The title of this post is a bumper sticker one sees a lot here in Hawai‘i. But the slogan is not just an amusing riff on the milk ad; it’s a fact that—unlike cow’s milk, which can have ill effects on humans—poi is one of the most nutritious and healthy foodstuffs in the world, being high in fiber, as well as vitamins A and C.
the finished batch of two-finger poi
made by my neighbor Anya and me
Poi was a staple of the ancient Hawaiians, and remained so until around the middle of the last century, when the advent of the Western diet and the increased cost of taro led to its decline. (Here is a cute video about poi with some vintage footage.) But as with other aspects of Hawaiian culture, poi has experienced a comeback over the past few decades. Festivals now celebrate the art of poi-pounding, and one can find the dish on menus and at grocery stores.
Poi is made from the corm of the taro plant (known as “kalo”in Hawaiian).
The corm is steamed, peeled, and then pounded to initially produce what is called “pa‘i‘ai,” which is more stable than poi, and is the form in which the product was transported and stored by the ancient Hawaiians. (See here.) Water is then added to the pa‘i‘ai to the desired consistency—one-, two-, or three-finger—to create poi.
Once water has been added, the product begins to undergo a natural fermentation process (involving lactobacillus, yeast and Geotrichum—see here), which both changes its flavor, making it more sour, and also acts as a preservative.
My neighbor here in Hilo, Anya, is a keen student of many ancient Hawaiian arts and crafts, and when she found out I was interested in poi, kindly offered to teach me how to make it. Last Sunday, we had our ku‘i ‘ai (poi-pounding party). Here—along with Anya and Jackson’s son Liam—are the tools set out in preparation:
the pounding boards (papa kuʻi ai ), lava-rock pounders (pōhaku),
and wooden bowls were all carved by Anya’s father
Anya had already boiled the kalo corms—the purple, Lehua variety, from the Hilo farmers market—for about two hours in their skins, and then peeled them, before I arrived:
Handing me, the novice, the lighter of the pōhaku, she told me that the ancient Hawaiians only allowed men to pound poi. “Look at the shape of the pounder and you’ll understand why,” she said with a chuckle. But then she picked up the odd-shaped pōhaku, with the hole in the middle (see photo above). “This one is from Kaua‘i,” she said, “the only island where women were allowed to pound poi, as long as they used this kind of pounder.” Gotta love it, yah?
Anya placed several chunks of taro on the board and showed me how to smash it with the pounder:
We pounded and mashed until the taro had the consistency of paste, adding a little water as we went until we had the desired thickness. (For a nice photo-essay showing the method, click here, and for a video, click here.)
Here are Anya, Liam (whose first solid food was poi), A&J’s border collie, Jude, and Miss Ziggy:
As we mashed, the taro changed color, from its original vibrant purple to a more subdued lilac. In this photo taken by Jackson, you can see yours truly in action (notice Liam’s little wooden pōhaku, also carved by Anya’s dad):
Once the pounding was complete, we placed it in a wooden bowl with ti leaves (see photo at top of post), and then sat down to a feast of poi; pork, beef and codfish laulau made by Anya’s family; lomilomi salmon made by Jackson; brown rice; and kimchee and papaya chutney made by me:
So, what did the poi taste like? you are no doubt asking. Was it strange and exotic? Well, no, not really. In fact, it tasted pretty much like what you’d expect: boiled and mashed sweet potato (a close relative to taro). Very mild.
“Some people like freshly-made poi with sugar,” Anya observed. “I think it would be good with salt and Siracha sauce,” was my response. “Just let it sit out for a few days,” she said. “It’ll get a lot stronger.”
Anya gave me some poi to take home, and I did as she said, letting it sit out on the counter in a wooden bowl, covered by a dish towel. After 24 hours I tasted it again: Not much change; perhaps a tiny bit of tang.
Today, after 24 more hours, I uncovered the bowl again and this time was greeted by a purple creature covered in fur. “Just scrape the mold off,” Anya had advised. “It won’t hurt you.” So I did that, and then stirred the poi up with my hands, noticing that it had become fluffy in texture, like bread dough that was rising.
I tasted it: Whoa—what a difference a day made! Very sour. But not like sourdough—a taste unlike any I’ve ever experienced.
At this point I decided the poi had aged enough for me, and I decanted it into a covered container and put it in the kitchen. I’m not sure yet how I feel about the taste. It’s not what I’d call “bad,” but it sure is different. I think it’s going to be an acquired taste. But I promise to work on it.