Friday, August 23, 2013

The Traditional Hawaiian Diet (Hint: It's Not Spam)

Turtle Bay, Oahu, Hawaii
Turtle Bay, Oahu, Hawaii

Apologies if you missed me over the last couple of weeks (I had planned to get an article out, really!), but I just got back from completely immersing myself in the tropical paradise of Hawaii.  So rather than burn the midnight oil working on the ol’ Retro while on my big vacation, I decided to take a well-deserved breather and focused on consuming a serious amount of fresh pineapple.
On my quest for the spiky, golden fruit, I ended up at the Polynesian Cultural Center on the island of Oahu.  If you’ve never been, it’s a whole lot of fun and very informative.  Each of the traditional Polynesian cultures is represented by natives of the area in a series of demonstrations and activities that give you a good overview of their histories and customs.  My first stop was Samoa.
Samoan Bob
Samoan Bob
It was here I ran across an impromptu lecture about the benefits of the traditional, coconut-based Samoan diet by a burly native named Bob (I don’t actually remember his name so I’m just going to call him Samoan with it).  He started by talking about food as medicine and that, rather than spending money on expensive drugs when your body deteriorates and becomes sick, we should be spending money on good, nutritious food that will keep you from getting sick in the first place.  Little did he know, but Samoan Bob had just become my new man-crush.
Before he ran off to begin the hourly spectacle of coconut cracking and tree climbing in the pavillion, Samoan Bob reiterated his desire for us to return to a more traditional lifestyle, but not necessarily in the sense of shunning technology; he believes we need to embrace the benefits of the plants and animals nature provides, like our ancestors did for millions of years.  To make a point, he talked about the benefits of coconut oil and, specifically, using it to keep your hair and skin healthy.  No soap.  No shampoo.  No fancy, expensive moisturizers.  Just coconut oil.  As it turns out, Samoan Bob may be on to something.

Location, location, location

This brief introduction to the world of traditional Samoan culture peaked my curiosity and made me realize how important geography was to the lifestyles of ancient peoples.  As with real estate, location is everything – where you live dictates how you live.
Humans have migrated to just about every habitable corner of the planet, creating a very diverse set of living conditions.  From food availability and diet composition to climate and topography, we have constantly adapted to our changing surroundings and done extraordinarily well, as evidenced by the 7 billion or so of us wandering the globe today.
It is with this in mind that I’d like to start a regular series of articles about the traditional diets of various ancient cultures.  The sparse, tropical islands of the Pacific Ocean offered a very different set of challenges to early Polynesians than, say, living in Arctic Canada like the Inuit people.  I want to explore these differences in culture and diet to see if we can’t tease out some commonalities.  And since I just spent a week there, let’s start with...


Polynesians from the Marquesas Islands are thought to be the first settlers to Hawaii, landing sometime between 300 and 500 C.E.  Upon their arrival, they found that despite the rich diversity of vegetation there were remarkably few edible plants and almost no edible carbohydrates.
Polynesian double-hulled canoe
Polynesian double-hulled canoe
Fortunately, (expert seafarers that they were) the Polynesians had stocked their double-hulled canoes with a plethora of different plants and animals for the long journey across the ocean and immediately began to build a thriving agricultural center.  They planted sweet potatoes, taro root, sugar cane, coconut – they even raised pigs and chickens (and dogs, but let’s not talk about that).  In fact, most of the foods associated with and commonly thought to be endemic to the Hawaiian Islands were actually brought by the early Polynesians or later introduced by the Europeans when they began arriving towards the end of the 18th century.
Now what kind of foods do you think about when you think of Hawaii?  Pineapple?  Kona coffee?  Macadamia nuts?  Surprisingly, all three were introduced in the early 1800s and were not really successful as cash crops until the early 1900s.  So when I talk about the traditional Hawaiian diet, I’m going to stick to only the things the natives ate before the Europeans crashed the party: poi, fish, coconut, etc.  But enough talking...

Time for a Luau – Let’s Eat!

Ancient Hawaiians were very fit, strong people.  This was due largely to their active lifestyles (hunting, gathering, canoeing, hula-ing) and also due to a very simple diet that was high in fiber, low in saturated fat and low in sodium (sound familiar, Paleo Diet fans?).
Food was classified into two main categories:  ‘ai (fruits and vegetables) and ‘ia (fish).  They also ate pigs, dogs and various birds, which also may have been considered ‘ia, but fish was by far the main source of protein for early Hawaiians.  So let’s take a look at some of ‘ai and ‘ia that made the Hawaiians the healthy, sturdy people they were.

‘Ai (fruits and veggies)


Hawaiian Poi
Hawaiian Poi - Photo by  arnold | inuyaki
You just can’t talk about Hawaiian food without talking about poi, a gelatinous purple paste made from the mashed, fermented corm (bulbous tuber at the base of the stem) of the taro plant.  Poi was the main starch in the Hawaiian diet and both incredibly important and highly sacred to their culture.  It was believed that when a dish of poi was unveiled at a family meal, the spirits of the ancestors were present and, therefore, any arguments must stop immediately.
Aside from being a great way to shut up your family, poi is packed with vitamins, minerals, simple carbs, proteins and beneficial bacteria (much like yogurt).  As it turns out, poi is also one of the most digestible foods on the planet and has recently been shown to kill cancer cells in the colon, making it quite the little superfood!
Unfortunately, it’s also an acquired taste.  Fresh poi is supposed to be sweet, but as it ferments, it tends to become much more sour.  I tried a bit at a luau last week and I have to say I’m not a fan.  One of our guides said it goes quite well with fish (particularly lomi salmon), but I’m pretty sure it would take a concentrated effort to choke enough of it down to be beneficial.  Seeing as it is ridiculously good for you, though, I’d be willing to give it another shot.


Breadfruit - Photo by cumi&ciki
High in fiber and rich in nutrients, this starchy fruit was a major staple food among Pacific Islanders for over 3000 years.  A member of the fig family, the breadfruit tree has one of the highest yields of any fruit-bearing tree on Earth, producing up to 450 pounds of fruit every season.  Yet today ii is primarily grown for ornamental purposes.
You’d think something as nutritious and plentiful as breadfruit would be a fairly common commodity in today’s world, but chances are you’ve never eaten or even heard of the stuff.  Even modern day Hawaiian natives generally don’t eat it.  Why?  It’s bland.  Breadfruit is said to taste a bit like under-cooked potatoes.  When the infamous Captain Bligh introduced breadfruit trees to the Caribbean in the late 18th century, it took almost 50 years for the locals to actually develop a taste for the fruit.
Still, breadfruit is such a highly beneficial and abundant source of food that many proponents see its potential as an easily accessible staple food for poorer populations.  Over 80% of the world’s hungry live in tropical or sub-tropical climates – perfect growing conditions for the breadfruit tree.  Visit The Breadfruit Institute to see how they are promoting this superfood to help solve hunger and deforestation issues around the globe.


Coconut - Photo by SingChan
One of my absolute favorite things touring around Oahu was stopping by one of the roadside stands selling “Ice Cold Coconut”.  They’d pull a fresh coconut out of the fridge, whack the top off, stick a straw in it and you’d have a delicious husk full of coconut juice at your fingertips.  Then, when finished, you could crack the shell open and scoop out and devour all the meat.  I seriously have never had so much coconut in my life, but I loved every minute of it.
Many cultures in the Pacific used coconut as their primary food source for thousands of years and nearly a third of the current global population still relies on coconut as a significant part of their diet.  Ancient Polynesians long recognized coconut oil for its restorative and medicinal properties, but modern researchers are just starting to understand some of the benefits of the meaty, white fruit.   One thing is clear, though:  it is really good for you.
Coconut water is one of the most pure substances on Earth and also packed with vitamins and minerals.  Not only is it quite tasty, it is a perfect balance of water and electrolytes, making it great for re-hydration and has been shown to fight worms and help break up kidney stones.  But here’s what will really blow your mind:
“Coconut water is said to have some important similarities to blood plasma and it mixes very easily with blood. As a result, it is possible (in extreme emergencies) to use it as an alternative liquid in blood transfusions.”
So when you’re stranded in the Pacific and are in desperate need of an IV drip or a blood transfusion, remember your pal – the coconut.

Sweet Potato

Sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes - Photo by jamonation
One of the oldest vegetables known to man, sweet potatoes are somewhat unique in that they are the only plant cultivated by the early Polynesians to come from the Americas.  It was thought to have been introduced to Eastern Polynesia from South America sometime between the first and third centuries C.E., but it’s not known exactly when they were brought to Hawaii. Regardless, the sweet potato quickly became an important crop to the native Hawaiian population (it’s estimated that they consumed over 200 different kinds of sweet potatoes) and is still widely used in dishes today.
Sweet potatoes are an almost-unsurpassed natural source of beta-carotene  These starchy root vegetables are high in fiber and nutrients and, though they taste sweet, can even help to lower blood sugar levels.  To top off the list of health benefits, they are packed with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients.  No wonder those old Hawaiians were such a healthy lot.

‘Ia (fish and meat)


Hawaiian fishes
Hawaiian fishes - Photo by NOAA's National Ocean Service
Fishing was a huge part of Hawaiian culture, not just from a dietary perspective, but also from a social perspective.  Great fishermen were revered and seen as having mystical powers that let them attract fish at will.  Conservation and fair distribution of the catch were very important to the ancient Hawaiians, as fish and other seafood were the main source of protein for their people.  They even went as far as to make sure each subdivision of the kingdom had access to the sea and built massive fish ponds throughout the islands to cultivate and provide easy access to food.
Fish is a low-fat, high-quality protein loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to aid brain function and lower blood pressure.  It is also an excellent source of calcium, zinc, potassium and vitamins D and B2.
There are a remarkable number of different types of fish around the Hawaiian Islands so I won’t go into them, but you’re sure to find things like ahi (yellowfin tuna), mullet, snapper and salmon just about anywhere you go.  In addition, other types of seafood are plentiful, as well – crab, shrimp, squid and octopus were often part of Hawaiian meals.

Other Meat

While fish was the main source of protein in the Hawaiian diet, they also raised pigs, chickens and dogs (still don’t want to talk about it) for meat.  Occasionally hunting and fishing expeditions would bring in more exotic things, as well – wild birds, bats, sea turtles and lizards could all find themselves on a Hawaiian plate.


As you can see, the ancient Hawaiian diet was filled with vast amounts of nutritious foods, many of which were eaten raw or with minimal processing.  Their staple foods were low-fat, high in fiber and loaded with essential vitamins and minerals.  Their protein sources were high-quality and heavily seafood-based, providing them with essential fatty acids.
This extraordinary diet of the early Hawaiians, along with their very active lifestyles, made them the hearty, healthy people they were – maybe we could learn a thing or two from them.  I’ve never been a big fish fan (or Phish fan for that matter), but the health benefits are obvious and it may be time to start acquiring the taste.

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