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Fledgling paipai industry set to receive boost from state

<p>HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald</p><p>Agricultural Research Technician Popo Bernabe holds a taro plant on Thursday at the University of Hawaii’s Waiakea Experiment Station.</p><p>HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald</p><p>Freshly watered taro plants are seen here at the University of Hawaii’s Waiakea Experiment Station on Thursday afternoon.</p>

By TOM CALLIS

Tribune-Herald staff writer

Daniel Anthony doesn’t mind doing things the hard way.

With a lava-rock pounder and a wooden board, the Oahu resident crushes and grinds taro much like Native Hawaiians have for generations.

The product is not poi, but rather paiai, which isn’t fermented or diluted.

While perhaps physically laborious, Anthony doesn’t look at paiai pounding as work.

“If you are working with your culture it’s not work,” he said. “I don’t go to work … I live every single day.”

Since his business, Mana Ai, is based on traditional methods, it doesn’t meet state Department of Health guidelines. He’s allowed to operate with a two-year variance that cost him $200, and he is currently the only authorized paiai maker in the state.

But that soon could change.

Following a mandate from the state Legislature, Health officials have included an exemption for paiai makers in the proposed changes to the department’s administrative rules.

Public hearings on the draft rule changes may be held this summer, and adoption could come shortly afterward, most likely before Anthony’s variance expires in November, said Peter Oshiro, DOH’s sanitation program manager.

Emily Kandagawa, the coordinator for the Taro Security and Purity Task Force, said the permits could allow more paiai makers to go into business and provide more diversity of taro products for consumers.

“It’s a big momentum gainer,” she said.

Anthony said the new rules would be good not just for his business but for taro growers in general.

“I’m a believer that this is an industry,” he said.

“In order to affect the industry, people have to want to do it, they want to see the value in it.”

Still, for more farmers to grow taro, there needs to be adequate land.

Protecting agriculture land that could produce taro from development was one of the recommendations the task force made in its 2010 report to the state Legislature.

Lawmakers are considering a bill to designate taro lands as a land classification.

“A lot of the most at-risk lands are wetland taro lands,” Kandagawa said.

While taro is still far from becoming the staple food crop it once was for the islands, Anthony sees paiai as a way to put more of it on Hawaii dinner tables.

Part of his optimism is based on the versatility of the product.

It can be stored for long periods of time and can be used in ways that test the imagination of any chef, he explained.

“You can roll it up like sausage, put it in the fridge and cut it like cheese, slice it like silver dollars and pan fry it in butter,” Anthony said.

“That way is a home run every single time.”

Paiai was already shown to be a favorite among some customers at the Town restaurant in Honolulu, he said, which DOH forced to stop cooking a few years ago since the practice was not permitted.

Paiai would still not be allowed on restaurant menus, though, even if the state adopts the proposed rule changes.

Oshiro said the new rules would only allow it to be sold directly to the consumer to “limit the exposure of the product.”

Grocery stores still provide an avenue for the product to reach customers.

Whole Foods on Oahu is one of Anthony’s customers. He said he sells about 20 pounds a week there for about $15 a pound; he makes about 100 pounds a week.

That’s quite a bit more than poi, which sells for about 45 cents an ounce.

Anthony doesn’t look at the price as a major deterrent, noting that one pound of paiai can make three to five pounds of poi.

But he also realizes that consumers need to learn how to incorporate paiai into their meals for the market to grow.

That is one of the reasons why education is a big part of his operation.

Along with producing paiai, Mana Ai also hosts workshops teaching others how to make it themselves and makes wooden boards out of invasive tree species.

While some may see teaching others how to make your own product as counter-productive, Anthony looks at it another way.

He sees the dinner table as the “frontline in the taro industry,” and believes that the more people who learn how to make and cook with paiai, the better off the market will be and the sooner taro will be embraced by a larger part of the population.

Teaching people to embrace traditional ways of using taro is also a major motivator.

“There is still so much education that needs to happen before people reopen to this ancient, but new, product,” he said.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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