Issue 9.2: April/May 2006

Be Hawaiian! Eat Seaweed!

story by Curt Sanburn
photos by Linny Morris

 

For seafood-loving locals, Tamashiro Market is a Honolulu landmark. Located on the ground floor of a vintage apartment building on North King Street, just west of downtown and the harbor, the pink-painted emporium purveys fresh fish at just-off-the-boat prices—moi, ‘opakapaka, , spiny Hawaiian lobster, octopus, squid and, of course, ‘ahi steaks in all their glory: from pale tombo to luscious slabs of blood-red yellowtail to the sublimely pink bluefin, considered by many to be the finest sashimi-grade tuna of all.

Across a narrow aisle from the fish, the store has a whole case full of fresh seaweed—that is, limu in Hawaiian, ogo in Japanese—packaged in plastic one-pound bags. On a day last fall when I visited, the harvested “Moloka‘i ogo”
was on special for $4.49 per pound, while the “cultured limu” was selling for $3.98 per pound.

Firm, finely branched and clean as fresh-cut grass, the glistening fronds of copper-colored Gracilaria parvispora snap when you break off a piece. Pop one in your mouth—the taste is salty/savory like the sea, but crunchy like a strand of onion.

Tamashiro Market knows its customers, so
it’s no accident that the ‘ahi and the limu are across the aisle from each other. Cube a slab of raw ‘ahi, add a handful of chopped fresh limu, mix in some shoyu, green onions and chili paste, and you’ve got ‘ahi poke, Hawai‘i’s favorite pupu.

Come to think of it, poke, with its native Hawaiian origins (it’s pronounced po-KAY
and means “to slice or chop”), might just be Hawai‘i’s favorite homegrown food, period. Whether shoveled from a plastic Foodland tub at a Waimanalo baby lu‘au, served with cocktails at a dinner party, or exalted during the annual, three-day Poke Festival at the posh Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel on the Big Island, poke passion rules the Islands.

There’s something about the crunch of the seaweed.


“When I was a little girl,” professor Isabella Abbott recalls, “and we were coming into Waikiki, I could always tell when we got close to the Moana Hotel, because you could smell the lipoa in the air.”

That childhood sea-scent is something the scholar often remembers wistfully, because it’s gone now. The leafy, golden limu lipoa (Dictyopteris plagiogramma), one of the Hawaiians’ favorite eating seaweeds, was formerly found in almost continuous beds around O‘ahu, Abbott says. But the lipoa disappeared from Waikiki Beach in the 1960s, crowded out by increasingly milky, suntan-lotion-infused waters and by an aggressive alien seaweed, the ubiquitous Gracilaria salicornia, which conservationists are now forced to manage. Every other month, they pull tons of it off the Waikiki reefs.

“After big surf, you can still smell the lipoa up at Kawela Bay or Kahuku on the North Shore,” Abbott says comfortingly. “It blooms in deep water and churns in the waves and washes up on the shore.

“That brings the fragrance to the land.”

For the next hour, Abbott, the University of Hawai‘i’s Wilder Professor of Botany, Emerita, talks about seaweed. Semiretired, she is as spry and quick-witted an octogenarian as ever I’ve met. One of the world’s leading authorities on marine algae, Abbott has published eight books and countless papers during her long career; in 2004, the Bishop Museum Press published her taxonomic reference work, Marine Green and Brown Algae of the Hawaiian Islands. Abbott believes that seaweed’s role in modern life is, to say the least, “underappreciated.”

“I would say I spend maybe ten percent of my time promoting seaweed,” she says. “I bring it up in conversation, telling people outlandish things—for instance, that seaweed makes the foam head on a beer. They think, ‘Eeeew! Seaweed! I don’t want to eat that!’ But they’re eating or drinking some part of it almost every day!”


 

 

There are hundreds of industrial and food uses for seaweed-derived products, Abbott tells me, and huge seaweed-growing and harvesting operations all over the world. The Big Three seaweed-derived ingredients you might read on labels are carrageenan, agar and alginate. Carrageenan, extracted from red algae, is the stabilizing agent/ emulsifier that ensures the smoothness of evaporated milk, whipped cream, puddings and other milk-based food products; agar, also extracted from red algae, keeps the sugar icing on top of your packaged morning pastry and makes the jelly that cushions your canned ham; the alginates have relatively minor food uses (among them, guaranteeing beer foam) but figure in countless industrial uses—for instance, making your dentist’s tooth-molding gel mold better.

Moving quickly from the macro to the micro and Hawai‘i’s tiny seaweed economy, the professor notes that during the past two decades, demand for fresh, edible seaweed has skyrocketed because of Hawai‘i’s love affair with poke.

“People who never ate raw fish are now eating it because of poke.” Abbott says. “It’s the same with limu. Ask a fishmonger which limu he sells the most, and he’ll tell you the crunchy gracilaria —that is, ogo, or manauea—that everyone uses in poke.”

A word about terminology: Limu is any Hawaiian seaweed. Ogo is the Japanese term adopted for general use in Hawai‘i to refer to the hardy, edible gracilarias, of which there are several wild and commercially grown (if non-native) species. Ogo’s native Hawaiian cousin is manauea (Gracilaria coronopifolia), a generally redder and shorter plant that is too delicate for commercial cultivation.

In 2003, six commercial aquaculture farms in Hawai‘i produced 528,000 pounds of gracilaria seaweed, almost quadrupling production levels since 1987. The oldest producer, Royal Hawaiian Sea Farms on the Big Island, got its start as a research project in 1981. Located on the sunny Kona coast at the state-run Natural Energy Laboratory complex (NELHA), the “farm” is a trailer-sized office and a series of above-ground, pool-sized growing tanks surrounded by a maze of PVC pipes, all of it set into a stark, oceanfront acre of bulldozed lava land. “Visitors by appointment only, call 329-LIMU,” says the sign out front.

The aquacultural enterprise, founded and owned by marine biologist Steve Katase, takes advantage of NELHA’s steady supply of clean, nutrient-rich, deep-sea water, pumped from depths of 2,000 feet via a forty-inch pipeline. On a crystal-clear morning, with the volcanic slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa rising magnificently behind us, the forty-ish Katase stands by a tank roiling with ogo. The cool water is in constant motion, churning the growing crop in a process called “tumble culture.” Katase reaches into the water and pulls out a handful of iridescent long red gracilaria. He offers me a sprig. It’s salty-sweet—and there’s that crunch.

Katase says he spent thousands in grant monies before he finally figured out how to most efficiently use NELHA’s pumped seawater—and the relentless Kona sun—to grow his crop profitably. Now he and two employees ship out about a ton of the cleanest, freshest, crunchiest ogo you’ve ever seen, every week. The farm sells four varieties, all gracilarias: red, green, thick brown and long red. Ninety percent of the crop is shipped to Hawai‘i grocery stores and fish markets; the rest goes to Mainland distributors who supply West Coast restaurants with the latest in seafood fads, including ogo and poke.


 

“It’s just like any other farming,” the pony-tailed, T-shirted seaweed farmer says. “It’s hard work and there’s not much money in it. You have good yields and bad yields, and you have to guard against all the other stuff that wants to grow in the tanks.”

I ask him what he’d do if he had a half-million-dollar advertising budget to get more people to try his seaweed.

“That would be nice,” he says, smiling. “You know, we’ve been trying to get fresh ogo into the health-food stores, but they just don’t seem to catch on. Our product’s got all the trace minerals in it, all your vitamins and minerals. It’s organic, and it grows with just natural renewable resources—seawater and the sun, that’s it.”

“It’s a Hawaiian tradition that we’re carrying into the future,” Katase says. “No other place on earth eats fresh seaweed, and ours is available fifty-two weeks a year—you don’t have to go pick it.

“I guess getting out some good recipes would be key.”

The daughter of a Hawaiian mother and a Chinese father, Professor Abbott (“Izzie” to her colleagues and legion of students) grew up in Honolulu not far from Waikiki. Sitting in her sixth-floor office in UH-Manoa’s botany building, two miles from her childhood home, the petite woman explains how her life’s work—studying marine algae and the ethnobotanical relationships between Native Hawaiians and seaweed—began.

“My mother—Annie was her name, Annie Aiona—took my brother and me to the beach often, to Waikiki, Diamond Head, Ka‘alawai, even as far away as Koko Head, where I learned to swim on the reef flats when I was four. About once a month we’d go collecting limu. It was a big event, and we’d make a day of it. We’d swim around on the reef and pick it—limu manauea, limu lipoa, ‘ele‘ele, whatever. My mother knew which ones to pick, and she taught us how to pick it and not to pull it out by the roots, so more could grow.

“Back on the beach, I’d help clean it and separate out what my mother called ‘opala limu, or trash limu. My mother knew all the Hawaiian plants; they all had names.

“Hawaiians named everything!” she says.


 

Propelled by her mother’s thoroughgoing education in Hawaiian plant life, Abbott attended Kamehameha Schools and the University of Hawai‘i, and then got her master’s degree in botany from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. from Berkeley in 1950. For many years, she taught at Stanford while researching California’s marine algae.

In the midst of the Hawaiian cultural renaissance of the late 1970s, Abbott was hired by the University of Hawai‘i to return home and teach Hawaiian ethnobotany, but there were no textbooks available. So Abbott, who learned to speak Hawaiian from her parents, began interviewing elderly Hawaiians, asking for whatever they could tell her about the different kinds of edible seaweed and about gathering, preparing and eating it. It turned out, she says, that it was mostly women who knew the names of limu and where to find it.

“Why?” she asks rhetorically. “Because, traditionally, they’re the ones who did the collecting, just like my mother.”

Under the traditional kapu system, there were certain foods women could not touch, much less eat, like most bananas and coconuts, certain fish and sea turtles. But there was no such kapu placed on vitamin- and mineral-rich seaweed, which, in the ancient Hawaiian scheme of things, was the third component, along with fish and poi, of what Abbott once described as a “nutritionally balanced yet monotonous diet.”

Abbott published Limu: An Ethnobotanical Study of Some Hawaiian Seaweeds in book form in 1984. In it, she pinned down fourteen different species of limu that have both scientific and Hawaiian names, i.e., those that have documented value as a food source for the Hawaiians. She concluded that no other Pacific Islanders consumed as many kinds of seaweed as did Hawaiians.
Her book, considered the bible of Hawai‘i’s edible seaweeds, is now in its fourth printing.

I ask the professor what the difference is between traditional Hawaiian and Asian (e.g., dried nori) uses of seaweed.

“Let me tell you—this is serious now—Hawaiians eat limu raw. They might put salt on it, or put some chili peppers or dried shrimp in it—these are post-colonial uses, of course—but in the old days, they just salted it or they’d lomi it with raw fish.” She demonstrates, rubbing her fingers together as if she’s mashing the flavorful bits of limu into chunks of raw fish—the Native Hawaiian precursor to poke.

“They didn’t have refrigeration, so they favored certain species,” Abbott continues. “Limu kohu and limu lipoa particularly, because you could salt them heavily and when you rinsed off the salt and ate it, say six months later, the limu would still be good.”

Abbott reaches into her office refrigerator and pulls out a small plastic cup containing an oily brown mass of stringy vegetable matter. She empties the cup on a plate. It looks like a pile of dark, caramelized onions.

“You must try this,” she says in a reverential near-whisper, pulling off a shred and offering it to me. “It’s limu kohu.” She helpfully spells out its taxonomic name: Asparagopsis taxiformis. The taste is rich and deep, salty indeed, but with a deeper, almost smoky, peppery tang. It’s tasty, but I can’t imagine eating a plate of it.

“This is the one that gets everyone’s eyes to open wide,” Abbott says. “I have two pounds of kohu in my refrigerator at home. It grows like little fluffy pink Christmas trees on reef crests and rocks and boulders, anywhere there’s a strong ocean surge, so it’s hard to get.”


 

As an exercise, Professor Abbott suggests that I go out on the reef and try to collect some limu for myself. “Just pick what you see, and we’ll see what you come up with,” she says.

So I do. Armed with goggles and fins, I go swimming at three south-O‘ahu reef spots and come back with a bag of scraps of assorted seaweeds. The professor is unimpressed with most of my scattershot collection, but I managed to bring in one piece of what she calls “culturally the most important algae known in the world”: limu kala (Sargassum echinocarpum), a tough brown limu with holly-like leaves that grows in thick meadows of bunchy, upright stalks on the Diamond Head reef.

“Hawaiians used this for conflict resolution, or ho‘oponopono,” she says, cradling the stalk of limu kala in her hands. “They would gather the young leaves, wash them and pass them around
a family circle. After the matter at hand was resolved, they would pray and eat the limu. ‘Kala’ means forgive.”

I’m truly surprised, having thought that this seaweed, of all of them, was the least edible looking and the most common.

“Now you’re listening, aren’t you?” Abbott says slyly, with a smile.

Back at Tamashiro Market, Abbott’s “hard to get” limu kohu sells for about $20 per pound. It’s packaged in small, two-ounce cups in the same case as the market’s extensive selection of prepared poke.

“Limu kohu is a real specialty,” says seafood manager Guy Tamashiro, son of the store’s late founder, Walter Tamashiro. “It’s seasonal and difficult to pick. We sell it mostly to old-time local people. I’m not sure of the season, so we just keep calling our supplier on Kaua‘i until he sends us some.”

A limu picker! Professor Abbott had talked about Hawai’i’s dwindling number of limu pickers with all the mystery of the black arts.

In the Islands’ collective memory, there was a time when limu pickers were part of the scenery, out on their favorite reefs or on certain beaches during the “spring bloom,” picking through the fresh, wave-washed strands of vegetable matter at the high-water mark. But over-harvesting of favored limu, alterations to—and pollution of—Island streams that feed nutrients to the near-shore reefs and displacement of native seaweeds by alien invaders have all seriously impacted the health of Hawaiian reefs and the availability of the best limu.

Limu pickers are now a rare sight.

I had asked Professor Abbott if she knew of any limu pickers still working, and if she did, if they would talk to me.

“They’re not going to talk to you because they want to protect their secrets,” she said. “If they talked to you and told you anything, their limu would be gone.”


 

So I ask Tamashiro if he can give me the name and phone number of his Kaua‘i supplier. When he hesitates, I promise that I won’t divulge the picker’s name or any specifics about his favorite picking spots. Finally, Tamashiro agrees and goes into his tiny, cubbyhole office to pull out a clipboard with a list of about forty limu pickers and suppliers scribbled on a well-worn sheet of paper. He gives me a name and number. The sheet is dated 1981. Many of the names are crossed out. The phone numbers have been revised again and again.

“I don’t want ’em to know too much, ’cuz it’ll all be wiped out, like on O‘ahu,” says Tamashiro’s limu picker on the phone from Kaua‘i. The man is one of nineteen commercial limu kohu suppliers registered with the state of Hawai‘i, who together harvested 2,500 pounds of limu kohu in 2004.

In his forties, the man says he’s been picking limu since he was twelve.

“My father taught me. We’d go hunting, fishing, throw-netting, stuff like that. We worked hard, you know, feeding the family along the way. That was the lifestyle,” he says. “You gotta survive.”
A dog starts barking in the background.

“I learned about the ocean, the tides, the moon. You try to keep the information…”

He pauses.

“You know, it’s been passed down from generation to generation. You have to know about these things. I prefer the moon that looks like a bowl or a smiling face. When it’s like that, the ocean is full and ripe—the wana (sea urchins), the crustaceans and the limu, too.”

He says he picks all-year-round, whenever conditions are right, mostly limu kohu in the late fall from rocky shores and deep, rough water, but also limu lipoa from all over Kaua‘i and limu wawae‘iole from sandy reefs on the northeast side of the island. He complains that lately the wawae‘iole has been disappearing.

“Nowadays,” he says, “they have all these developments and golf courses and the streams have been diverted, so the wawae‘iole dies out and some kind of alien species, some kind of ugly limu, has been spreading over big areas of the reef—at Kalihiwai, ‘Anini, Princeville…

“Maybe the university can investigate,” he suggests.

Lipoa is his personal favorite limu. “It has the fragrance of seaweed,” he explains simply. He chops it up and puts it in poke or soup.


 

 

“I always know where to get it, any season. The only thing that messes it up is big surf; then you gotta wait another season until it’s ready again.”

At first, the limu picker just bartered his harvests for other foodstuffs, or he gave it away to elderly kupuna, who prized their limu ‘ele‘ele, limu lipoa and limu wawae‘iole but could no longer collect it themselves. About ten years ago, he turned limu picking into a business and now harvests about fifty pounds of limu kohu a year, which he packs in Ziploc bags and delivers to local stores or mails to customers like Tamashiro Market on O‘ahu.

“A small market became a big market,” he says, sighing, “and now I gotta write it all up for Uncle Sam—you know what I mean?”

I ask the man on the phone how he would sell limu to the general public, if he had an advertising budget.

“Hmmm,” says the limu picker.

“Be Hawaiian—eat seaweed!” he shouts into the phone after a long silence. “It’s good for your blood, good for your health. Hawaiian seaweed is fresh and good for you!” HH