Ululani Special Feature

Lāhui Rising Series

This educational series is designed to create a safe, respectful and enriching learning space for all audiences to hear and honor various perspectives on matters of Hawaiian interest.

Edible Mud of Kawainui

Kapalai'ula De Silva

 In celebration of the one year anniversary of the Kaʻiwakīloumoku Hawaiian Cultural Center, KS Online is featuring selected works from the Hoʻokahua staff. The following is a short essay by Kapalaiʻula de Silva. For more, please visit http://kaiwakiloumoku.ksbe.edu.


Hawaiian stories speak of the edible mud found in Kawainui, located in Kailua in the ahupua‘a of Ko‘olaupoko.
 Photo courtesy of © Kaleomanuia Wong
Some may say that no story is without a little exaggeration or embellishment.  And I have to admit, when I first heard stories of the “lepo ‘ai ‘ia,” the famous edible mud of Kawainui fishpond, I had my doubts as to its factuality.  Born and raised in Kailua, I have always had reverence and awe for the recorded productivity of Kawainui, once the main storehouse of our ahupua‘a.  The fertility of the land was unmatched throughout Ko‘olaupoko and possibly all of O‘ahu.  But why then, if our land was so rich, would we eat mud?
He lepo ka ‘ai a O‘ahu, a mā‘ona nō i ka lepo.
Earth is the food of O‘ahu, and it is satisfied with its earth.
[‘Ōlelo No‘eau #758]
Mary Kawena Pukui recorded this phrase as an ‘ōlelo no‘eau in derision of O‘ahu and its people.  According to her notes, the mud from Kawainui pond was served to Kamehameha’s band of warriors and servants as a replacement for poi.
Samuel Kamakau writes that the lepo ‘ai of Kawainui was said to have been brought from the Pillars of Kahiki by Kauluakalana, a famous voyager who traveled extensively between the Pacific islands and its peoples.  He explains that this dirt is one and the same as ‘alaea, the ocherous earth used traditionally in medicines, dyes, and as a mineral additive to salt.  Lahilahi Webb, however, states that lepo ‘ai was completely unique unto Kawainui.  She describes it as thick and jelly-like, similar in texture to haupia.  Webb also notes that there was a kapu observed when gathering this resource.  “No one was allowed to utter a word while the diver was in the pond getting it.  If a word was spoken, ordinary mud rose up around the diver and covered him so that he died.  There was no escape.”
 The article by J. B. Keliikanakaole describing the excursion to eat the mud.
After reading all of these accounts, my mind still wasn’t made up about this ‘ai kamaha‘o o ka ‘āina.  And then I was informed of the existence of an October 1872 article in Ka Nupepa Kuokoa entitled “Moe Kaoo I Ka Ai Lepo.”  It tells of two renowned ali‘i, Bernice Pauahi Bishop and Likelike Cleghorn, on an excursion to see for themselves the edible mud of Kawainui Pond.  They boarded a canoe that rainy day and were paddled out to the appropriate spot, where the mud was found about 8 feet below the surface of the water.  Once retrieved, the people of Kailua, Kaneohe, and Heeia – alongside their two royal guests – feasted with great delight.  The lepo is described as speckled pink in appearance, gelatinous like cooked pia, and smooth going down the throat.
How could I deny the truth of this mo‘olelo any longer?  My thanks to J. B. Keliikanakaole, author of this article, for preserving yet another important gem of history.  My thanks, as well, to Ho‘olaupa‘i, for making these invaluable resources more accessible to all.