Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Impressions of Hawai'i

I recently went to Hawai'i for the American Society of Human Genetics meeting in Waikiki, followed by a one-week vacation on Kaua'i with friends. It was my first time in Hawai'i and I really enjoyed it. The Hawai'ians I encountered were kind and generous people.

Early European explorers remarked on the beauty, strength, good nature and exellent physical development of the native Hawai'ians. The traditional Hawai'ian diet consisted mostly of taro root, sweet potatoes, yams, breadfruit, coconut, fish, occasional pork, fowl including chicken, taro leaves, seaweed and a few sweet fruits. It would have been very low (but adequate) in omega-6, because there simply isn't much of it available in this environment. Root crops and most fruit are virtually devoid of fat; seafood and coconut contain very little omega-6; and even the pork and chicken would have been low in omega-6 due to their diets. Omega-3 would have been plentiful from marine foods, and saturated fats would have come from coconut. All foods were fresh and unrefined. Abundant exercise and sunlight would have completed their salubrious lifestyle.

The traditional Hawai'ian diet was rich in easily digested starch, mainly in the form of poi, which is fermented mashed taro. I ate poi a number of times while I was on Kaua'i, and really liked it. It's mild, similar to mashed potatoes, but with a slightly sticky consistency and a purple color (due to the particular variety of taro that's traditionally used to make it).

I had the opportunity to try a number of traditional Polynesian foods while I was on Kaua'i. One plant that particularly impressed me is breadfruit. It's a big tree that makes cantaloupe-sized starchy green fruit. Breadfruit is incredibly versatile, because it can be used at different stages of ripeness for different purposes. Very young, it's like a vegetable, at full size, it's a bland starch, and fully ripe it's starchy and sweet like a sweet potato. It can be baked, boiled, fried and even dried for later use. It has a mild flavor and a texture similar to soft white bread. It's satisfying and fairly rich in micronutrients. On the right are breadfruit, coconut and sugarcane, three traditional Hawai'ian foods.

I find perennial staple crops such as breadfruit very interesting, because they're much less destructive to soil quality than annual crops, and they're a breeze to maintain. I could walk into the backyard of the apartment I was renting and pick a breadfruit, soak it, throw it in the oven and I had something nutritious to eat in just over an hour. It's like picking a bag of potatoes right off a tree. Insects and birds didn't seem to like it at all, possibly because the raw fruit exudes a bitter, rubbery sap when damaged. Unfortunatley, breadfruit is a tropical plant. Temperate starchy staples that were exploited by native North Americans include the majestic American chestnut in the Appalachians, and acorns in the West. These are both more work than breadfruit to prepare, particularly acorns which must be extensively soaked to remove bitter tannins.

One of the foods Polynesian settlers brought to Hawai'i was sugar cane. I had the opportunity to try fresh sugar cane for the first time while I was on Kaua'i. You cut off the outer skin, then cut it into strips and chew to get the sweet juice. It was mild but tasty. I don't know if it was a coincidence or not, but I ended up feeling unwell after eating several pieces. It may simply have been too much sugar for me.

Modern Hawai'i is a hunter-gatherer's dream. There are fruit trees everywhere, including papayas, wild and cultivated guavas, mangoes, avocados, passion fruit, breadfruit, bananas, citrus fruits and many others. Many of those fruits did not predate European contact however. Even pineapples were introduced to Hawai'i after European contact. Coconuts are everywhere, and we could pick one up for a drink and snack on almost any beach. The forests are full of wild chickens (such as the one at left) and pigs, both having resulted from the escape and subsequent mixing of Polynesian and European breeds. Kaua'ians frequently hunt the pigs, which are environmentally damaging due to their habit of rooting through topsoil for food. Large areas of forest on Kaua'i look like they've been ploughed due to the pigs' rooting. Humans are their only predators and their food is abundant.

While I was on Kaua'i, I ate mostly seafood (including delicious raw tuna poke), poi, breadfruit, coconut and sweet fruits-- a real Polynesian style hunter-gatherer diet! I swam every day, hiked in the lovely interior, and kayaked. It was a great trip, and I hope to return someday.