ʻUala (Hawaiian Sweet Potato) - Maui Ocean Center

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ʻUala (Hawaiian Sweet Potato)

ʻUala, also known as Hawaiian sweet potato, is a starchy root vegetable that has been a staple crop in Hawaiʻi for centuries. It is a member of the morning glory family and is widely cultivated on all the islands. The unevenly-shaped Hawaiian sweet potato is valued as a life-preserving crop, but the shoots and young leaves (called palula in Hawaiian), are also cooked and eaten.


Many communities in Hawai’i’s driest areas placed great value on ʻuala and were able to produce enough of the starchy vegetable to sustain large populations by strategically planting it during the rainy winter months and keeping it stored underground for sometime after the rains had ended. Over many generations, mahi’ai (Hawaiian farmers), who understood the importance of crop diversity, developed many different varieties. They cultivated these hearty, tuberous roots, protecting against total loss of any given variety and built resilience in the event of changing weather patterns or other environmental instability.


As a staple food, ʻuala is an excellent source of vitamin C, beta carotene, potassium, protein, and minerals. It can be cooked in the same ways as other potatoes and can be mashed into a soft poi which has the consistency of thick pudding and is eaten with fish. ‘Uala poi ferments quickly and so it must be consumed within a day or two. Grated ʻuala cooked with coconut milk is called palau and enjoyed as a special treat. Today there are about 24 different varieties of Hawaiian ʻuala. Each has a distinctive leaf shape and colors of skin and flesh that range from orange and red to white.


Sweet potato is one of two plants that can replace Kalo as a staple food. Unlike Kalo, it is less water sensitive and easier to grow. ‘Uala was planted in less-fertile soil mounds because the best lands were saved for Kalo. Both men and women were able to cultivate the species, unlike Kalo, which were restricted to only men.


‘Uala was eaten in the same manner as Kalo, cooked and cubed or pounded into poi ‘uala (like a mashed potato). This dietary supplement was consumed in Hawai’i’s drier and more arid areas. In other places that received more rainfall, it was treated as a famine food – only eaten when Kalo wasn’t readily available.


Cultural Significance


In addition to its culinary significance, ʻuala has played a significant role in Hawaiian history and culture. It was a staple crop in ancient Hawaiʻi and was used as a famine food. Commercial cultivation of sweet potatoes began in Hawaiʻi in 1849.


The cultural significance of ʻuala is reflected in the many traditional Hawaiian dishes that feature it as a key ingredient. Poi, a traditional Hawaiian dish made of mashed taro root, is often mixed with ʻuala to create a sweeter flavor. Laulau, a dish made of pork, fish, or chicken wrapped in taro leaves and steamed, often contains ʻuala as well. Luau stew, a hearty soup made with taro leaves, coconut milk, and meat, is another popular dish that features ʻuala.


How to Cook the Hawaiian Sweet Potato


ʻUala is a versatile vegetable that can be cooked in many ways:


  1. Baked: Preheat the oven to 400°F. Scrub the ʻuala and pierce it with a fork several times. Place the ʻuala on a baking sheet and bake for 45-60 minutes, or until tender.
  2. Boiled: Peel and cut the ʻuala into chunks. Place the chunks in a pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil and cook for 15-20 minutes, or until tender.
  3. Mashed: Peel and cut the ʻuala into chunks. Boil the chunks in water until tender. Drain the water and mash the ʻuala with a fork or potato masher. Add butter, salt, and pepper to taste.
  4. Grilled: Peel and slice the ʻuala into rounds. Brush the rounds with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill the rounds for 3-4 minutes per side, or until tender.
  5. Fried: Peel and slice the ʻuala into thin rounds. Heat oil in a pan and fry the rounds until crispy. Drain on paper towels and sprinkle with salt.

There were roughly 50 varieties of ‘Uala documented before European contact, but today there are only about two dozen varieties that can be found.

common Name

Sweet Potato

Scientific Name

Ipomoea batatas



where to find

Sea level to 5ooo feet. More prominent in dry areas with little rainfall, but can grow throughout all the main Hawaiian islands.

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