A renewed taste for limu, native seaweeds, is returning to people’s palates thanks to the efforts of experts, volunteers and chefs.
Wally Ito remembers a time when limu blanketed the shoreline of One‘ula Beach on O‘ahu’s leeward coast. At low tide, the water left behind two-feet-high heaps of fiery branches—a reddish seaweed called manauea, also known as ogo in Japanese, the most commonly eaten species in Hawai‘i. Anyone who swam at One‘ula found themselves twisting among the scratchy masses, leaving the water only to find limu caught in their hair and swimsuits.
Keiki playing in the shallows made limu wigs. Meanwhile, 8-year-old Ito was preoccupied with other matters: He collected handfuls of seaweed, rinsed off the sand and dirt with saltwater, and brought them home to his mother. Like many local Japanese parents, she could stir up an ‘ono ogo namasu, a pickled dish using seafood and vegetables.
Almost six decades later, the shoreline at One‘ula is bare. Low tide reveals only small pockets of ogo, and people swim freely. The keiki of this generation have probably never made limu wigs. While the landscape has changed, Uncle Wally, as he is commonly called today, is invested in limu now more than ever.
Hawai‘i also produced the world’s leading expert in Pacific algae, Isabella Aiona Abbott, who came to be known as the “First Lady of Limu.”
The ethnobotanist, who passed away in 2010, was the first Native Hawaiian woman to obtain a doctorate in science, and she introduced Hawaiian knowledge to ethnobotanist scholarship.
Her 1992 publication Lā‘au Hawai‘i: Traditional Hawaiian Uses of Plants was the first written compilation of the cultural uses of native plants in the region, and it is still widely used and reprinted.
A number of experts in Hawai‘i continue to spread Hawaiian knowledge of limu through oral tradition. One of them is Uncle Wally, who has a background in marine biology but only took an interest in the history and science of limu in his 50s.
Uncle Wally met limu communities across the islands when he started working with the late Henry Chang Wo Jr. of ‘Ewa Limu Project, who became his mentor.
“I had this idea,” Uncle Wally said. “We could gather all these kūpuna with all of their stories together in the same place and have them talk story with each other.”
In 2014, Uncle Wally and Henry hosted the first Limu Hui retreat on O‘ahu, which they named Gather the Gatherers. At the four-day retreat, attended by about 30 experts, a primary goal is to encourage kūpuna to spread the Hawaiian history of limu.
“Limu is part of the identity of Native Hawaiians just as much as the language,” Uncle Wally said. “So to lose this knowledge is to lose a part of that Hawaiian identity.”
In pre-colonial Hawai‘i, fish, poi, and limu were the dominant staple foods. Hawaiians ate it with fish or as a salad like people today eat limu manauea on top of shoyu poke. Seaweed was an unrestricted food for women, so they frequently gathered and ate it, becoming familiar with the varying species and where to find them.
While older studies indicated that there were up to 149 species with Hawaiian names, Abbott narrowed the number down to 29 species known to science.
Of these, Uncle Wally believes only 15 can be found and identified in Hawai‘i today. He ties this decrease to urban development affecting freshwater flow and the spread of invasive seaweeds.
In response to the decline, conservation groups have formed to grow and replant limu. Every month, volunteers of Waimānalo Limu Hui spend a day at Kaiona Beach Park making limu anchors and dispersing them in the water.
According to President Ikaika Rogerson, since the hui’s start in 2017, Kaiona Beach has shown regrowth.
While Uncle Wally rarely eats limu nowadays because of its massive decline, conservation efforts may make it possible to reincorporate it more broadly into local diets. For others, such as Chef Mark Noguchi, invasive seaweed taste just as good as native species.
His chosen ingredient is gorilla ogo, which he finds growing in abundance at He‘eia Fishpond. Noguchi has experimented with salting, pickling, drying, and frying gorilla ogo. He commonly uses it on top of poke or fish, but he has also put it in salsa and ground it on fresh poi.
“With gorilla ogo, you need to chop it up well,” he said. “If not, it’s like you’re chewing on a bunch of twigs.”
The chef has gained extensive knowledge of limu history from Uncle Wally and other kūpuna.
“When we understand where our food comes from, we have a greater respect for it,” Noguchi said.
After learning that it was one of three major Hawaiian seasonings alongside pa‘akai (salt) and kukui (candlenut), he started using limu more.
Every event Noguchi caters has at least one limu dish demonstrating one of the many possible and delicious ways it can be prepared.
But before we can return to a limu-based diet, we have to make sure there’s enough to go around.