In ancient times, the ahupuaa of Waiahole was known for the uniqueness of taro grown there: kii kalo paa o Waiahole, or “the hard taro of Waiahole.” At the mouth of this region sits the Waiahole Poi Factory, a place that is, in its own way, the modern spirit of this solid kalo. It is more than a place where you can get hand-pounded or machine-milled poi and a Hawaiian plate–it is a movement.
Calvin and Charlene Hoe, owners of the Waiahole Poi Factory since their return from the Peace Corps in 1971, make their poi from kalo cultivated on their Waiahole Valley farm and bought from neighbors and Heeia farmers. In the mid-1980s, the Hoes helped form a nonprofit organization called Hui Ulu Mea ‘Ai. When they first purchased the poi factory, taro (and ag in general) was on the decline. The group’s purpose was to get agricultural products growing again in the community.
Members of Hui Ulu Mea ‘Ai also used the poi factory as an incubator kitchen for their ag-based small businesses. The Reppun family’s Waiahole Poi, Homestead Poi, Hale Kealoha Caterers and Ono Loa Hawaiian Food are among successful businesses launched there.
Initially, the Hoes opened an art gallery in the poi factory that displayed native Hawaiian arts and handmade instruments, such as the ‘ohe hano ihu (nose flute), kalaau (dancing sticks), ipu and ipu heke (single- and double-gourd drums), and pahu and puniu (coconut wood drum and coconut shell knee drum).
Calvin Hoe began to make the instruments when he was a P.E. and Hawaiian Studies teacher at Kamehameha Schools, frustrated that he was teaching about things Hawaiians used to do. He decided to revive some of the practices and objects so that his students could learn and live with them. One of Calvin’s colleagues and mentors was legendary composer and musician Aunty Nona Beamer, who suggested he bring back Hawaiian instruments because not a lot of people were making them anymore.
The poi factory retains this original focus on bringing Hawaiian arts into a more contemporary context. Currently, the gallery showcases nose flutes, ipu, some prints by Solomon Enos, poi pounders by Kanohi Enos, Pareu by Tutuvi and coconut hats.
Preserving ‘aina and waa
The Hoes’ three sons, Liko, Kala and Kawai, help run the factory business as a family. Liko Hoe says the signature kalo of the area highlights the separateness of the people in the Waiahole community. “We are growing really good taro and good food, but we’ve been really good at organizing as a community too,” Liko says in a phone interview from Windward Community College, where he teaches Hawaiian Studies. He references successful stands against plans for a marina, condos and 7,000 homes, as well as proposals for golf courses throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Liko recalls an event in 1994 when Oahu Sugar Co., which had diverted the water from Waiahole stream to Leeward plantations for most of the 20th century, closed down. “We thought that was a good time to return those waters,” Liko explains. Led by farmer Charlie Reppun, the Waiahole and neighboring Windward communities united to get the water returned. Today, only 50 percent of the area’s water remains diverted.
“That’s a significant restoration of water in the streams here,” Liko says. “It’s an example of the community’s position of not going along with the general flow, I guess you could say, speaking their minds and making a statement.”
Plate lunch time
In 2009, the Hoe family decided to focus more on community gardens and direct agriculture. It was then that Liko focused in on serving the Hawaiian plate, now available daily from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Regular plates ($8.35) come with choice of laulau, kalua pig, squid luau, beef luau or chicken long rice accompanied by poi or rice, lomi salmon and haupia. Combo plates ($10.50) feature two of the main choices previously mentioned, and minis ($6.50) offer a smaller portion of the regular plate choices, without haupia. While everything tastes traditional and delicious, there are a few specialty items on the menu that you don’t see regularly at other Hawaiian plate venues.
Hoio, or fern shoot salad ($3), with a shoyu flavor enhanced by onions and tomatoes, is a vibrant green, and a much less salty choice in comparison to other sides. The fern shoots grow on the family farm.
Another authentic but rarely served menu item is mamake tea ($2), here in the form of an herbal iced drink sweetened with sugar. The mild, refreshing berry-flavored tea comes from the leaves of the Mamake shrub, commonly known as the Hawaiian mulberry plant for the berries that bloom from its branches. Mamake is an endemic Hawaiian plant that grew in the Islands prior to the Polynesians’ arrival; it is not found anywhere else in the world. The tea is medicinally used unsweetened and hot as a detoxifier.
Bags of fresh hand-pounded ($8 for 1 lb.) or machine-milled ($10 for 2 lbs.) poi are another unique takeaway at the Hawaiian plate window. This is the only place you can buy Waiahole Poi Factory’s poi, and well worth the trip in so many ways.