A couple days ago, I returned home from my ninth and last tour with the Alley Cats. We journeyed across the pacific, stopping in many places along the way, and I hope to share some of our adventures with you over the next few weeks.
One of the most unique of these experiences was our invitation to participate in a traditional ‘awa drinking ceremony, an ancient ritual of the Hawai’ian people, which revolves around the drink made pounded ‘awa root and fresh coconut water. The drink is highly prized for its complex flavour, potent palate-cleansing properties, and the slight numbing and tingling effect it has in the mouth. The ceremony is meant to create a space for open communication and the expression of heartfelt emotion, gratitude, and acknowledgement of each other and the earth that sustains us. As I’ve mentioned before, Chris’ dad is part Hawai’ian, and belongs to a group (or pa) that teaches and protects the practice of traditional Hawai’ian martial arts. Part of their activities include conducting ‘awa ceremonies, and Chris arranged for us to participate in one with them. As his father explained to us, very few people, even actual Hawai’ians, ever get to experience the ‘awa ceremony, so it was a great honour to be invited as foreigners to partake in the experience.
First we drive out to Kualoa ranch, one of the most sacred places on all the Hawai’ian islands. We journey to the Northern, windward side of Oahu, where wild rainforest blankets the abrupt, diaphanous folds of mountain ridges rising up from the shore. Our space for the evening is a gem from another world: gigantic trees of prelapsarian proportions shadow a vast expanse of lawn, stretching to the flat surface of the world’s oldest (and easily most idyllic) man-made aquaculture pond. The natural coast of the bay turns seamlessly into the overgrown spit of land that runs out into the ocean, enclosing an area of water the polynesians originally used to farm fish. The sound of breakers stirs the air from the other side of the junglified breakwater, softened like unsalted butter in the falling dusk.
We are told to wait as the pa prepares the sacred space, or kapu. We each take an apu (a polished coconut gourd) and line up behind the pa, in order of rank. The pa performs a cycle of chants and motions. Their conviction is palpable, suffused in the air around them. I feel as though they pull some sort of invisible but nonetheless tangible force out of the earth with each choral limb and call. They are invited into the space, and we follow, taking seats along each side of a length of woven mats.
The leader of the ceremony beckons each member of the pa to approach up the centre of the mats bearing piles of different symbolic foods. Each food is a kinolau, the plant incarnation of each of the Hawai’ian gods (kino being god and lau being plant). First is the ti leaf, the kinolau of Ku, the god of war, statesmanship, and healing. We use the ti leaf as a surface to place our other foods upon. Next comes the kalo (taro root), the kinolau of Kane, god of forests and trees. Then we have ulu (breadfruit), another kinolau of Ku. There is a legend that when the ancient Hawai’ians were starving, Ku dove into the earth and created the first ulu tree at this very spot of Kualoa – part of the reason why it is so sacred. We also take Uala (yellow sweet potato), the kinolau of Lono, the god of weather, springs of water, clouds, rain, and lightning, followed by salmon as a substitute for laulau, and limu kala (a type of seaweed), the kinolau of Hina, the moon goddess. We use our left hand to take this one, as the left side of the body is female and the right side is male. Kalani, our leader, gives us an explanation of each of these kinolau as we receive them. Once we have all five on our ti leaf, he describes to us the concept of aka, the idea of the spiritual essentialised in the concrete: as we are nourished by the substance of the kinolau, the gods are nourished by its essence. I think this is a beautiful aspect of the ceremony that connects the physical and noumenal realms through food.
Before the pouring of the actual ‘awa, we are invited to eat each kinolau together, in order. We start with the kalo; it is slightly grainy, with a toothsome give. It is delicious not because of its flavour or its texture, but rather I think because of the sensation it gives the body as it is swallowed – one of substantiality and satisfaction. We move on to the ulu; it has a very subtle taste, not sour at all nor particularly sweet, but rather, as the name would suggest, like a dense, simple roll one might give to a child with a sensitive palate. The uala is undeniably delicious, perfectly boiled with a smooth texture, a dull sheen to the golden flesh, and balanced sweet and savoury flavour. The salmon is hard not to like because of its freshness, its umami factor, and the refreshing oiliness it releases upon the tongue after the earlier, starchier foods. We end with the limu kala, a stringy, crunchy seaweed the colour of spa clay; it has the most delicious salty and vegetal flavour with no hint of stale brine, and a texture that forces one to return to childhood as it is impossible to eat unplayfully from its slipperly crunchiness. Possibly my favourite of the five.
Finally, we are ready to receive the ‘awa. A pa member comes to each of us with a beautiful carved gourd in hand, shaped almost like a reproportioned butternut squash with a whole in the wide mouth so the pourer can monitor the flow by direct sight. The ‘awa is a light earthy colour, somewhere in between ash and taupe. Kalani pours out the first cup to honour papa (mother earth). We take our fingers and dip them into our burnished apu, sprinkling some of the liquid over our shoulders for the kupuna (our ancestors), in front of us for the lua brothers (those to come), and all around to the ‘olohe (the guests – in this case, us). Then, we drink.
It is possibly one of the most unexpected and foreign taste experiences I’ve had, and one of the most startling and enriching. It is also one of the most protean flavour profiles I’ve interacted with: one second it is vaguely, distantly sweet from the coconut water; the next, incredibly earthy, starchy, and bitter; then intensely astringent so that my mouth waters and grows numb. It is almost a quantum experience; I feel that my palate is in many places at the same time, so interrelated and simultaneous are the distinct parts of the whole. Moments of involuntary difficulty fuse with ones of ecstatic pleasure, both rippling in waves through my body that it becomes difficult to tell one from the other. It is, as we like to say, a category-challenging experience.
We finish our drink and take time to appreciate our experience in silence. We are given time to go around our large group, expressing whatever it is we would like to share each in turn. There are words of gratitude, acknowledgement, personal reflection, reminiscence, growth, revelation, humour, wit – it is theatre in the round of the truest order, these woven mats a stage, our props lying used, proud, or else consumed. It is a free communion.
Kalani throws his apu into the centre, and the space becomes noa, or common. The sacred ceremony is over, and we return to the earth we have been sitting on.
A feast follows.
There is food and then some. Hours are spent lounging around the beautiful space, meeting the pa, hearing stories, talking with new friends. There is hula (one girl did the most captivating, entrancing dance, ghostly almost, stunning), ukulele, singing, general talent oozing from our hosts. It is yet another saturate night.