Hō‘i‘o in Salad and Story

Author: 
Kīhei de Silva (recipe courtesy of Becky Ravey)

Photo: Kipi Brown

Hō’i‘o fern at the fiddlehead and fully-open stages of growth.

Photo: Kipi Brown

Mānoa at sunset. The ahupua‘a of Hā‘ena, Kaua‘i, consists of two valleys: Mānoa to the east, and Limahuli to the west. Mānoa is the shallower of the pair and is fronted by the reef and lagoon of Makua; the considerably deeper Limahuli is fronted by the reef and lagoon of Kē‘ē. Mānoa is easily identified by the two narrow fingers of rock that jut incongruously from its ridgeline: these are called Nā Piliwale after a pair of voracious kupua sisters who were turned to stone while fleeing the rays of the morning sun: among their favorite foods was the hō’i‘o fern, and it was, in fact, an obsession with hō‘i’o and ‘ōpae that resulted in their demise.

 

Ka i‘a lauoho loloa o ka ‘āina. The long-haired fish of the land.
Any vegetables eaten with poi, such as taro greens, hō‘i‘o or kikawaiō ferns, or sweet potato greens. Poetically, leaves are the oho or lauoho, hair, of plants.
(Pukui, ‘Ōlelo No‘eau 1360)

The hō‘i‘o is a large native fern with subdivided fronds; it grows in the wet, higher-altitude rain forests of our islands, particularly on Hawai‘i and Maui (where it is called pohole).  Young hō‘i‘o fronds in the furled, "fiddlehead" stage of growth were eaten raw by Hawaiians, especially with ‘ōpae and (after western contact) salted salmon. 

Today, steamed or blanched hō‘i‘o usually appears in Asian-style salads with kamaboko (fishcake), shiofuku konbu (seaweed), dried codfish, chopped cuttlefish, onions, and soy- or sesame-sauces.

Edible fiddlehead ferns are considered a delicacy in many Pacific-rim cultures: the Japanese call their fiddleheads warabi, the Koreans kosade, and the Filipinos pako.  Many of our local chiefs will argue, however, that the hō‘i‘o is more tender and succulent than other varieties -- a consequence, they say, of our tropical climate and year-round rainfall.

There is only about a two-week window for picking hō‘i‘o, since the tight spiral ends of the fern begin to unfurl after those 14-or-so days. Once picked, the hō‘i‘o is quite delicate and has a limited shelf life. It should be refrigerated in a tight, plastic wrap and kept moist and cold right up to preparation time; mistreated hō‘i‘o quickly lose their vibrant green color and become, instead, a dull, unappetizing black. Hō‘i‘o is usually available in specialty markets in the spring and early summer (Hana Herbs, however, offers it on a year-round basis at www.maui.net).

The hō‘i‘o recipe provided below by Becky Ravey of Wai‘anae, O‘ahu, is Japanese-influenced but retains -- with its inclusion of dried ‘ōpae, onion, and tomato -- a retro-Hawaiian character.

Main Ingredients
1 large bunch of hō‘i‘o (1/2 lb.)
1 medium Maui onion, diced
2 tomatoes, diced
1 kamaboko (steamed fish cake), cut into 1/2" pieces
4 oz. dried ‘ōpae
1 small package shiofuki konbu (dried and salted seaweed)

Dressing options
Del’s Sauce
1/2 T Hawaiian salt
1 T sesame oil
1 T patis    

Sam Choy’s Sauce
2 T patis
2 T shoyu
2 T vinegar
2 T sugar
1 T roasted sesame seeds

Directions
Wash hairs from hō‘i‘o
Blanche by immersing in boiling water for 30 seconds
Drain and immediately place in ice water to chill
Cut into 1" pieces and put in medium sized aluminum pan
Add other ingredients and sauce, toss well
Chill for a couple of hours before serving

Hō‘i‘o and ‘ōpae play a significant part in the following mo‘olelo of Lohi‘au and the Piliwale sisters. The story (which we’ve adapted from Fredrick Wichman’s Kaua‘i Tales, 18-25) explains the two very odd-looking rock formations on the Mānoa ridgeline above Hā‘ena, Kaua‘i. When we take our kids to Camp Naue, we sit on the lawn outside the cabins, share a package of dried ‘ōpae, point out the rock formations, and tell this tale. In an ideal world, our snack would also include fresh hō‘i‘o -- or maybe Becky Ravey’s hō‘i‘o salad.

Nā Piliwale
The Piliwale sisters were four kupua creatures with sharp teeth, stick-like arms and legs, claw-like hands, and huge, swollen bellies.  They were able to cause landslides and floods, but their greatest power, if you could call it that, was their appetite.  They could eat and eat, and then they could eat some more.  They almost never got full -- and even then, they were hungry again in almost no time at all.

They ate by night and slept by day.  They insisted on sleeping in deep caves or completely dark houses because they were afraid of the sun.  If the sun’s rays touched them, they would turn forever to stone.

The Piliwale sisters traveled from district to district, island to island.  They attached themselves to the chiefs of each district and expected each chief to feed them until there was no food left.  If the chiefs were stingy, the sisters would destroy the homes, and sometimes the people, of that district.  Then they would move on.  If the Piliwales came visiting, there was little you could do but give them everything you had.

Once, after eating the people of Wai‘anae, O‘ahu, into a state of near-famine, two of the Piliwale sisters decided to visit Kaua‘i.  They sailed (by night, of course), to Kē‘ē Beach in Hā‘ena where they were greeted by Lohi‘au, the chief of the district.

Lohi‘au recognized the sisters and knew he was in for a rough time.  But he hid his feelings and played the part of a gracious host.  He called on his people to prepare a huge feast, and when the Piliwales had eaten through all of it, he called for more and more.  When morning drew near, he led the sisters to Maniniholo Cave and offered them his finest sleeping mats and kapa.  Before leaving them, he said, "I’ve never seen anyone eat so much, yet you still look starved to death.  Tell me, is there any food that will stop your hunger for even a little while?"

"We love fresh ‘ōpae and the tips of young hō‘i‘o fern," they sighed.  "Mix them with a pinch of salt, and there is nothing more ‘ono, more perfectly crunchy, more wonderful to swallow," they drooled.  "That is the only dish that can satisfy us . . . but only for a little while."

"‘Auē, that’s too bad," said Lohi‘au.  "We have no hō‘i‘o at Hā‘ena, but if you follow the Nā Pali trail to Kalalau, you will find people who grow the fern in great numbers."

That night the sisters only managed to gobble down four kāuna of Kawaimakua’s best mullet before the thought of the hō‘i‘o and ‘ōpae nearly drove them crazy.  "We’re off to Kalalau," they told Lohi‘au, "but we’ll be back."

Lohi‘au smiled and promised to have ‘awa, poi, pig, lū‘au greens, and seafood waiting for them when they returned.  But he though to himself, "Good, now I have time to build my trap."  As soon as they were out of sight, he had his people prepare even more feast foods, including the hō‘i‘o that he had pretended not to have.

Then he had his carpenters build a beautiful, three-sided house high on the cliffs of Mānoa.  The fourth wall of the house was hung with mats, but these were rolled up so that his guests could enjoy the view.

It didn’t take long for the Piliwales to return.  "We found two families with ‘ōpae and hō‘i‘o.  The first was stingy, so we buried their kauhale under an avalanche of rocks.  The second was quite generous, so we ate everything they had to offer; they will be starving for months to come.  We would have come back to Hā‘ena sooner, but we had to stop once or twice to burp, scratch, and rest."

When they asked Lohi‘au for the feast that he had promised, he said: "Come, it’s all waiting for you at an eating house that we’ve built especially for you.  The house is up this trail on the ridgeline; the view is beautiful there, and you’ll be able to enjoy the starlight, cliffs, and ocean while we serve you the best food that Hā‘ena has to offer."

The Piliwale sisters weren’t very interested in the view from their new eating house; they were too busy guzzling ‘awa and stuffing their faces with course after course of poi, pig, lū‘au greens, and seafood.  Morning drew near, but just as the sisters should have started to worry about finding a dark place to sleep, Lohi‘au called out, "Honored guests, I have one more dish for you to enjoy."

And his people set before the sisters heaping platters of hō‘i‘o and ‘ōpae mixed with sprinkles of Kaua‘i’s famous red salt.

So thrilled were the sisters with this final offering that they did not notice Lohi‘au’s signal to lower the mats of the fourth wall.  And because they were now completely enclosed in their hale ‘aina, they did not see the first rays of the sun begin to creep across the eastern face of the ridgeline.  They didn’t notice a thing because their own faces were buried in piles of their favorite food.

When Lohi‘au ordered his men to remove the mats from the fourth wall of the house, it was too late for the Piliwale sisters.

"The sun," shrieked one sister.

"Run, run for the cave," cried the other.

They staggered down the trail on their stiff, skinny legs (their bellies were so bloated that they could not even see their feet), but the sun rose and struck them as they ran.  With a last noisy shriek, they turned into big-bellied blobs of stone on the cliffs above Hā‘ena.

And you can still see them there "a hiki i kēia lā" -- to this very day.

Pili wale means "to cling without reason or cause."  The term is often used to describe people who live off of others without giving anything in return.  If your mom says, "When you visit Tūtū, don’t you dare be a Piliwale," she means that you’d better help out -- you’d better not lie around and let Tūtū do everything for you.  The Piliwale stones of Hā‘ena stand as a warning to people who are pili wale, and old-timers of the district like to say, "Hā‘ena is not the place for a Piliwale to visit."