Food as Medicine

Melehina Groves
Photo: Michael Young
Kai Kaholokai during a presentation for Kamehameha Elementary School students.
Photo: Melehina Groves
Kai explains one of his lā‘au lapa‘au to a Kamehameha staff audience.
Photo: Melehina Groves
‘Ōlena. The Kaholokais swear to ‘ōlena’s value as both an antibiotic and an antioxidant.
Photo: Melehina Groves
Some of the homemade products we tried firsthand at the Kaholokais' presentation.
Photo: Michael Young
Kai plays the ‘ohe hano ihu before beginning his presentation for elementary students.
Photo: Michael Young
Linda addresses the root of a person's physical ailment -- a root which she believes often stems from emotional or mental distress.


Nānā no a ka lā‘au ku ho‘okāhi.
Look for the plant that stands alone.
Often said by those seeking strong medicinal herbs. A plant that stood by itself was considered better for medicine than one that grew close to others of its kind.
(Kawena Pukui,‘Ōlelo No‘eau 2270)


Lomilomi and lā‘au lapa‘au practitioners Kai and Linda Kaholokai shared their vast insights and samples of their lā‘au with students and staff of the Kamehameha ‘ohana through a series of presentations this month. Lā‘au lapa‘au -- literally curing medicine -- involves the use of medicinal plants for healing and preventing illness and disease. Kai and Linda utilize a wide variety of different lā‘au, both native and non-native to Hawai‘i, in their practices and appreciate them all for their unique physical and spiritual qualities. 

Kai has been a practitioner for over 20 years, but he remains humble as he follows in the footsteps of his teachers. He stresses that he is not a kahuna; the kūpuna he studied under -- Papa Henry ‘Auwae, Papa Kalua Ka‘aihue, and especially his own grandmother -- were the true masters. He still remembers his childhood duty: to gather whatever his grandma or aunty or uncle would send him after -- whether it was from the reef, the shoreline, or the mountains. He never envisioned one day being the healer himself. 

 "We’re still beginning -- like Pūnana Leo -- we’re learning.  All we’re doing is finding our position; how we can even bring to you a sense of what our teachers shared with us," he explained.

The Kaholokais began sharing lomilomi and lā‘au lapa‘au out of their home in Kohala on Hawai‘i island several years ago.  However, their skills and open-hearted spirit of giving -- without asking for payment in the Western sense -- spread their fame far and wide and soon prompted them to expand and open their own business, Kai Malino Wellness Center. 

"I think at one point we had had every person who lived in Kohala in our living room,"   laughed Linda as she explained the move from home to business. 

Now the Kaholokais make it their business to educate and empower those who come to them for healing, information, or hope. They believe in self-discovery and the importance of kuleana -- responsibility -- to the healing process. 

"Food is medicine and medicine is food," is one of Kai’s famous sayings.  He laments the Western emphasis on simple physical consumption and the loss of the spiritual aspect of the foods we eat and the benefits they can bring to us.   "It’s not just about consumption.  No!  There was always spirit behind it, always has been, always will be, in all aspects of expression.  Without the spirit none of this would be for real or make sense," he continued. 

As the self-descbribed "‘ōlena man," Kai has been working with ‘ōlena, or tumeric, for 14 years.  A member of the ginger family, ‘ōlena was one of several lā‘au introduced to Hawai‘i by the earliest of our Polynesian kūpuna during their settlement of these islands (Isabella Abbot, Lā‘au Hawai‘i, 3). 

The Kaholokais swear to ‘ōlena’s value as both an antibiotic and an antioxidant that, in liquid form, can be applied topically or taken orally. The liquid product is safe enough for people to use on a regular basis or as Linda said, "as often as they want," because they do not alter the ‘ōlena’s natural composition -- it is a whole, natural food with no compounds extracted or added. 

"Grandma them invented it!  I just made it more accessible," said Kai of his popular all-purpose ‘ōlena juice that he uses to remedy earaches, coughs, congestion, eye infections, or skin irritations including burns, scrapes, and blisters. 

‘Ōlena is also highly valued in dyeing kapa for the deep yellow or gold colors it produces.  To this day, hālau hula use ‘ōlena in the making of their pā‘ū or other pieces of costuming. 

While ‘ōlena may be one of the most versatile of lā‘au, it is by no means the only one in Kai and Linda’s "Hawaiian first-aid kit." At a presentation on September 21, the Kaholokais treated a group of Kamehameha staff to samples of their most popular lā‘au lapa‘au "recipes." Nīoi (red pepper), commonly known as "chili-pepper water," can be taken with your morning meal to help balance the digestive system. ‘Inamona, a relish made of ‘alaea pa‘akai and kukui nuts, will "keep things moving," as Kai said, allowing your intestines to function more efficiently and thereby better absorb nutrients. 

"Food is medicine and medicine is food." Kai repeated this phrase to us -- probably looking at the apprehension on some faces at the thought of drinking chili-pepper water. Those of us who are familiar with "kai nīoi," as my father calls it, recognized the distinct flavor. I'm sure others who were more cautious and less experienced found the taste to be a pleasant surprise -- as we all did with the taste of Kai's cough-syrup made naturally from honey, lemon, ‘ōlena, ‘awa, and ‘alaea.

The Kaholokais practice what they preach -- not only because they take their own lā‘au lapa‘au but also because they know they must be pono in spirit, mind, and body before they can even hope to assist others in the healing process. 

"Healing is a lot simpler than it’s made out to be.  Sometimes when we make it complex is when we’re really not seeing what’s in front of us," Linda explained.  She has been taught to address the root of a person’s physical ailment -- a root which she believes often lies in mental or emotional distress.  Her teachers have taught her that administering lā‘au lapa‘au for a lingering stomachache without first asking "What is it about your life that you can’t stomach?" is doing the "patient" a disservice. 

They also speak from experience -- Kai can talk about the healing values of his lā‘au because they have helped him deal with his own physical health issues. 

"I wrote off doctors 30 years ago!" he exclaimed. With an extensive history of serious diseases in his family, Kai was told at age 56 that, from a medical standpoint, "you shouldn’t be here." He has addressed the issue of inherited disease by asking "Who says?" Who says he needs to inherit the diseases his kūpuna succumbed to? Not the Kaholokais. 

Kai and Linda acknowledge that lā‘au lapa‘au requires a leap of faith -- belief and commitment to the lā‘au and the healing they can bring -- for a person to truly find physical and spiritual health.

"We continue to be led," Kai emphasized, referring to the many kūpuna who may have passed on but are still with us, willing to lend guidance and wisdom.  "You’re not in charge and the more you start surrendering and continue to be led, you’re fine.  You’ll never be misled.  Follow your na‘au, only intellect throws you off," he advised.  

Visit Kai and Linda Kaholokai’s website for yourself to read about the many lā‘au lapa‘au that are offered: or drop them an email at