On the Table – People of Poi: Reviving Hawaiian “Soul Food” for Food Sovereignty

Brea McQuoid | 09.30.2014

In Hawaii, the taro plant has been revered for centuries, with an intimate connection to many of the island’s indigenous peoples. A root vegetable that is the primary starch in the traditional Hawaiian diet, it is believed to be the original ancestor of the Hawaiian people. For centuries, taro has played a major role in the native Polynesian food system, as it represents not only a staple food, but also an important part of Hawaiian culture and spirituality.

Aboriginal Hawaiians, the Kanaka Maoli, believe that plants are the expression of specific deities. Ancient Hawaiians associated the cultivation of taro—which was brought to Hawaii by Polynesian settlers over 1,700 years ago—with one of the four great Polynesian gods, Kane, the god of sunshine and fresh water, life giver and procreator. Another legend portrays the taro stem as the stillborn child of Wakea, Father-Heaven, and his daughter Ho`ohokukalani, daughter to of the Earth Mother. According to the legend, the child was born lifeless and prematurely, deformed in the shape of a bulb. The parents grieved the loss of their child and buried him near the house. Two days later, a taro plant sprouted from the grave, which they named Haloanaka, or “long stalk trembling.” Their second-born child, named Haloa after his older brother, was born a strong and healthy human. The Hawaiian people, the legend goes, descended from Haloa. He was to respect and look after his older brother, who represented the root of life. The elder brother would forever sustain and nourish his younger sibling and all of his descendants.

Taro is so central to the foundation of Hawaiian tradition that the Hawaiian word for family, “‘ohana,” derives from the shoots that sprout up around the taro plant.  Hawaiians believe that the taro corm (bulb), called “oha,” was the origin of the Hawaiian people. All life, in this sense, was interconnected since all native Hawaiians, like the taro shoots, were from the same root. The ‘ohana that cultivated crops relied on the parts of the ‘ohana that fished. [1. Kapua Linda, Cecilia. “‘Ohana.” Hokule’a Polynesian Voyaging Society. Accessed September 29, 2014. http://pvs.kcc.hawaii.edu/ike/moolelo/ohana.html.] Survival generated a sense of camaraderie and reciprocity.

Today, traditional Hawaiian diets, knowledge and practices are at risk of extinction. Modern Hawaiian food is much different from the ancient, traditional Hawaiian diet. Hawaiians typically refer to the modern cuisine as “local food,” which includes fusion dishes like musubi (Spam wrapped in rice and seaweed) and imported favorites like kimchee and Japanese noodle soup. [2. Kennedy, Brittany. “Hawaiian ‘Local Food’ Diet Compared to Traditional Native Hawaii Diet.” HubPages. Accessed September 30, 2014. http://brittanytodd.hubpages.com/hub/Hawaiian-Food-Culture-The-Evolution-and-Effects-of-Local-Food.] The modern Hawaiian diet reflects the cultural amalgamation brought about by immigration, as well as the disconnect between Hawaiians and their ancient gastronomy and land practices.

A crop as significant as taro could be key to rebuilding food sovereignty on the islands. Since over 90 percent of Hawaiian food is imported from abroad, knowledge of the original Hawaiian diet and land cultivation is critical for survival, sustainability and sovereignty. [3. Trimarco, “Kauai’s Local Food Movement Designed For Independence.” Popular Resistance. January 28, 2014. Accessed September 14, 2014. http://www.popularresistance.org/kauais-local-food-movement-designed-for-independence/.] Carol Silva, a historian and Hawaiian language professor explains:

The import economy is a new reality for Hawaii, one directly tied to the imposition of modern food practices on the island. Ancient Hawaii operated within the Ahupua’a system, a communal model of distributing land and work, which allowed the islands to be entirely self-sufficient. [4. Altemus-Williams, Imani. “The Struggle to Reclaim Paradise.” Waging Nonviolence. April 10, 2014. Accessed September 14, 2014. http://wagingnonviolence.org/feature/the-struggle-to-reclaim-paradise/.]

Hawaii’s food and community traditions, however, are being revived through education and community engagement. For instance, Oahu’s Kamehameha High School and the University of Hawaii’s Cooperative Extension Service are emphasizing the importance of taro within native Hawaiian culture. [5. Hausman, Sandy. “Poi: Hawaii’s Recipe For Revitalizing Island Culture.” National Public Radio. March 10, 2013. Accessed September 23, 2014. http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/03/10/173841432/poi-hawaiis-recipe-for-revitalizing-island-culture.] By teaching techniques of backyard taro gardening and traditional taro food preparations such as poi, the program’s hope that the crop can be restored along with the tradition and history that accompanies taro cultivation in Hawaii.

The importance of taro in Hawaiian culture and cuisine is expressed in the sacred, native Hawaiian recipe known as poi. The Kanaka Maoli used poi as a source of daily nutrition. It is a simple, yet nutritious, recipe that is often referred to as the “soul food” of Hawaii. In order to make the dish, the stem of the taro plant is either steamed or baked and pounded with water until it is mashed into the desired consistency of a “one-finger,” “two-finger,” or “three-finger” scoop—the traditional technique used to consume poi. [6. Barnhart, Sky. “Powered by Poi.” Maui No Ka ‘Oi Magazine. July 1, 2007. Accessed September 23, 2014. http://www.mauimagazine.net/Maui-Magazine/July-August-2007/Powered-by-Poi/index.php?cparticle=5&article=4#artanc.] Since poi represents the spirit of Haloa in Hawaiian culture, it is forbidden to argue at the table when a bowl of poi is on the dinner table, as it is viewed as disrespectful to fight in front of an elder.

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Poi is doughy in texture, similar to bread, mildly sweet in taste and bluish in color. The paste is either eaten fresh, which is sweet, or left to ferment for up to a week, turning the sweetness of the poi dish increasingly sour with each day of fermentation. The taro mash is so nutritionally balanced that natives believe it to have sustained the early Polynesian settlers who canoed many miles to reach the Hawaiian Islands.

Aboriginal Hawaiians believe that the taro plant possesses the greatest life force of all foods. Indeed, it is rich in nutrients, containing high amounts of fiber, vitamins C and B-1, in addition to high levels of potassium, magnesium and iron. Poi is low in fat, high in vitamin A, and aids in digestion due to the richness of complex carbohydrates. [7. Kelly, Jack. “Taro: The Roots of Hawaiian Agriculture.” Poico. January 31, 2005. Accessed September 23, 2014. http://www.poico.com/artman/publish/article_59.php.] Medicinally, taro is a healing substance. For instance, poi can be used to settle the stomach due to its beneficial compounds and probiotic activity. [8. Day, Pamela Noeau. “Poi: Wisdom of the Ancient Hawaiians … Healing Food for Today.” The Weston A. Price Foundation. September 25, 2004. Accessed September 23, 2014. http://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/poi-wisdom-of-the-ancient-hawaiians-healing-food-for-today/.] If combined with the rich Hawaiian noni fruit, poi can be used topically as a poultice for boils and other skin infections and injuries.

Taro farming has been a prominent part of Hawaiian culture since the Polynesian settlers arrived at the islands. Today, taro production in Hawaii is a symbol of cultural, nutritional and economic sovereignty. Featured in a Big Island anti-GMO protest in March 2013, taro was used as a symbol of resilience as protesters planted the crop before the march. [9. Altemus-Williams, “The Struggle to Reclaim Paradise.”] At a recent state capitol rally, hundreds of protestors pounded taro to emphasize the restoration of and reconnection to the land. [10. “#IdleNoMore Hawai’i, Lable GMO & Pounding Kalo.” Vimeo. January 1, 2013. Accessed September 30, 2014. http://vimeo.com/57724045.] Foundations such as the Hui Kalo Moku O Keawe educate the Hawaiian community on the importance of incorporating taro tradition into modern-day Hawaiian food culture. As Jerry Konanui, president of the Hui Kalo organization explains, the demand for taro has been stimulated with the active involvement of educational institutions and communities:

 What we stress is for home growers to have taro in their backyards, even in five-gallon buckets on their lanai. If a person plants for their own use, they will often have enough to share with others as well. This maintains the culture of taro within the ‘ohana, and on the palate as well, and this in turn helps the commercial growers, because once people start incorporating a lot of taro into their diet—developing a real taste for it—they’ll start purchasing the commercial products to add to their home-grown. [11. Kelly, “The Roots of Hawaiian Agriculture.”]

The culture of taro and poi are at risk of being replaced by the import-dependent, modern Hawaiian diet. [12. Downes, Lawrence. “Poi, the Root of All Hawaii.” New York Times, January 16, 2003. Accessed September 23, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/16/dining/poi-the-root-of-all-hawaii.html.] Revitalizing taro knowledge could contribute to a more stable and healthier food supply building food sovereignty in Hawaii. By promoting taro cultivation, Hawaiian history, integrity, culture and food democracy can be preserved, rather than the progression of land use for housing establishments, agribusiness and agrochemical industries. By returning to tradition and old ways of wisdom within Hawaiian agriculture, improvements can be made in nutrition, while also creating a more stable and reliable food supply, and fostering food sovereignty.

Bowl_of_poiTaro (Poi) Pancakes
Adapted from HI Cookery

For the Poi
2 pounds taro root
1 cup water

For the Pancakes
2 eggs
¼ cup butter
1 cup milk
1 ¼ cup flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon salt
½ cup thick poi (recipe above)

Make the Poi—Wash the taro roots well. Place in a large pot and cover with water. Boil for 45 minutes or more until soft and tender. Check if they are cooked through by piercing the taro with the tines of a fork. Drain in a colander, rinse with water and cool completely. Cut and peel off the skins.

Mash the cooked roots in a large bowl with ½ cup of water each time until smooth and no longer lumpy. Transfer to the container of a blender. Puree with a little more water until the desired “finger” consistency is reached.

Make the Pancakes—Beat the eggs. In a bowl, place the butter and milk and microwave until the butter is melted. Cool slightly and stir into the beaten eggs until frothy. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.

Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix until no longer lumpy. Stir in the poi until smooth. Heat a skillet or griddle with a little oil or butter. Pour the pancake batter and let bubbles form.

Check the underside, being careful not to burn. Flip the pancake over and cook for a few more seconds until the liquid is cooked out. Serve as a stack with syrup.