The Essential Guide to Taro: A Kalo Culture Comeback
Kalo, or taro, is one of the most important foods for Native Hawaiians. Read about the culture, history and innovative new uses for the storied plant, along with some of our favorite dishes, from poi mochi doughnuts to pa‘i‘ai.
From left: Paul Reppun, Charlie Reppun and Harvey Ota of Waihe‘e Farm.
PHOTO: ELYSE BUTLER MALLAMS
Taro, or kalo as it’s known in Hawai‘i, is much more than a staple food. The humble plant has important cultural significance, brings communities together and enhances our favorite foods.
When Charlie Reppun started farming kalo with his brother, Paul, in the ’70s—first in Waihe‘e, then in Waiāhole—he wasn’t planning a cultural revolution. The brothers just wanted to
farm, starting with papaya and banana trees before planting their first huli (taro shoot) in the fertile ground at the base of the Ko‘olau Mountains.
Today, the Reppuns tend 28 acres of farmland in Waiāhole, with three dedicated to taro, the common name for the plant known in Hawaiian as kalo. While wetland taro is their primary crop, the brothers also grow bananas, papayas, ‘uala (sweet potato), ‘ulu (breadfruit), coffee, cacao and avocados. They process hundreds of pounds of poi in a certified kitchen on the Waiāhole farm every month, selling directly to customers or at the city’s open market. And they’re happy to share what they know with anyone who wants to learn about kalo farming.
When the Reppuns started farming, “it was the end of the hippie era and there was a strong back-to-land movement going on,” says Charlie Reppun, now 70. “It’s not unlike what’s happening today.”
Though too modest to admit it, the Reppuns helped ignite a resurgence in taro farming. When they started farming in 1974, about 460 acres of kalo were harvested across the state; by 1997, 605 acres were harvested, with 6.5 million pounds produced that year.
In 2015, the most recent year statistics were compiled by the state, taro production had dipped—only 340 acres of kalo were harvested—but interest is at an all-time high, experts say. There are more ways to buy, find and eat taro in its various forms, from poi to pa‘i‘ai (the sticky precursor to poi) to kūlolo. Smaller farms and nonprofits, including Ho‘okua‘āina in Maunawili and Waipā Foundation on Kaua‘i, are milling their own poi and distributing it throughout the community. There are more classes where participants learn the Hawaiian tradition of hand-carving a papa ku‘i ‘ai (poi-pounding board) and pōhaku ku‘i ‘ai (stone poi pounder). Organizations are using lo‘i kalo for stewardship and education. And more people are growing taro in their backyards, on their lānai, even in aquaponic systems.
“There’s definitely more interest [in taro] in the past 10 years,” says Ted Radovich, an associate extension specialist with UH’s Sustainability and Organic Agriculture Program. He oversees the kalo research program in Waimānalo. “Small-scale taro growers have really found a market. There are more poi-pounding [events]. More people are buying directly from growers. They even have specific varieties that they like.”
Taro is one of the oldest cultivated crops in the world, dating back to the Indo-Malaysian Peninsula more than 50,000 years ago. The plant, part of the Araceae family and used as a vegetable mostly for its corm and leaves, arrived in Hawai‘i—along with bananas, ‘ulu, coconut, sugar cane, mountain apple and yam—with Polynesians around A.D. 900 to 1000. As a food crop, kalo played an important role in the diet of the Hawaiian people. It’s among the most nutritious foods in the world, high in carbohydrates and easy to digest. The corm is an excellent source of potassium—higher than banana—and fiber, and it’s packed with calcium and iron. The leaves are vitamin-rich.
But more than just a valuable, nutrient-packed food source, kalo holds special cultural significance to Hawaiians. According to one version of the Hawaiian creation story, the first kalo plant grew from the buried remains of the stillborn first child of the gods Wākea and Papa. Their second child, Hāloa, became the first human to live in the Islands. Thus, kalo is Hāloa’s older brother, to be cared for and respected by his younger sibling.
Hawaiian historians at UH estimate that around A.D. 1100 to 1650, with more than 400,000 people living across the Islands, kalo production reached its peak, with more than 20,000 acres in cultivation across six islands. More than 300 varieties of taro existed.
Production declined sharply in the early 1800s, after the arrival of non-Polynesians, who brought with them diseases that affected both the supply of and demand for kalo. Alternative crops, particularly rice and imported wheat, supplanted the demand for taro, ‘uala and ‘ulu. Many kalo lo‘i were converted to grow more profitable crops—or in some cases, to housing and development. Some were abandoned and overgrown, lost for decades.
Today, state agricultural officials estimate that just under 400 acres of taro are harvested annually, far fewer than macadamia nuts (16,000 acres), papayas (1,300) and bananas (700). And of the hundreds of kalo varieties once cultivated, only about 80 are still around. But the demand is growing, with businesses finding innovative ways to use the starchy plant. Bakeries and restaurants are incorporating kalo into dishes, from chewy poi mochi doughnuts at Liliha Bakery to crispy kalo falafel at ‘Ai Love Nalo in Waimānalo. Honolulu Poi Co., Hawai‘i largest taro processor, sells poi pancake mixes and dehydrated and frozen poi. Workers at Waiāhole Poi Factory hand-pound poi three times a week right in front of the eatery.
The Reppuns consider kalo the future.
“We think the world doesn’t need more [commercial] farmers; the world needs more people farming,” Charlie Reppun explains. “It would be great if we could start a movement where people say, ‘I want to grow something,’ even if it’s in a 5-gallon bucket on their lānai. … There are a lot of good things happening right now.”