Partners in Development Foundation’s Tūtū & Me program hosted a workshop on the island of Kaua‘i on August 8-9, 2007 to document kūlolo-making techniques from a certified living treasure, Mr. Valentine Ako, an uncle of PIDF employee Bruce Spencer. Kūlolo is a Hawaiian dessert made of taro (kalo), coconut milk, and sugar, and is not easy to make, requiring hours of work to prepare the mix. Mr. Ako has mastered the art and science of making kūlolo and willingly shared his ho‘oma‘a on camera so that his knowledge would not be lost, but could be documented and taught to future generations. He thanked PIDF for taking the initiative to produce a video, then he thanked his ancestors and mentors for the knowledge they passed on to him. Mr. Ako’s history of making kūlolo dates back to the 1950’s, when he worked as a taro handler for the Kapa‘a Poi Factory on Kaua‘i. He remembered how the factory’s owner devised special machinery to de-soil, peel, and crush the kalo (Hailama – my relative). He gave credit to this man for simplifying the process of making poi and kūlolo on Kaua‘i. Knowing he couldn’t afford the large, costly equipment the factory had, Mr. Ako tried items like a cement mixer and a garbage disposal unit to manufacture kūlolo in his backyard. He found that these simple machines were not only affordable, but managed to produce an above-normal quality consistency in the kūlolo, the way Hawaiians prefer it.
The first stage of Mr. Ako’s simplified technique is the use of an average 1.0 cubic yard-type cement mixer with an electric motor to remove loose dirt and roots from the kalo corm, or ‘ohā. To protect the ‘ohā from damage, Mr. Ako places segments of an old water hose over the metal blades of the mixer, held in place by plastic “zip strips.” An added “tool” inside the mixer drum is a 3 foot-long heavy duty linked chain, which remains unattached to move about freely with each rotation of the mixer’s drum. We began by hosing-off as much of the loose dirt as possible, then placing the kalo into the drum. Mr. Ako said he normally lets this washing process go for 15 minutes, but basically until the ‘ohā rinses thoroughly. Water must be added intermittently, as much of it will spill out during the washing process. Once the washing was completed, the ‘ohā were taken indoors for peeling. Mr. Ako cleans kalo the old-fashioned way: with a hand- held potato peeler. He said the potato-peeling machines can do the job in half the time, but about 30% of good kalo is lost in the process. (The blades of the machine peelers slice away perfectly good corm material, with no way to prevent the loss.) The entire outer surface of the ‘ohā is removed, including imperfections known as “pocket rot” which sometimes go as deep as half an inch.
After the peeling is done, each ‘ohā is then chopped into small chunks, in order for it to fit into a standard size sink-drain opening. Mr. Ako’s technique of incorporating the sink garbage disposal unit is the key to his superior consistency: It grinds the kalo to a mush-like paste that is ideal for most people’s preference. He devised a rig where the sink is mounted to a table which stands about 4.5 feet off the ground. This makes for easy access to a catchment bin as it fills up with the kalo paste. Mr. Ako’s formula for making kūlolo is based on a ratio he calls his own. His formula is: 4 lbs. of kalo to 1 lb. of sugar to 16 fl. oz. of coconut milk. The coconut milk provides more than flavoring to the kūlolo mix, also acting as a coating to keep the kalo lubricated as it grinds through the disposal unit. He proceeded with the grinding operation by filling the sink to the top with kalo, then pouring the coconut milk over it in a circular pattern. Chunks were gently nudged through the drain opening in a manner that was not overloading the unit’s motor, preventing it from burning out. The outcome was a lavender-colored paste evenly coated with coconut milk. The entire grinding process took approximately 12 minutes; if done manually, it would have taken 3 to 4 hours. Another advantage of having it done by machine is that it bypasses the discomforting feeling of having gummy, sticky paste all over your hands and clothing.
Sugar was then added to the paste to sweeten it. Mr. Ako said a long-gloved hand is the best way to mix the batch because one can “feel” where the lumps of sugar are. The sugar must be evenly dispersed if the kūlolo is to turn out perfect. After several minutes of hand-mixing, the kalo mix was then poured into 9 x 12 trays lined with foil, with a second sheet of aluminum foil on top to seal-in the heat as best as possible. It was now ready to be placed in the steamer vats for a period of 12 hours. At a temperature of 214o F, the trays remained encased in the steamers for the allotted time. Propane gas burners were used to maintain a constant temperature and approximately 2 to 3 inches of water was needed at the bottom of the steamer to generate steam for the entire 12-hour period. The trays were removed at the designated time and left to cool-off in the open air of the night. It remained outside the entire night (in Mr. Ako’s garage), and the next morning we had each tray flipped over on to a sheet of cellophane or “cling-wrap” to be quartered, wrapped, and dispersed. Mr. Ako used a vacuum-sealing machine to “seal” the kūlolo in bags, which he says will keep it fresh for 5 days if unopened. He said the kūlolo can also be kept in a freezer indefinitely, and if one wants to eat it, can just place the plastic bag directly into boiling water for 15 minutes, let it cool, and it’ll be as good as fresh.
Those who attended this workshop were rewarded with the finest kūlolo produced just about anywhere. Mr. Ako and his innovative methods were unique in that they were cost-efficient and productively-wise, using simple appliances to reduce the time issue of what used to take almost 2 days to make. His methods produced a high-quality dessert which finds favor with the Hawaiian people as well as those of other ethnicities. More than anything else, Mr. Ako wanted to share his mana‘o pertaining to something he is really good at, and willingly wanted his methods to flourish among the younger generations of Native Hawaiians.