High above the concrete landscape and open-air malls of Waikiki, on the eighth floor of the Hyatt Centric Waikiki Beach, a patch of taro has found a home right next to chaise lounges and rambunctious children at the hotel pool.
The property's cultural advisor spotted it, notified general manager Charles Young and suggested that the hotel should formalize the cultivation of the plant and use it for food and programming at the Hyatt, which opened in January. Taro, which is called kalo in Hawaiian, is the source of poi, a staple crop on the islands.
The advisor connected Young with Hui Aloha Aina Momona, a non-profit organization on Oahu that promotes sustainable use of the land and natural resources and educates the public on traditional Hawaiian land and resource management. Now, Aina Momona subsistence farmer Daniel Anthony oversees a 60-foot plot of kalo growing next to the pool deck, and the property has started an educational program for guests and the public.
"This is good for the future industry, for future tourists to the islands," Anthony said. "We get these moments with the kids where they learn something new and participate. We are creating micro-relationships with real Hawaiian culture. The kids experience something they do not normally experience."
Oahu subsistence farmer Daniel Anthony demonstrates the technique for pounding poi at the Hyatt Centric Waikiki.
Participants in the monthly demonstration are shown the correct way to harvest kalo, while also getting a history lesson on the plant. Next, Anthony shows everyone how to prepare lau lau, a traditional Hawaiian dish typically made by cooking pork wrapped inside the taro leaf. While the lau lau cook, he gives a poi pounding demonstration. Once the poi is done, the lau lau should be ready to eat. The taro patch is big enough to yield leaves for 100 to 150 lau laus, Anthony said. The harvest is free, open to the public, and held on the fourth Tuesday of each month. The next two will take place Nov. 28 and Dec. 26.
Anthony has learned in his years of experience teaching and through his interactions with the Hyatt guests that meeting people halfway is a good place to start. Instead of making the traditional lau lau with pork, which he admits are not always a hit, he adapts it with different international culinary styles. He has cooked up cheeseburger, lasagna, adobo, and kalbi kimchi lau lau among others.
"What warm-blooded American doesn't like cheeseburgers? Now, I've got their attention," Anthony said. "You combine something they love with something you love, and you end up with something you both love."
Part of the mission is to educate guests and the public on the Hawaiian food system, importance of taro and poi to the native diet, and also impart some historical and cultural lessons. Anthony said the powdered and otherwise mass-produced poi that is ubiquitous in the islands today is practically an insult to their Hawaiian ancestors.
"It's like the difference between a hand-crafted cheese out of France versus Kraft singles," he said.
The hotel has run with the project that started with some errant taro plants. Young, the general manager, has said they have used it as a catalyst for creating more sustainable initiatives at the property.
"We've started creating an herb garden to use for the kitchen and drinks, and we want to be as self sufficient as we can," Young said. "Seeing how this has developed has inspired me to do other things and add more cultural elements."
In addition to providing a hands-on cultural experience for guests, the project has also helped the staff at the Hyatt Centric learn more about the history of the Aloha State and has brought Anthony in touch with an area of his home that he rarely visited. Hyatt Centric has offered him control of the program, something he says other properties are sometimes reluctant to do in their quest to please guests and manage their interactions.
"Waikiki use to be the breadbasket for native Hawaiians ... Now, it is for tourists and we don't always feel welcome here," he said. "Coming here now and building these relationships, it gives me hope for the future. I do think authentic cultural exchange is why people come to Hawaii, and the hotel has been willing to create that environment for visitors."