Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Is Kiawe Edible?

Ant exploring the sweet kiawe pod. 

Ouch! Kiawe, which we pronounce kee-ah-vay, is one of those trees that almost everyone knows about, even many tourists, because it hurts so much. It's the reason why Hawaiians started wearing shoes and long clothing, because the missionaries brought it over here as a tree of salvation. Or at least that's the story I learned here. Kiawe has many thorns, cleverly arranged so that when a branch falls down, at least one thorn will point upward.  DH claims that kiawe was the inspiration for military tank traps - the spikes rotate along the branch. 

Kiawe thorn forest

But is kiawe edible? Kiawe is apparently a variety of mesquite, and Wikipedia's entry on kiawe just confirmed that. My first inkling that mesquite is edible was from Gary Paul Nabhan's eloquent book, Coming Home to Eat, in which he discusses finding, harvesting, and eating edible wild foods in Arizona as well as his take on local food traditions.  Nabhan praises the flavor of mesquite flour in tortillas. Kiawe wood is also excellent for grilling, but the wood is not edible. 

Inner kiawe pod encased in sticky sweetness. 

There have been a lot of kiawe pods on the ground lately, for at least the last month or two. It must be the season for kiawe reproduction. I kidnapped a couple of kiawe pods that rattled when I shook them. I brought them home and shortly after, noticed the ants milling all over the kiawe pods. They were crawling inside and out, having a great time. While ants eat many unsavory things, like dead rat parts that the cat turns up her nose at, they often eat things that I love - like fruit, oil, and sweet things.  So I broke open a pod and my fingers touched a sticky pale residue, like gummy honey.  This sticky residue covered an inner pod. I sniffed at it, and it did have a sweet smell, so I gingerly touched it with my tongue. It was sweet. Like honey but lighter tasting. (Note: By the way, just because I may try weird random things to see if they are edible does not mean that other people should do so. Eating unknown things can be hazardous to your health!) 

Fully exposed inner kiawe pod.

With some effort, I cut into the inner pod with a knife, and found hard, glossy, little brownish seeds. I can't imagine collecting enough seeds to mill them into flour. Maybe if one has many menehune (folkloric Hawaiian brownies/elves) to do this tedious work. I'm wondering, did the native Americans of the Southwest mill the entire kiawe pods, or just the little seeds inside?  Biting the seeds isn't recommended. Too hard on the teeth. 

Kiawe seeds inside the inner pod. I rinsed them off. 

I also experimented with toasting the other kiawe pods, and they were still difficult to open, and still sweetly gummy. 

Roasted kiawe pod, anyone?

Kiawe is an intriguing food, but until I figure out an easy way to harvest seeds or make kiawe flour, kiawe does not lend itself to my cooking experiments. At least the pods are not thorny. I bet it's gluten free too. If you have experience with kiawe as an edible food, please let me know!

Update 11/8/12: Just found out about making mesquite or kiawe flour, so this may be my next cooking experiment. There are tons of kiawe pods in S. Kihei right now, so I'll try to collect some next time I'm down there. 


  1. I know mesquite flour is gluten free. If these are related they are also likely gluten free. I have never tried mesquite flour as it is extremely expensive. I've read that it has a smoky flavor.

  2. yes, they are related... the book Coming Home to Eat makes mesquite tortillas sound like the most divine food.

  3. absolutely delicious and gluten free. I just bought a bag at mana foods. they started selling today :)


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