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Path #5: Waiahole Poi Factory
Lunch and wisdom from Hawaiian food maestro Liko Hoe.
Desire Paths is a newsletter about the wild, winding, lesson-filled lives of fascinating people. Thanks for coming on the journey.
In this edition of DESIRE PATHS…
Meet Liko Hoe, the art-loving, poi*-pounding, taro-farming, ex-college teacher who dishes out culture lessons and delicious Hawaiian food from his roadside restaurant in Oahu.
And I’ve got a few housekeeping questions at the bottom of this one, so make sure to read to the end.
Thanks! And enjoy.
*A starchy Hawaiian food made from pounding cooked taro root and adding water.
I’m Danny Giacopelli, an editor, photographer, traveller and small business fan. By day I’m Editor-at-Large for Courier magazine. This is my personal newsletter, Desire Paths.
Desire Paths is based on the idea that the most fulfilled, fascinating people in the world are those who look at the boring, comfortable, predictable path they could take in life and say nope. Instead, they chase after risky dreams, change careers, make unconventional decisions, or cross oceans to start something new.
I dig deep with these people and share everything I learn with you. Let’s go.
#5: Waiahole Poi Factory
“In Hawaiian culture, taro is central. In our origin story, the first taro plant is considered to be the sibling of the first human being. It's the most important crop.”
Taro seems to be having a moment. Or maybe I’m just paying attention now.
A few years back, my pal Tony Conrad introduced me to what he called the most delicious bite of his life: freshly made taro donuts from the Hawaiian company Holey Grail. (Holey Grail’s since set up shop down the road from me in LA and I can confirm their taro donuts are next level.) But now I’m taro-curious. I turn my head when I see it on menus. It’s in boba, it’s in ice cream, it’s everywhere.
NEWS: White American guy discovers thing that's existed in rest of world for millennia. Yeah, I know. But still. Taro is new to me. I’m learning.
So on a recent trip to Hawaii, I wanted to learn about poi, Hawaii’s most important staple food. It's made from cooked taro root, it’s pale purple, paste-like, and depending on your palate, either delicious or... an acquired taste.
I soon discovered that there’s a guy, and a magical place, where poi was still made the old-school way. One of the very few places like it left on Oahu, in fact.
So I hopped in my car and paid him a visit.
Waiahole Poi Factory is in Kaneohe, on the main road that loops around the top of Oahu, sandwiched between lush mountains and the ocean only a few hundred feet away.
When I arrived, owner Liko Hoe was sitting outside, in front of his place, pounding poi against his wooden board. Behind him a queue of people were waiting by the takeout window to grab their lunches to go, while tourists walked by, curious at what, exactly, this man was doing hitting that squishy purple dough-like thing with a stone.
During my conversation with Liko, first on the street and then over lunch, a constant procession of locals, regulars and visitors came by, waving, smiling, honking, saying Aloha! or Mahalo! to Liko as he smiled and nodded and said Aloha! or Mahalo! back, all while maintaining the rhythm of his poi-pounding.
Here’s how Liko ended up doing what he’s doing and where he wants to go…
Hey Liko! I’d love if you can share the history of Waiahole Poi Factory.
Sure. This poi factory was originally built in 1905. Back then, almost every valley area had their own poi factory because poi is the staple of Hawaiian food. But all that started to change, and by the 1970s the factory was closing down. This was right around the time when my parents were moving back to Hawaii from Minnesota. My dad's from Hawaii and my mom's from Minnesota, where my dad went for school.
You can't get much different than Minnesota and Hawaii…
It's a little different! So they moved back here. My mom studied art in college and was looking for something she could do and still watch my older brother. So they came here. There was a small fruit stand – it's still here, right around the side – and my mom asked the lady who ran the stand whether she could put up a little wall and show her art. The lady said, “You know what? The poi factory is actually closing, why don't you ask them?” And so my parents ended up leasing the poi factory and ran it as an art gallery for years.
When did the factory become a place of food production again?
In the early 1980s my parents closed the gallery and, along with some other families in the valley, redid the kitchen and turned it into an incubator kitchen. People growing crops in the valley could rent the space and make products in a certified kitchen. It ran like that from the late 80s all the way to 2009. By that point, it was getting hard to find new people who wanted to rent the space as a kitchen. There’s not a huge community here – most of the people who wanted to try something here already did it. So we decided, you know what, let's create a Hawaiian food place!
So your parents were like, we’re gonna turn this place into a traditional Hawaiian food joint, do you want in?
It was more me – they were already doing other things. At the time, I was teaching Hawaiian studies at Windward Community College, right down the road. I was still full time at the college, so it was hard…
Sneaking out between classes to cook?
Exactly. At first, we were open one day a week, which went well. But within a few years we were open everyday.
I absolutely love that you were teaching Hawaiian studies then pivoted to making Hawaiian food. Were colleagues & students supportive?
At the beginning I was doing both, but it just got too ridiculous. I had tenure and everything, so my colleagues were, like, are you crazy? So I had to make the call and gradually switched over to the poi factory.
Were many places around here making traditional Hawaiian food?
Not a lot! We're in Hawaii, but you'll find way more Japanese or Korean food places, you know? Not a whole lot of Hawaiian food. We're a place where anybody can come to enjoy Hawaiian food again.
I've lived in New York, London and now LA, and the first time I've had real Hawaiian food was a few days ago.
It should be more accessible and it's getting more accessible, which is good.
Yeah. I was completely ignorant to the difference between ‘plate lunch’ and traditional Hawaiian food.
Plate lunch, yup. Hawaiian BBQ. That's more teriyaki or Korean flavors. Which is definitely still a part of Hawaii. But as far as ‘Hawaiian food’ goes, it's different.
“My friend made this poi pounder stone; it’s about three years old. I’ve got another one that my dad's high school teacher gave him, made in the 1950s. I’ve also got one that’s hundreds of years old. Back then this would have been like a toaster oven – everybody had one in their house. This one is basalt, volcanic. It will last forever.”
Can you talk about poi? It’s not something you often see outside Hawaii.
Poi is usually made out of taro, but poi can be made from any type of starch that's pounded up like this. The traditional starches would have been taro, sweet potato, breadfruit, yams, banana. All of those starches can be made into poi. Taro is the most common. For Hawaiian people and in Hawaiian culture, taro is central. In our origin story, the first taro plant is considered to be the sibling of the first human being. It's the most important crop.
So how do you take taro and make it into its edible poi form?
Taro has proteins in it that have to be cooked really well. So the traditional way is to cook it in an underground oven. It has to cook really long and well, which takes a lot of energy. You have to use a lot of wood. It’s not something you want to be doing every day. You want to cook up a nice batch that's going to last the whole family for a couple of weeks. And then you cook again.
And right now you’re doing… what, exactly?
This is basically the finished product on the board. It hasn't been fully mixed with water yet. To make it into poi, we'll mix in a bit more water. When I lift it up like this [he takes the stone and raises it] and the poi stays mostly on the board, that's a sign it’s almost ready. That means there's enough fluid in there. It's about the feel.
So you took over the place 15 years ago. What’s been the biggest challenge?
Man, there have been a lot! With any kind of food thing there are so many variables. Covid was crazy. We were really fortunate, though, because we already had takeout set up, so people didn't have to come inside. We're also right on the road. There was a full year when pretty much the only thing people could do besides stay home and watch TV was drive on the road.
And we’re talking about the road! The big road that goes around Oahu.
Yeah, this is the road around the island. If you're cruising, we’re one of those places you'll pass. So we were fortunate, but you just never knew what would happen next. It was pretty stressful. One of the most challenging things has been finding people to work for us, too.
That’s a hospitality thing everywhere, it seems.
And in Hawaii in particular, unemployment is super low. It's a tight market. Everybody's got at least one job, if not two.
Is the business still family-run?
Definitely. It's still us. One of my brothers works with me a lot. My son and daughter, when they're here, they’re pounding poi with me. And a lot of our staff are from this area. Many families, ours included, have been here for hundreds of years. The families are kind of interconnected.
Walk me through a typical day for you.
It’s all over the place. We have a good crew in the kitchen that handles most of the day-to-day. But I try to pound at least twice a week, usually Wednesdays and Sundays. My son pounds with me on Sundays. He graduated from college a few years ago. He studied electrical engineering and found a job here, working on computer chip stuff. But he still pounds with me. And my daughter’s in art school at SCAD [Savannah College of Art and Design] in Georgia, so in the summertime she jumps back in here too. But one of the big new things I've been trying to do recently is the actual growing of the taro!
Oh wow, you’re a farmer now? Do you want to own the whole process?
Taro was the main food in Hawaii for hundreds of years. Pretty much every place that could grow it, grew it – especially on the windward side of Oahu, because there's so much water. We’ve got pictures of where we are now – all the way up until the 1970s there were hundreds of acres of taro here. Just on and on and on. That wasn’t unusual. Even in Waikiki, that whole area was a huge taro producing area. The big decline happened in the first part of the 20th century. Taro lands on Oahu dwindled.
So where does your taro come from?
Today there's one big poi producer and they're in town [Honolulu], right next to the docks. Most of the taro that's produced today comes from Kauai or the Big Island or some from Maui. The taro gets shipped in and then the poi is made right there. They make thousands of pounds of poi a week. But even that is a small, small fraction of what used to be. For me, it’s challenging because there's really no wholesale taro here. Most of the producers supply that one main poi producer. So, I ship in most of my taro and my sources are kind of outlier sources. It’s not a guarantee....
That it will arrive on time?
Or arrive at all!
Yeah, a couple of years ago we had these huge floods on Hawai'i Island, which took out the production of the farm where I was getting my taro from. For months we were scrambling. I was calling everywhere. And when you buy it like that, you're not getting a good price. Then when the pandemic started, the farm lost its lease. So it went from less taro to zero taro. And I had to scramble again. What I'm trying to do now is just get a bit more control. It's just me and my younger brother and we’re still getting used to the process. It's a challenging crop, because it takes about a year to mature. But I enjoy growing taro!
This is such a special place. What’s in the poi factory’s future?
I don't know, man, it's just day by day. I was born right in the middle of when this place was still an art gallery. But even when it closed as a gallery, my mom became an art teacher and my dad stayed involved in traditional arts. I've always wanted to bring art back into what we do here. I'm really excited about what my daughter's doing. Maybe we can fold that back into the poi factory somehow. I love her work.
That would be very cool. You must be thinking about expanding, too?
At this point, we're maxed out at this particular site. So yeah, we’re thinking about a second one. We started in this form almost 15 years ago. It’s gradually grown and hasn't stopped growing. So I want to keep it moving, keep it growing, but not too quickly. Let it grow to be what it can be, but keep it an expression of who we are. That's one of the most important things.
Hey, just one more thing….
I’m still getting the hang of publishing here and I want to make sure I’m delivering what you thought you were signing up to. DESIRE PATHS was always meant to be a library of fascinating interviews and stories… but also a bit more. From time to time, I want to use this newsletter to share other things I’m interested in:
Deep-dives on stuff I’m thinking about
Fascinating rabbit holes I’m going down
Lists of things I like right now (we all like lists)
And photo essays. Lots of you know I’m a street photographer. I’d love to use this space to share thoughtful images and photo essays every now and then. I might even start with images from Hawaii…
So, a mix of interviews (70%) and personal stuff (30%). Hope that’s cool. If you’re interested or not, let me know either way. And thanks again for reading.
Desire Paths is a newsletter about the wild, winding, lesson-filled lives of fascinating people. If you enjoyed it, I’d love if you’d subscribe or share with a friend.