Tuesday, November 18, 2008
The Pia in Haupia
I don’t often see pia growing in home gardens. However, I was able to obtain some tubers of this relative of the bat flower at the seed exchange at Amy Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden in Kona earlier this year, and I’m pleasantly surprised by its unusual inflorescence and how easy it is to grow.
Pia (Tacca leontopetaloides, Polynesian arrowroot) is a “canoe plant,” brought here by the first Polynesians who sailed to these islands. I’ve been told that if you go through the trouble of preparing them correctly, pia tubers can be made into a dried starch and used as a thickener that is more nutritious than cornstarch. According to Isabella Aiona Abbott’s La'au Hawai'i, the tubers have to be carefully processed: First grated, then soaked and rinsed many times until all trace of bitterness is completely gone, then strained through the fibers of 'ahu'awa. “The resulting starch was then shaped into cakes and dried in the sun,” writes Abbott.
Whew. I get exhausted just thinking about all that work, so for now I just like looking at my pia, which is planted in a raised bed next to some young kalo from Waipi'o. Still, I’m curious about the potential nutritional payoff.
Traditionally, dried pia starch was mixed with water or coconut cream and baked in an imu. Haupia, the melt-in-your-mouth sweet coconut dessert, is thickened with cornstarch but no doubt has its origins in the healthy Hawaiian diet that included pia.
For a great haupia recipe and more explanation, click here.
And of course, pia was also used in traditional Hawaiian medicine.
For more ethnobotanical info on pia, click here.
If you’re experienced in making pia starch or have info on any scientific documentation of its nutritional value, I’d love to hear about it.