Hawaiians use part of the ki plant to treat asthma.
Okolehao, also called “oke”, is a Hawaiian alcoholic beverage that uses the roots of ti plants as a base. Over time, the way oke was made evolved, resulting in countless recipes for the liqueur. Today, only one Hawaiian distillery legally produces Okolehao. Any other oke available is made illegally and can be considered Hawaiian “moonlight”.
Okolehao uses ti plant roots as its base.
The ti plant, or Cordyline fruticosa, is called “ki” by Hawaiians. This plant was imported to the islands with the ancient Polynesians who came to inhabit the area. Cordyline fruticosa was used for practical purposes. For example, Hawaiians used part of the ki plant to treat shortness of breath or asthma and parts used to induce vomiting. Hawaiians also used the leaves of the ti plant to wrap food during cooking, to make shoes, and to make raincoats.
Ancient Hawaiians used to plant ti plants on slopes.
The ancient Polynesians also brought sugar cane, or ko, to the Hawaiian Islands. Sugar was another important ingredient of early Okolehao. Uala, or sweet potato, was also used to make okolehao. The sweet potato was also introduced to Hawaii by the Polynesians.
Some think that Hawaiians brewed a low-alcohol beer before first European contact, when England’s captain James Cook (1728-1779) “discovered” Hawaii, or the “Sandwich Islands” in 1778. Captain Cook would lose life on February 14, 1779, in a battle with the Hawaiians. Others credit Captain Nathaniel Portloch, who was part of Captain Cook’s first expedition to the islands, for instructing Hawaiians on how to make this beer.
Hawaiians use part of the ki plant to treat shortness of breath.
Hawaiians would not learn to distill until 1790. The fugitive Australian convict William Stephenson taught the islanders to distill using iron pans that whalers used to cook whale blubber. The word “okolehao” means “iron bottom”, perhaps in reference to how the pots resembled human anatomy.
Okolehao recipes likely changed over time, in part due to the importation of other plants and peoples to the islands. For example, pineapple is not native to the Hawaiian Islands. Even so, pineapple, which was first introduced in 1813, was added to the “mixture” because of the fruit’s sugar content. In addition, rice became part of the mix when the Japanese and Chinese moved to the islands.
Another reason other ingredients have been added to okolehao may be because the roots of the plants can weigh around 200 pounds (about 91 kg). Ancient Hawaiians used to plant ti plants on slopes. It was easier to pull out the plants and roots than it was to pull the plants and roots out of the ground.