Have you ever wondered what that bowl of purple stuff is at a luau. It’s called poi, and people have various reactions to it. Most likely there will be a short explanation of the various foods available, but they will probably breeze right past what poi actually is, and what it means to native Hawaiians. It has a very long history and it’s a very interesting and usual food. It’s also closely linked to the Hawaiian story of creation. We’ll give a brief explanation of the story behind Kalo (or taro,) since this is what poi is made from. We’ll also tell you how poi is made.
Let’s begin with the story (it varies depending on the source and this is our interpretation, our apologies if you have heard another version.) The first Kalo plant was the first son born of Wakea (the sky father) and Papa’s (the earth mother’s) daughter Hoʻohōkūkalani. The child was still born and buried outside in a sunny patch of earth. From this site the Kalo plant grew, and was named Hāloanakalaukapalili. The second time Hoʻohōkūkalani became pregnant, the baby lived, and was named Haloa. It is said that all Hawaiian people are direct descendants of Haloa, therefore also related to Kalo. This reminds them of their connection to the natural world and everything in it, and explains the sacredness of this staple food.
“What about poi?” you ask, “you’ve told us about the plant Kalo, but where does poi come from?”
Poi is made from the pounded root of the Kalo plant (also called taro.) Nothing of the plant is wasted, the leaves are cooked and eaten like spinach, or used in a tastey dish called lau lau…but we’re getting off track again. Back to poi. It’s a labor of love to make it the traditional way. The roots, more accurately, the corms of the plant are pounded by hand for many hours using a flat hammer, the resulting paste is mixed with water to the desired consistency, usually a thick, sticky paste. Think runny potatoes. On it’s own poi is rather bland, and some people mix it with sugar or honey to give it some flavor. Others like it sour. This means the poi is left out in the sun to ferment until the desired sourness is reached. You can find poi at grocery stores in Hawaii, usually in a bag. Like we mentioned before, you can also try it at a luau. The poi served at most luau is quite watery compared to what is available locally at the store, but it will give you an idea of the flavor.
We’ve found that generally speaking, most people either love it or hate it. We like to dip our kalua pork in it, and suggest you give it a try if you can. You may find a new favorite food…if not, more poi for us.