East Maui Taro Festival

Festivals, Food, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Traditions, Travel Destinations
on March 30, 2011
Sean Conneely Nameaea Hoshino uses a stone tool to pound the root of a taro plant, grown on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!

The sounds of stone striking wood echo through the still, steamy air in Hana, Hawaii (pop. 709), drawing a crowd of curious onlookers as Nameaea Hoshino, 26, demonstrates an ancient Polynesian tradition: the pounding of taro root.

Using a stone tool with a rounded striking surface, Hoshino bashes, stretches and kneads the root, pausing occasionally to douse the potato-like tuber with water to keep it from sticking to the stone. After 10 minutes of dedicated pounding, the root is pulverized into a part-gelatinous, part-doughy paste known as poi, once a staple of the Hawaiian diet.

“There’s something different about the texture and taste of taro pounded by traditional methods rather than made commercially,” says Kaleikoa Kaeo, 45, supervising the demonstrations by Hoshino and two other poi-pounders. Indeed, the rhythmic pounding of multiple demonstrators sounds like a tribal drum corps.

Thousands of people come to observe poi production, a highlight of the East Maui Taro Festival each spring in Hana.

“Taro represents the Hawaiian people,” says Maria Kaimi Orr, who founded the festival in 1993. “It’s more than a staple of our diet; it’s a symbol of our culture.”

The taro plant, also known as kalo in Hawaii, plays a central role in Hawaiian mythology. “Taro is the older sibling of man,” explains Kaeo, an instructor of Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaii at Maui. “There’s a strong familial relationship between the plant and the people, which reinforces our environmental awareness.”

The broadleaf plant grows throughout the tropics and flourishes in Hawaii, particularly in eastern Maui where Hana is located, because of its consistent rainfall, verdant valleys and countless streams spilling down Haleakala, a 10,000-foot-high dormant volcano.

The two-day festival takes place at a community park and celebrates both taro and Hawaiian culture. For Kaeo, the event is an opportunity to expose younger Hawaiians to their heritage.

“The festival helps bridge the cultural gap between the older generations and the younger ones,” he says.

Hoshino learned to pound poi six years ago and now proudly demonstrates the ancient technique for locals and tourists alike. “For me, pounding taro into poi gives me a connection to my past,” says Hoshino, whose ancestors grew the plant on the western side of Maui.

John Lind grew up in Hana and understands that connection intimately.  “When I was a small boy, everything was about pounding poi,” says Lind, 62. “There’s a spiritual healing to pounding poi. Getting to know taro is getting to know who we are.”

For centuries, poi served as the main starch in the native Hawaiian’s diet. Today, though commercial varieties can be purchased, poi’s prominence has diminished with the influx of other culinary choices. Yet poi remains an essential component of traditional religious and cultural ceremonies, where it is served in a communal bowl and eaten by hand.

Hawaii’s taro production has been steady in recent years—about 350 acres—yet is only a third the size of the 1,020-acre crop in 1948, and a fraction of what historians estimate was grown on the islands when Capt. James Cook landed in 1778.

Lind hopes to change that trend. In 1995, with his wife, Tweetie, and other local residents, he established the nonprofit Kapahu Living Farm, a five-acre property where taro is cultivated using traditional methods on the lush slopes of Haleakala, 10 miles from Hana. The farm serves as an educational center and offers field trips for festivalgoers to hike through terraced taro patches, learn about historical irrigation methods, and get their hands dirty by helping with planting or harvesting.

In addition to the poi pounding, the festival features authentic Hawaiian music, colorfully adorned dancers, a taro pancake breakfast and a Konane tournament, which is a traditional Hawaiian board game played like Chinese checkers. “It’s an easy game to learn but a difficult one to master,” Kaeo says.

Taro pounding resonates the deepest, however.

“At the festival, people can really take the time to sit and watch the demonstration,” Kaeo says. “For some Hawaiians, it’s the first time they’ve seen taro, the cornerstone of our culture, pounded traditionally.”

The 19th annual East Maui Taro Festival is scheduled April 30-May 1.