Pass The Pa’i’ai: A Family-Style Hawaiian Meal

July 19, 2017
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Documentary filmmaker and āne‘ohe taro farmer, Daniel Anthony, making pa’i’ai. Photo by Sue Hudelson.

When food is served family-style, you can tell who grew up with a passel of siblings: they’re the ones hawk-eyeing the dish as it’s passed from person to person. They calculate how many spoonfuls remain while ladling heaping portions into their neighbors’ bowls. Around the dinner table, I notice two opposite reactions in myself and those beside me. First, a mixture of impatience and anxiety. What if there is not enough? Because we’re adults and mostly mature, we’ve learned to quell the inner child that might tantrum if we don’t get as much as the others did. I have never gone hungry; I have no reason to worry that the bowl will be scraped clean before it reaches me. But just as often, I worry about those after me. Will they get enough?

Which gives rise to the second reaction: selflessness. Almost invariably, dinner guests take smallish portions, and leave something in the bowl. No one wants to be the one who empties the dish. And somehow, despite (or maybe because of) this self-deprivation, everyone leaves full. It reminds me of the parable when Jesus fed 5,000 people with just a few fish and loaves of bread. The more people shared, the more there was to share.

Last spring, Kāne‘ohe taro farmer Daniel Anthony asked edible Hawaiian Islands to help fund the documentary, “I am Haloa.” The film, which is in post-production, follows three Kamehameha School seniors as they cultivate, harvest and eat taro three meals a day for 90 days. As the young women travel across the archipelago working with farmers and chefs, they root themselves in their native culture. For Hawaiians, taro is not only a dietary staple, it’s their eldest brother.

Our publisher Dania Katz knew immediately that she wanted to support the students’ effort. But rather than writing a check, she sponsored a benefit in the spirit of the film: a taro-themed supper. “I decided to feed the community,” says Katz, “to share how eating together can uplift a neighborhood or support a need in the community.”

When Travaasa Hana jumped in to co-sponsor the event, agreeing to host chefs, organizers and media at the five-star resort, everything fell into place. The dinner’s setting couldn’t have been more apropos: on the eve of the 22nd annual East Maui Taro Festival, at the resplendent Kahanu Garden. Just outside of tiny Hana town, the garden is home to the state’s largest living breadfruit collection, as well as a Polynesian canoe garden and Pi‘ilanihale Heiau, one of the most significant ancient temples in all of Hawai‘i.

Guests arrived in the late afternoon as the sun gilded the forested hillside. A huge rainstorm had swept the air clean the day before and the rolling lawn was extra green.

A single long banquet table waited beneath the trees as guests mingled under a tent, sipping cocktails and Big Wave Organics kombucha and enjoying Hawaiian steel guitar music.

Before we sat down, we toured the grounds. Quite by chance, Native Hawaiian cultural advisor and artist Sam Ka‘ai was in attendance and gave an impromptu talk in the canoe garden. He described how his ancestors migrated across the Pacific using the stars as guides and carrying in their voyaging canoes everything necessary for survival: breadfruit, bananas, sweet potato and taro.

Looming behind him, Pi‘ilanihale Heiau stood as testament to a powerful people. Ka‘ai further explained that the Hawaiian word for land, ‘āina, doesn’t just mean acreage, but the fertile soil that produces ‘ai, food. And with that in mind, the procession returned to the mobile kitchen where the chefs had prepared a feast.

Sitting on the grass and dressed in a malo (loincloth), Daniel Anthony pounded chunks of steamed taro with a stone pestle. Every so often, he’d scoop a few doughy clumps onto fresh leaves and his young helpers would scamper off to distribute them in the crowd. In my mind, there is no better food than this. Pa‘i ‘ai has a consistency similar to Japanese mochi: chewy, starchy and satisfying. It’s packed with vitamins and minerals (more calcium and iron than rice or potatoes) and is fit for travel and long-term storage. It’s what nourished the first Hawaiians on their trans-Pacific voyages. When mixed with about three times more water, pa‘i ‘ai becomes poi. But unlike poi, this labor-intensive treat can’t be machine-made. It has to be hand-pounded.

See why they say “to eat pa‘i ‘ai is to savor a labor of love” read the rest of “Pass The Pa’i’ai – Bound by Invisible and Profound Ties” by Shannon Wianecki, and see more photos by Sue Hudelson, at edible Hawaiian Islands.

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