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Saturday
Oct232010

One finger poi

Don't you love a food item that's consistency is described by how many fingers it takes to scoop it up?

Poi seems to be much maligned by tourists - it's almost treated like a courageous rite of holiday passage to sample the stuff at hotel luaus. But I think there would be a dramatically different appreciation for taro and poi if visitors didn't only get to sample the often watery, chemical tasting stuff they serve en masse at large scale tourist traps. The "real" stuff, made by hand and with aloha is thick, nutty, satisfying and steeped in meaning.

To understand poi, you need to understand kalo, or what I'll refer to as the more commonly used taro. You could write a novel on the plant and several folks have. It's significance in Hawaiian and Polynesian culture overall is enormous.

taro

In Hawaiian legend, the originator of both man and Nature, Wakea, had a firstborn child named Haloanakalaukapalili, or "long stalk quaking trembling leaf". The child was born prematurely and passed away, but from her burial place sprang forth a taro plant. Her second-born sibling, called Haloa, became the ancestor of all mankind. Thus, the taro plant was actually the first born and is more sacred than man. And man, at least in the Hawaiian islands, has cherished, cultivated and, in turn, been nourished by taro, since the beginning.

There are more than three hundred varieties of taro, with many varieties planted in lo'i, or wetlands, while others are planted in rows or mounds in dry land. A beautiful thing about taro is that each part of the plant is used - but the corm, or the underground stem, was the most prized because this is the source of poi.

To make poi, corms are steamed - back in the day, in an underground imu (rock oven) like the one below, but nowadays they can be steamed in a big vat, as well.

imu

The cooked corm was peeled with a large 'opihi (limpet) shell, broken into pieces and then mashed with a stone pounder (pohaku ku'i 'ai) on a heavy board slightly hollowed out on its upper surface (papa ku'i 'ai). Nowadays, most folks forgo the opihi shell and just as easily opt for a butter knife, but the pohaku ku'i 'ai and the papa ku'i 'ai are still in use.

DSC_0317

A key to pounding poi is to only use a very small amount of water - just enough to prevent sticking. After a proper pounding, the paste should be quite stiff and thick. In the past, this paste was wrapped in large pandanus leaves and could be kept for several months without spoiling. This paste (pa'i 'ai) could be mixed with water to make poi. The more water, the thinner the poi - the thinner the poi, the more fingers you use to scoop it up. Personally, my favorite is one-finger poi, even the pa'i 'ia straight up. Even better for the ancient Hawaiians was if the poi was slightly fermented, adding a bit of tang, while fresh poi was reserved for babies and the sick.

DSC_0322

There's a term called "poi baby" - babies raised with poi as a staple were thought to grow strong and healthy. This is because taro is very nutritious - not only is the corm an excellent carbohydrate, it's easily digested and is a great source of calcium and phosphorus, along with vitamins A and B. Taro leaves are a good source of vitamin C, and is as rich in minerals as spinach.

I have a lot of appreciation for groups like the Hanalei Poi Company, who have made poi more readily available in supermarkets across the State, but their machine-processed poi doesn't hold a candle to small batch poi, in my opinion. Call me cormy (ha) but there's something to be said about the added flavor of something made by hand, using age-old traditions. At a recent function, I overheard a visitor mumbling to me that I "shouldn't eat that - he's been touching it with his bare hands". Well, my advice to you, if you happen to be fortunate enough to be invited to share in a handmade bowl of poi, is to dig in and lick those fingers clean.

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Reader Comments (2)

I tried poi at, you guessed it, the Hyatt luau on Oahu a few years ago - and you're right, I wasn't a fan. I'll have to try it again, but it seems like you can't just buy the kind of poi you're describing? I'll have to wait until I come back, but am looking forward to the experience - something that I definitely wouldn't have said a while back! mahalo!

October 25, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjenny lewis

Aloha! When I first visited Hawaii in the early 70's, I was given a chance to try some three-finger, then a dip of the one-finger....my traveling buddies thought I was kidding, but I was lucky to have the chance to try it. I immediately said "hey, this is really good!" Think of a lick of Dairy Queen, then a lick of a great gelato.
I hope to find a good source for it when I'm finally moved in at Pukalani later next year. Mahalo for your akamai comments on such a unique food in Hawaii.

October 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPomaika`i

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