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Postcard from Hawaii: The joy of poi

Poi5

WAIMEA -- Of all the things I did on my recent week in Hawaii, there was nothing that beat poi. For those of you who know the islands, that will probably come as a shock -- or maybe at least as a set-up for a punch line. But there’s no joke.
 
Poi1I know that poi has a reputation. Made from the cooked, pounded root of the taro plant, it is bland enough to make tofu taste like a T-bone. Its texture is kind of sticky and, well, the only word really is “mucilaginous." 
 
But that’s only one kind of poi. There’s another kind that is fermented longer, giving it a distinctly sweet-sour flavor. It’s thicker and starchier, too. Imagine starchy mashed potatoes with the tang of good yogurt and that’s pretty close. It’s intensely satisfying.
 
And, as with so many great products, there’s a great back story, too. The poi that I fell in love with is made by Makaweli Poi, a community-based poi mill in the little town of Waimea on the island of Kauai. But the story goes back further than that. It actually begins in the Makaweli Valley next to the beautiful Waimea Valley, one of the most photographed spots in the islands.
 
But while there’s a quiet, rural beauty to where we’re going, it’s not the stuff of postcards. Scramble across a long, narrow swinging bridge and farmer John A’ana meets you in his pickup. Climb aboard and find a place atop the burlap sacks of taro root.

Bounce past a place that looks nearly abandoned, except for the rusted-out car in the yard, a couple of barking dogs and the old woman who glares at you while she pushes a shopping cart (to where? It’s 10 miles to the nearest store).
 
Poi4And, in truth, A’ana’s farm doesn’t look like all that much either. It’s just a series of small fields, about half of them flooded. But this is one of the oldest taro-growing areas in the islands. In fact, some of the waterways used to irrigate them are supposed to have been built by the menehune, the original inhabitants of the islands.
 
For centuries, fields like these provided the backbone of the Hawaiian diet. Because poi is so nutritionally dense, it could be augmented with just a little wild game as well as vegetables and tropical fruit. “People used to eat 10 or 15 pounds of poi a day,” A’ana says, and he may not be exaggerating too much. “Poi was the meal, everything else was garnish.”
 
Ask A’ana how many generations his family has been farming here and he looks a little puzzled. How long have people been living here?

A’ana grows six varieties of taro on eight acres -- two of them family land, the rest leased. Some of the taro varieties are probably as old as the waterways. Because taro is grown by division -- after the roots have been harvested, the stems (or huli) are replanted -- each plant is genetically identical to its parent.
 
Poi6A’ana got his start in taro when he was in his 20s, helping his Uncle Barney on the family plot. Part of his work involved clearing the brush from some of his family’s old fields so they could be replanted. He moved to Honolulu for high school and college and worked his way up in the fire department on Kauai while working his taro fields in his off time.

Once the taro roots are harvested, they are taken to the Makaweli Mill, where they are steamed until tender, cleaned and cut into chunks and then ground, with just enough water added to make a sticky dough. Each variety of taro has a slightly different makeup, so they are prepared separately. Leaves of the plants are tied to each bag to identify which variety the roots come from.
 
Finally, the different varieties are brought together to make the final poi. This, says Bryna Storch, manager of Makaweli Mill, is where the real art comes in -- judging the exact proportion of different varieties that will make the right blend.
 
“It’s almost like the wine industry,” she says, “where it’s the power of the blend.” The original blender for Makaweli was someone called just “Uncle Julian." “He did it for 30 years and he could just look at it to know if the mix was right of if he needed to make an adjustment,” Storch says.
 
When the poi is first made, it is slightly bland, but as it sits it ferments and develops that characteristic depth of flavor.

When we stop at a store in Waimea that stocks Makaweli poi, Storch returns to the car holding one bag as a prize -- it was the last one they had, meaning it had aged three to four days. In Hawaii, poi is sometimes categorized by how many fingers it takes to hold a portion -- three-finger poi is loose, two-finger is thicker.

She clips a corner of the plastic bag and squeezes it out onto our waiting digits. This is definitely one-finger poi. We eat as much as we can, washing it down with cold beer on this hot humid afternoon. The sourness of the poi is a perfect match for the bitterness of the beer.

Is there a meal any better?

[UPDATED: An earlier version of this story said poi was not yet available online; it is] Frozen Makaweli Poi is available online. For information on tours, call (808) 338-1199.

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-- Russ Parsons

Photos, from top: Bryna Storch and John A'ana at Makaweli Mill; a bag of Makaweli poi; one of A'ana's taro fields; A'ana with two taro roots (the larger is called the mother, the smaller the child). Credits: Kathy Parsons / For The Times

 
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