We were lunching at the world’s best restaurant on Maui the other day, Mama’s Fish House in Paia. M pointed to a few small bowls of what looked like light chocolate pudding.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“Poi,” I told him. “It’s a Hawaiian staple.”
I’d ordered some so he could try it, even knowing that to our haole palates it tastes like glue.
He dipped a small spoon in.
“Library paste,” he pronounced.
Best I can remember, I first ran across poi referenced in James Michener’s epic, Hawaii. The book was published in 1959 and I probably read it only a few years later, since my reading interests exceeded my age by a long shot. I remember that Hawaiians in the book ate in with their fingers.
So what is it? It’s made from the underground plant stem of the taro root, baked or steamed until it’s, well, viscous is a good word for the consistency. As it turns out, Hawaiians refer to poi as one finger, two finger or three finger, depending on how many fingers you have to use to scoop it up. At Mama’s, it was served with small spoons. “Our poi is different,” the waiter told us. I’m not exactly sure what that means. Exactly.
It’s supposed to be fresh and sweet when first made. I don’t know about that. It can also be left to ferment. I don’t know about that, either. I just know it’s not my thing. Or my husband’s. But it IS gluten-free, if that matters to you. Another reason for me to NOT be gluten-free.
The taro plant is said to be the original ancestor of the Hawaiian people, so it was highly revered. People believed that the spirit of Hāloa, the legendary ancestor of the Hawaiian people, was present when a bowl of poi was served at the family dinner table. Any conflict among family members was required to stop, immediately.
Sounds like we could use a little poi in our political system–or our entire world and especially in my family of origin. Even though it tastes like glue. Hey, maybe it can glue some mouths closed. Just a suggestion.
Have you tasted poi? What did you think? Do we have any sacred foods in our own culture?