Pau Hana

April 01, 2008 01:37 pm

I come from a family of laborers. Their books are buildings, Pearl Harbor and ton-loads of gravel. Their education is gardens and therefore, dirt, modified stems and petioles.

Octopus lures made out of tiger cowrie shells are in my blood. The blueprint for them are somewhere in my fingers, I know.

All of them knew or knows about pau hana. A pidgin-English stitching together of two Hawaiian words, pau means finished and hana means work. It is a time that occurs every work day after the work part is complete and it is a time for elation. Friday is the double holiday.

During pau hana, a person comes home. They take off their steel-toe work boots, pet the dogs and sit down for a serious snacking session with their family and friends. It’s a time to tell jokes, talk story and to be as merry as possible no matter what work was like.

Pau hana comes from the Hawaiian practice of consuming small amounts of food, or pupu, after drinking a muscle relaxant made from the ‘awa root. A member of the black pepper family, ‘awa makes your tongue and mouth tingle. According to Isabella Aiona Abbott’s thorough book, “La’au Hawai’i: Traditional Hawaiian Uses of Plants,” “sore, exhausted fisherman and planters” would follow a drink of ‘awa with pupu. They would have a deep sleep and wake up the next morning refreshed.

To quaff ‘awa was akin to a religious ceremony. The drinker would take the cup of ‘awa outside and would dip their right index finger into the drink three to five times, flipping drops of the liquid upward and backward over their right shoulder. The drinker would then pray to their family gods or ‘aumakua, drink the ‘awa inside and eat pupu like a ripe banana or a stick of sugar cane and then something hot like cooked fish.

The islands’ later history of sugar cane plantations preserved the tradition through adaptation. Bringing together a huge range of people — from China, Portugal, the Phillipines, Japan, Korea and many other places — neighbors eventually got together and shared their food. In fact, the term pau hana and even pidgin English comes from the plantations.

Because their work day was laborious at best and because fair and safe work conditions were lacking, pau hana became an extremely important concept. That a worker at the plantation would spend time to relax after the pau hana whistle blew, was a matter of mental, cultural and physical survival. The sugar was sweet, but the work was burdensome and felt like slavery.

And so, in Hawaii, it is a duty to pau hana and because of the cultural mixing from the sugar cane days, you can now eat pancit, Filipino noodles; Okinawan doughnuts, andagi; and poke (poh-keh), a Hawaiian “salad” primarily made of raw fish and not feel like an alien.

By the way, poke is the classic pau hana pupu. If you are at a store where poke is sold at around 5 when workers are heading home, the poke counter will be crowded, like a festival. If you were hoping to get a quarter pound of tako (octopus) poke, you’re probably out of luck, and if you wanted ahi poke, better come back tomorrow.

Poke is a very popular food and is an important part of identity in Hawaii. You’re not a local until you crave the salad. Traditionally made with fish, seaweed, sea salt and a kukui nut relish, inamona, people make all kinds of poke now. You can get tofu poke, or king crab poke, for example, and you can get it spicy — Korean style, or made with shoyu. Poke has evolved, but the idea is roughly the same.

Evidence that my great-great-grandfather, Maunupau, ate pupu and would have been a strict fan of poke is in his name. A fisherman from the Kona side of the Big Island, he earned his name as a boy, by eating all of his father’s fresh-caught bait fish on the beach — sashimi style — while his father was out fishing. The name means “bait fish done” and since we can trace the name to this story, all Maunupaus are related to each other. All have this inherited appetite.

As far as I know, no one sells poke in Union County. So, how to make pau hana a portable scheme? I wouldn’t suggest a bag of addicting potato chips. Instead, take out your chopsticks and pass around a bowl of the pesto pasta you made last night. Eat it cold and tell a story.

You can make a fire and slow-cook a small pork belly like my brother does. Slice it up thin and serve it with a shoyu and vinegar dipping sauce. Chili peppers too, if I’m invited.

The joy you can have as a side to your small meal, is in a bottomless bowl.

Eden Kruger is the news assistant at The Observer. Reach her at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it .