14 Poi to the World
Step outside of your comfort zone and explore an ancient Hawaiian super food.
While on Maui, be sure to try the delicately flavored poi—the pale purple paste that results from pounding the kalo, or revered taro plant.
”Learning to love the flavor, though, pays off. Poi is one of the healthiest foods you can eat.”
There are several foods unique to Hawaii that all visitors should try. One of them is poi—the pale purple paste that results from pounding the kalo, or revered taro plant.
A root vegetable, taro is most often seen growing in large paddies, with sturdy stems standing two to three feet tall and supporting large, heart-shaped leaves. It’s what many island residents on Maui grow in their own backyards. While every other starch is imported into the Hawaii islands, only taro is grown locally.
Every part of the taro plant has a use: The root is pounded into poi; leaves are wrapped around pork, fish or chicken and steamed to make a flavorful dish called lau lau; stems are used to flavor stews. Entire civilizations throughout the Pacific thrived on this food source, which is said to be one of the earliest cultivated plants in history. One cannot overstate the importance of taro in Native Hawaiian culture: The oral histories (mo’olelo) say that the first Hawaiian, Haloa, originated from the taro plant. Literally meaning “long stalk,”“long breath” and “long life,” Haloa is worshipped with chanting, hula and festivals.
Despite its delicate flavor, poi can be an acquired taste—it is bland, and some don’t appreciate its paste-like texture. Even foodfearless Andrew Zimmern, star of the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods,” didn’t care for poi when trying it for the first time. But learning to love the flavor, though, pays off. Poi is one of the healthiest foods you can eat. Dr. Terry Shintai, author of the hit nutrition book “Eat More, Weigh Less,” concurs. He extols the many delightful qualities of poi as a natural, whole food.
There are countless examples of poi saving the dietary day: Babies allergic to milk, for instance, often take poi quite well. Many locals start to feed their babies poi at a very young age believing that it helps them sleep soundly through the night. Poi is also used by outrigger canoe paddlers to carbo-load, Hawaiian-style, before a long-distance race.
Shintani studied the effects of eating a poi-rich ancient Hawaiian diet. Subjects replaced bread, pasta and potatoes (all starches), for poi and sweet potatoes. Their findings were shocking: Cholesterol levels dropped by 14.1 percent and an average 17 pounds was shed.
But the health factors aren’t the only reason to try it. Locals cherish poi as a gift from early Hawaiians. While you’re here, we invite you to do the same.