THE JOY OF POI
If you've been to Hawaii, then surely you've been to some hotel's luau at least once (and if not, what kind of tourist are you, anyway?) A luau, as all good tourists know, is about the food. And just so you won't go hungry, they make sure not to keep the offerings too authentic. But one thing for sure, you're guaranteed to find that obligatory Poi - that purple paste in a bowl that the entertainers will warn you about. It's something, they say, only a native Hawaiian could love. And do they love it! Dipping two fingers at a time, then three fingers and finally scooping out a handful in a cupped four-finger dip. Guaranteed to get a good laugh.
To a culture accustomed to sweet and salty flavors as we are, poi is a shock to the senses in its relative blandness. Compound that with the especially tasteless sample you're likely to find at your Hawaiian Buffet, you'll wonder why anyone would bother with it.
As opposed to the typical servings at contemporary Hawaiian eateries: rice, macaroni salad, chicken katsu, teriyaki, spam and so on ... Poi is authentically Hawaiian and has a rich and significant history that is anything but bland.
Long before Europeans brought guns, missionaries and high-fat food, poi was the staple of the Hawaiian diet. Poi is made from the taro plant. The tropical climate and abundance of water is an ideal environment for the cultivation of taro. Like potatoes to the Irish, maize to American Indians, and rice to Asians, taro was the food just about every islander depended on. The leaves as well as the root, a starchy tuber, are edible. As will happen with anything so central to the lives and lore of a community, taro took on a sacred character to the extent that King Kalakaua traced his lineage to a mythical figure closely identified with the taro plant and had a taro leaf symbol in a prominent place on his crown. Even today, poi has an honored place in Hawaiian music: one of the best known songs of Sean Na'auao Fish & Poi celebrates real Hawaiian food as the only thing that can satisfy him. And in the song Island Style, John Cruz rhapsodizes on how his "gramma" loves the poi real sour.
Poi is made by pounding the boiled taro tuber with some water until it morphs into a thick pasty texture, about the consistency of pancake batter. Poi is traditionally pounded using an oversized mortar and pestle. The taro flesh is purple, so the paste is a bright purple. The poi is just thick enough so that one can plunge a couple of fingers (or three or four fingers for the hungry guy) into a bowl and emerge with a good slurp of poi. Just like Chinese food tastes better with chopsticks than with a fork, maybe that's why you didn't like that poi you tasted at the luau? Put down that spoon! Actually, it would take more than your fingers to make tourist poi taste better.
Poi has a notoriously brief shelf life. Kind of like a baguette, you don't really want to let it sit on the shelf for weeks. Freshly pounded poi is slightly sweet. Day-by-day as it slowly ferments, it takes on a sour taste. Then, again, just like John Cruz's tutu, some people like the poi real sour. What you had at the luau was most likely mixed from dehydrated poi, and it's bound to be at least as good as what you get from dehydrated mashed potatoes. How would you like to introduce someone to potatoes by starting them out with reconstituted potato flakes? Yum.
I can't say I have a deep love for poi myself. And since it's not likely to show up on my supermarket shelf nor am I going to spend the weekend pounding my own poi, I am not going to have the opportunity to become much of a poi connoisseur. However, I can say that I have tasted poi on several occasions and I can tell you that when you taste good poi, you will know it. On a recent trip to Hawaii, I unknowingly walked into Sam Choy's Breakfast, Lunch and Crab on "Hukilau" night and found a kind of buffet you really wish they had at those hotel luaus. My low-carb diet went on vacation that night, but I tell you truly that one of the high points of the meal was Sam's fresh poi. I know it was fresh cause it was just a little bit sweet, and it was smooth but I could detect small pieces of taro root. It was something to write home about, and so I did.
When not dining in exotic locales, Michael Macheret forages closer to home in the South Bay regions near Los Angeles