Kuaola or Paepae o He’eia. Trust me, this experience is one for the books.

Papahana Kuaola is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization whose mission is to create quality educational programs focused on environmental restoration and economic sustainability fully integrated with Hawaiian knowledge. Through its educational programs, Papahana Kuaola services 30,000 students each year on Oahu and Molokai. For more information about the organization and its programs, visit


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