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Indigenous Knowledge Nourishes Restaurant Workers

Nov 10, 2020 | He‘eia, Hawai'i, Informed Citizens, Prepared Communities, Reserves, What We Work For

Pictured: ‘Ulu (breadfruit) waffles were one of dozens of delicious recipes created with ingredients from Heʻeia Reserve as part of a new professional development program for food service workers impacted by COVID-19. Recipe and photo by Dilyuns Michael.

Food, land, and people are closely interwoven in the mission of Hawaiʻi’s Heʻeia Reserve. Now a new Reserve program is tying these threads together to help food service workers who have been hit hard  by the COVID-19 pandemic with a training on  the history, production, and use of Indigenous foods and the invasive species that compete with them. From mangrove-smoked Samoan crab chowder to ‘ulu custard pie, their work has our mouths watering!

The seven-week professional development program provided 15 participants with education on Indigenous cuisine including history, cultural practices, cultivation and harvesting techniques, and methods to prepare and preserve foods. Students worked with Indigenous cuisine experts, including Native Hawaiian agriculture and aquaculture practitioners. 

Each week focused on a different ingredient sourced within the bounds of the Heʻeia Reserve. Participants picked up the ingredient and then attended a virtual education session and cooking demonstration. From there, they used the ingredient and their newfound knowledge to develop a recipe of their own. The final weeks of the course were focused on refining these recipes for inclusion in a special, limited-run cookbook.

Two dishes created by Alicia Nunez, a program participant. Left:‘Ulu (breadfruit) tostada. Right: Samoan crab pasta.

“What I enjoyed most was being able to handle fresh, native Hawaiian ingredients that I have never handled before,” says one participant. “I cleaned and cooked my own he’e, ku’i’d my own kalo, and gutted my own kākū for the first time. I have always wanted to cook with these ingredients and this course allowed me the opportunity to do that, as well as share my experiences with others.”

The food service industry has been one of the hardest hit in Hawaiʻi during the pandemic, with a 58% loss of full-time employees between January and April 2020. In addition to professional development, the program aims to support employee retention within the industry, increase public understanding of local foods, and strengthen partnerships between Indigenous food practitioners and local restaurants. By providing a stipend to participants, they also provided a short-term source of income to workers facing unemployment or underemployment due to the pandemic.

“Many of these workers interact with huge numbers of people, including tourists, and are then able to share the knowledge they have gained of this food with others,” says Katy Hintzen, coastal training program coordinator at the Reserve. “They act as informal educators by introducing and explaining native foods and preparation techniques to the public.”

The Heʻeia Reserve education and coastal training programs developed the program in partnership with Paepae o Heʻeia, Kākoʻo ʻŌiwi, and the University of Hawaiʻi Sea Grant College Program.

“This course took a lot of different skill sets, backgrounds, and networks to pull off,” says Fred Reppun. “The Reserve is set up as an organization that can bring all those different peoplewe’re able to be the connector between the Heʻeia community, academia, funding partners, and nonprofit partners.”

Revitalizing Indigenous food systems and associated food culture is a central component of coastal and marine conservation in the Hawaiian Islands. 

“The connection between local and indigineous foods and conservation at Heʻeia is really tight,” says Hintzen. “Not only did this program let us support the restaurant industry, but it also perpetuates the cultivation of Indigenous food at Heʻeia.”

Left: Hawaiian he’e (octopus) was one ingredient program participants learned to prepare. Photo by Alicia Yamachika. Right: Samoan crab and seaweed ramen, a dish of invasive species created by Dilyuns Michael.

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