At a Hawaiian luau Monday night, I dined on many local dishes: kalua pig (pulled pork), lomi lomi salmon (cold salmon, onions and tomatoes), poke (raw ahi tuna salad), lau lau (fish, chicken and beef wrapped in taro leaves and steamed), and poi (pounded taro plant).
The pork, slow-cooked all day in an imu (an underground oven) and the tuna were my favorites. Poi was, um, a different story.
A purplish-gray paste, poi has the consistency of Mastic, that stuff you use to adhere tile to a wall. While it looks like a hideously unappetizing blob on your plate, it actually doesn’t taste bad. In fact, it doesn’t taste like anything. It reminds me of grits, not in texture, but with no flavor of its own, it takes on the taste of whatever you pair with it. For example, Hawaiians sprinkle sugar over it for breakfast and eat it with salty lomi lomi salmon for dinner.
Given its benign flavor profile, and the fact that Hawaiians had access to many other food sources, I wondered why anyone would cultivate it. And why would they make it a part of their daily diet?
It turns out, poi, which is made from the taro plant, has been cultivated across the world for over 5,000 years. Ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt and India all have accounts of taro as a dietary staple. In the Hawaiian culture taro is sacred and believed to have the greatest life force of all foods. When poi is uncovered at the family dinner table, it is believed that the spirit of Haloa, the ancestor of the Hawaiian people is present and therefore, all conflict among family members has to come to an immediate halt.
Poi is the Hawaiian version of, “shut up and eat your dinner.”
And it’s relatively healthy. It’s low in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium and is a good source of vitamins E, B6, and C, as well as potassium, magnesium and iron.
Hmm, who knew?
Even so, I’m afraid poi will remain a Hawaiian dietary staple, not one of mine.
One Hawaiian dish I am adding to my appetizer repertoire is tuna poke (pronounced POH-kay). If you like ahi sashimi (raw tuna), then you’ll love this.
Basic Hawaiian Tuna Poke
4 cups ahi (yellowfin tuna, sashimi grade) diced
1/2 cup onion, minced
1/4 cup green onion, minced
1 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons sesame oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix all the ingredients together and chill well. Enjoy!