On Thursday, 4 May 2017, Alaka’i Namiko visited the Waipā Foundation in Hanalei, Kaua’i, to learn more about poi and participate in their weekly Poi Day. If you’ve been a part of Ka Pā Hula Ka Lei Maile Hi’ilani for some time, chances are you’ve had a chance to sample poi, as now and then we have portions of it brought back from Hawaii. That’s always a good time to refresh everyone’s memory of what’s currently our only hula about poi and how to make it.
Poi, a smooth, thick, slightly sticky off-white-to-pale-purple starchy paste, is a uniquely Hawaiian dish, a traditional staple that is made from the fleshy, bulbous corm of the kalo (taro) plant. The plant, which is also known as the dasheen or cocoyam, is grown and eaten all around the Pacific (the leaves are edible too!) but only in the Hawaiian islands is it made into poi.
Poi-making generally involves a lot of scrubbing (the kalo corms grow in muddy wetland and their roots like to interlock), peeling, cooking (boiling or steaming; the traditional method utilises an imu), mashing, and pounding — after which you get a paste called pa’i’ai. It’s when water is added (read: vigorously stirred in) to the pa’i’ai that you get poi.
Poi is traditionally eaten with one’s fingers, and the amount of water added affects the mixture’s consistency and texture; Hawaiians refer to one-finger, two-finger and three-finger poi in reference to how many digits are required to bring a morsel to one’s mouth.
Eaten fresh, poi has a light, faintly sweet taste; Hawaiians tend to prefer it fermented and on the sour side — the flavour increases with the number of days it’s kept (traditionally, wrapped in ti leaf bundles and set aside). We don’t know how long you can keep it for before it becomes inedible, though it’s said that poi (stored as pa’i’ai) was what sustained the ancient Polynesians on their long exploratory sea journeys — presumably quite a long time.
The Waipā Foundation website has lots of educational resources and is a good place to start for anyone who is interested in learning more about traditional Hawai’i. You can also click here to view Alaka’i Namiko’s Facebook post (with videos) about her visit. Those fascinated with poi might find this article interesting, as well (note that we do not have any affiliation with this site, nor do we stand by any of the claims it makes unless specifically mentioned).