Sunday, April 24, 2011

Snacking State-by-State: Hawaii I - Poi in the mornin', poi in the evenin'

Our only Polynesian state, Hawaii is part of what the Renewing America's Food Traditions (or RAFT) folks call the “taro nation”. Hawaii has one of the most unique cuisines the country, and it isn't just poi, pork and pineapples either. For this post, I aim to find out how to make food that reflects both Hawaii's history and multicultural identity. Let’s see where this goes.

Official Name: State of Hawaii (Hawaiian: Mokuʻāina o Hawaiʻi - Hawaii has two official languages, English and Hawaiian)
State Nickname: The Aloha State
Admission to the US: August 21, 1959 (#50 - Ah, still has that new state smell)
Capital: Honolulu (largest city)
Other Important Cities: Hilo (2nd largest), Kailua (3rd), Kāne‘ohe (4th)
Region: West, Pacific; Pacific (US Census)
RAFT Nations: Taro
Bordered by: The Pacific Ocean (all sides)
Closest land mass: California, almost 2,500 miles away
Official State Foods and Edible Things: none
Some Famous & Typical Foods: poi & taro, pork, much local seafood (such as mahi mahi), macadamia nuts, tropical and "lu’au" foods (pineapple, coconut, etc), Asian and Native Hawaiian fusion cuisines, Spam and foods made from it (musubi, Spam stir fries, etc)

Hawaii is unique among its neighbors, in part because it really has no neighbors to begin with. One of the most isolated island chains in the world, humans did not reach it until about the 3rd century AD, bringing edible crops along with them, including sugarcane, breadfruit, sweet potatoes, yams and most importantly taro and pigs. Over a millennium later the ancestors of the modern Native Hawaiians reached the islands, likely from Tahiti, creating food traditions such as the lu’au feast, perhaps one of the more famous of Hawaii’s many exports to the mainland (NB: Dana Zia at the Go Lightly Gourmet blog has another very thorough description of both the cuisine of Hawaii and its history): Kauai Menu Magazine describes one lu’au thrown by King Kamehameha III, one of the largest ever thrown, in 1847. It included among other things, almost 300 pigs, thousands of taro plants, coconuts and salted fish and "482 large calabashes of poi" [Kauai Menu 2010]

Taro is among the most important foods in Hawaii, Polynesia and the Pacific Islands, and many of their food traditions center around that famous root crop that is as ubiquitous there as it is elusive here. Only in the last few years has taro even become readily available in Maryland, and even then you still have to know where to find it. I found mine at H Mart. It’s not the Hawaiian taro that most Hawaiians prefer, but the relatively available Asian taro that most Hawaiians do not. But unless I want to book those plane tickets to Honolulu right now, I’m going to just have to settle for the Asian variety. This is used to make many dishes (for example, this taro and crab dish from Papua New Guinea that I made last year). But the one most famous one to us haoles on the mainland is the ever-famous poi.

Yes, I’m going there.

The recipe: Poi

I have to admit: when I started this state-by-state series, one thing I was looking forward to was this recipe. The problem is that poi always seemed like a daunting challenge. The only videos or TV segments I had ever seen of poi making made it seem so exhausting, the constant pounding and working in of oil and sweat from the hands. I even considered ordering a container of powdered poi from Hawaii, but I wasn’t ready to confront how much that would cost (NB: there are lots of brands of poi that you can buy online if you want to go that route. The Islands Gift Shop is one of many that ships poi all over the country. As they point out, a 3 oz jar makes about 13 1/2 oz of poi.). And yet, as daunting as making poi from scratch seemed to me, most recipes I found online made the process much simpler.

Ingredient wise at least, all you need is:

* whole taro corms (I got this at H Mart for about $2 or so per pound. Note: you can use other root crops to make poi, most notably sweet potato, but I wanted to go the taro route)
* water (for boiling and for making runnier two- and three-finger poi)

It is preferable that you prepare this in a calabash or gourd bowl. I don’t have one of these, and I’m not prepared to go to Michael’s to buy the ones they have for crafts that are sprayed with all manner of odd chemicals. Instead I bought a wooden bowl ($12 at Ikea) that worked nicely not just for this project but for many more I will do in the future. Come on, at that price I am sure as hell going to get as much use out of it as I can. But I digress.

I ended up using two different websites for my poi recipes. I imagine that this recipe from poster Mark O. is the more authentic one of the two I used. His recipe for poi maoli (or taro poi) uses the calabash bowl, the poi pounder, and so on. The other one, an eHow recipe whose author chose to remain anonymous, modernizes poi for the 21st century by recommending you throw the pieces in a food processor. I went ahead and tried both.

First, peel the taro with a vegetable peeler. Yes, eHow Guy suggested scrubbing the hairy bristles off the corm, but that all came off with the peeler anyway.

Cut up your taro into about 1 to 2 inch chunks and drop it into boiling water until you can pierce it like a soft potato. The difficulty with boiling taro is that you must boil it long enough to make it edible (raw taro is somewhat poisonous) but not so long that it becomes gooey and stringy (ick). So watch over it and once you can poke it with a fork and it feels like a boiled potato, it’s done.

Next you process the taro into poi.

You can do it the modern way, and throw it in the food processor, or you can mash it in a bowl.

My wooden bowl and potato masher stood in for the more traditional calabash bowl and poi pounder.

I was satisfied with the result.

You should add some water to your taro to get the consistency you want. This is where personal preference and taste come in. If you add just a little bit of water you will get a thicker poi.

The Hawaiians call this “one finger poi” and it is apparently the preferable way to eat it. I certainly liked this kind better.

Add more for a runnier “two finger poi” or even more for a goopier “three finger poi”. This one I was not a fan of.

Hawaiians also prefer their poi slightly fermented. I did this too, both covering it with water and with a damp towel, and letting it sit for two to three days. Covering my poi with water turned my one finger poi into the distinctly three finger variety. However, covering it with a damp towel kept it nice and firm, though it did leave the poi on top a slightly sick-looking beige color. I’m not sure if you’re supposed to eat that part, but I scraped it off anyway. The poi underneath was still nicely sour.

The finished poi, at long last.

So poi doesn’t really have much of a flavor. No wonder Hawaiians prefer theirs to sit for a few days. It gives the poi a bit of character. Honestly, I don’t know when I would need to make poi again. Perhaps I might throw a lu’au at some point to make it again. But for now, at least I have this experience under my belt.


Anonymous eHow Food & Drink Editor. "How to Make Poi". eHow Food. Posted July 20, 2000.

Clark (clarkonair). "How to Make Lumpia". Posted on YouTube, December 27, 2007.

Kauai Menu
. "The History of Hawaiian Food". Kauai Menu, author unknown. Copyright 2010 Kauai Menu.

Kondo Corum, Ann. Hawai'i's Spam Cookbook. Bess Press: Honolulu, 1987. Also available on Google Books.

Mark O. ( user). "Poi Maoli (Taro Poi) Recipe". Posted February 4, 2002.

Zia, Dana (The Go Lightly Gourmet). "History of Hawaii's Cuisine". The Go Lightly Gourmet, posted March 8, 2011.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Hawaii" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "Hawaii".