HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND
Poi was the staple food of the Hawaiians. Even late in the 19th
Century, King Kalakaua included a big wooden “calabash” bowl of poi in a banquet he hosted for author Robert Louis Stevenson.
Making poi is tedious but simple: the chunky, purple roots of the taro plant are either baked or boiled (to get rid of the root’s sharp-edged oxalic acid crystals), and then pounded into a sticky paste. If it’s so thick that a glop will stay on a single digit, it’s known as “one-finger” poi; but it can be thinned with water into “two-finger” or “three-finger” poi. (Traditionally, everyone dips their fingers in one calabash; hence, a child who’s adopted is said to be the family’s “calabash cousin.”)
Poi is always served at a luau, and alongside every Hawaiian” plate-lunch or dinner entrée in a restaurant. Many people – visitors, especially – don’t know what to do with it, and leave it uneaten. It’s true that freshly made poi is rather bland. Local connoisseurs prefer “day-old” poi, which has been allowed to ferment slightly, and has a pleasantly sour tang.
Like corn-meal grits, poi can be eaten plain, but it’s more easily
enjoyed in combination with something truly flavorful. There is no known
allergy to poi, so any child can eat it, and will, especially if the parents
eat it, too. Few people can resist kulolo – a fudge-like dessert of taro,
sugar and coconut.
But poi itself is more useful when paired with a savory food, like
the marinated raw fish in poke, or like the slivers of raw onion crusted
with sea-salt that local folks enjoy. That’s a pretty strong combination,
even with “sweet” Maui, Kula, or Vidalia onions; but try dipping it in poi,
and both the onion’s bite and the salt’s crunch are moderated. Similarly,
something made with chili pepper, sharp mustard or hot curry can be “cooled”
by a drizzle of poi.
So, think of poi not as a course but as a dip – even for highly
seasoned chips – and you may soon find yourself asking for more.