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Poi: An Island Food Staple

and an acquired taste most visitors in Hawai’i

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Mention the word poi to a first-time island visitor and they’ll probably say, “wallpaper paste” – whether they’ve ever tasted it or not. Ask many residents of Hawai’i and they’ll say it’s real ‘ono (delicious), because poi is the staple starch of Hawaiians.

Guests at the Paradise Cove luau get a cup of poi with their meal and surprisingly there are a good number of empty cups at the end of the evening!

Poi comes from taro, one of the world’s oldest cultivated crops, and was brought to Hawai’i by its earliest voyaging settlers. Poi is made from the bulbous, potato-like underground corm of the taro plant that is cooked, mashed with water and allowed to ferment. The degree of fermentation determines the taste. Fresh poi is called “sweet poi” and poi that has been allowed to ferment for a few days is called “sour poi.” The consistency of poi is measured by the number of fingers needed to dip and carry it to your mouth (one finger, two fingers, three fingers, etc.)!

Poi and taro were culturally significant in the lives of ancient Hawaiians. Taro was sacred for it was considered to be the elder brother of man. Family relationships are even described in terms synonymous with taro plants. The word ‘ohana refers to the offshoots of the taro corm, a source of life. Today, ‘ohana still means a social unit of family and extended relatives.

Nutritionally, poi is a starch, low in fat and protein, containing vitamin B, phosphorous and calcium and lower in calories than rice. Poi has also been praised as a health food. Many babies and elderly people unable to tolerate other foods can subsist on a poi diet. In Hawai’i, many infants start eating poi as their first solid food.

Locally, poi is sold in markets in plastic bags and is enjoyed by many ethnic groups. Poi and taro are used in a variety of different ways including taro cakes, taro puffs, taro chips, kulolo (taro and coconut milk pudding) and poi bread and poi pancakes.

So the next time somebody mentions poi, tell them: “Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it!”