A Tale of Turmeric (‘Olena)

‘Olena (Turmeric) in flower.

One of the Hawaiian Canoe Plants Now is Recognized as a Therapeutic Powerhouse

For centuries, natural medicine traditions prized certain foods as medicines, using them both to heal and to maintain wellness. The turmeric root or rhizome was considered an important life-sustaining component used in Ayurvedic, Chinese and other Eastern healing traditions, including that of the ancient Polynesians. When these skilled voyagers set out in their wa’a, hand-hewn sailing canoes, to explore the vast reaches of the Pacific Ocean they navigated only with their sophisticated knowledge of the stars, ocean currents, prevailing wind directions, the patterns of migratory birds and other natural indicators. They were well-prepared for these long journeys, carrying with them animals, food, and the seeds, roots and cuttings of plants. These plants, which included ‘Olena, are known as Canoe Plants in Hawai’i, and are the foundation of ancient Hawaiian agriculture.

Olena (“yellow” in Hawaiian), so named for the bright orange-yellow color of its rhizome, was revered by the Polynesians and ancient Hawaiians for its mana — its life force or spiritual power — and was used to cleanse and purify people, physical spaces, and objects. In Hawaiian healing practices the ‘Olena root either was chewed and swallowed or mashed for its juice and used as a blood purifier and to treat earaches, consumption, and other ailments. Today, research done by various institutions around the world, including more than 20 studies done by the National Institutes of Health, has shown that turmeric cleanses, supports, and strengthens our bodies with its powerful anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, cardiovascular and antioxidant properties.

One of the organic fields on Hawai’i Island where our turmeric is grown.

Hawaiians used in the past, and still use today, dyes made from ‘Olena rhizomes to color and create designs on the traditional kapa cloth. As the roots mature, the color of the dye they produce goes from the pale yellow of the steamed or crushed young roots to the deep golden yellow-orange of older roots. Every aspect of the plant was respected and considered sacred.

Turmeric rhizomes after harvest.

The belief that “you are what you eat” was, and still is, considered true in many native cultures where people are intimately connected to the animals and plants that sustain them in life, providing food, natural medicines, shelter, clothes and connections to a spiritual belief system. Today many people regard food and medicine as separate entities. Given these circumstances and with access to an almost unlimited selection of foods of every description, the challenge becomes how to select health-enhancing whole foods that are raised responsibly and then how to incorporate these foods into our diets in a quick and convenient manner, given our busy lives.

Our family always has had an organic home garden and we buy as much of our food locally as we can. Several years ago, motivated by research on the beneficial properties of turmeric and ginger, we began to incorporate more of these spices into our diets. We tried curcumin supplements but soon looked for a different approach because of our belief in the greater value of the whole turmeric root and because both fat and black pepper need to be present to enable our bodies to better absorb curcumin, the chief active component of turmeric. We increased our use of these spices in our meals, using freshly grated or dried organic turmeric and ginger grown here on the Big Island. We liked the results but didn’t like the preparation times, so we began to look for ways to use honey -an integral part of our lives as beekeepers – as a carrier for these beneficial foods. Our fat of choice was organic coconut milk and coconut oil. Our experiments progressed from teas and other hot beverages to smoothies, marinades for meats, glazes for fish and pork, and sauces for vegetables and tofu. We shared our honey and spice blends with family and friends who added their culinary experiments to a growing list of uses … and Hawai’i Harvest Beneficial Blends were born.

We hope you enjoy this delicious taste of Hawai’i and the health-enhancing properties of this prized and ancient plant, grown organically here on Hawai’i Island.

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