Poi, the pounded root of the taro, once a sacred plant whose heart-shaped leaves were used in sacrifices to ancient Polynesian gods, is as much a symbol of Hawaii as the surfboard.
For the typical newcomer to Hawaii, however, the first taste of poi is frequently the last. "Most of it comes back," Tom Caulfield, the catering manager of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel on Waikiki Beach, says of the poi served to tourists at the hotel's regular Sunday-night luau. Poi at these events is "mainly for decoration," or because it is traditional, Mr. Caulfield says.
But the principal value of poi as baby food is its "hypoallergenic" quality, says Claire Ho, a nutritionist with the Hawaii State Department of Health, who says she has brought up "two beautiful specimens of children" of her own on the preparation. "Poi causes no allergies at all," says Mrs. Ho. A few years ago, she recalls, a hospital in Akron, Ohio, telephoned for an emergency shipment of poi for an infant girl with an extreme allergy problem. "Hospitals keep poi on hand now," she says.
"The Hawaiians were the only Polynesians to consume most of their taro in the form of poi," says Charles E. Snow, in his book, "Early Hawaiians," published by the Univerity Press of Kentucky in 1974. In this way, he says, the Hawaiians obtained the needed organic acids supplied to other people by fruits that were lacking in ancient Hawaii.
Hawaiians mourn the fact that there are few taro patches left on the island of Oahu, where Honolulu is situated. The raw material for poi now comes mainly from other islands, especially the scenic Hanalei Valley on Kauai. And most of the preparation of poi, except the hand cleaning, is done by machines.
Poi is primarily the traditional staple food in native cuisine of Hawaii, made from the underground plant stem or corm of the taro plant (known in Hawaiian as kalo). Traditional poi is produced by mashing the cooked corm (baked or steamed) on a wooden pounding board, papa ku'i 'ai, with a pōhaku ku'i 'ai, carved basalt pestle. Modern methods use an industrial food processor to produce large quantities for retail distribution. Freshly pounded taro without the addition of water is pa'i 'ai and is highly starchy and dough-like. Water is added to the pa'i 'ai during mashing and again just before eating to achieve the desired consistency, which can range from highly viscous to liquid. As such, poi can be known as "one-finger," "two-finger," or "three-finger" poi depending on the consistency, alluding to how many fingers are required to scoop it up in order to eat it (the thicker the poi, the fewer fingers required to scoop a sufficient mouthful). Poi can be eaten immediately when fresh and sweet, or left a bit longer to ferment. Poi made from taro should not be confused with Samoan poi, which is a creamy dessert created by mashing ripe bananas with coconut cream Tahitian po'e, which is a sweet, pudding-like dish made with bananas, papaya, or mangoes cooked with manioc and coconut cream.