Poi is ‘Ono and Pono

Through the 1960s, poi was sold at near pa‘i‘ai stage. Traditionally, thick, fresh pa‘i‘ai was thinned by adding water, a little at a time, and mixing thoroughly by hand to make poi. Mixing allowed several minutes for ho‘owali ‘ai – turning the poi up against the side of the bowl repeatedly until the poi reached the proper consistency and all water was absorbed. The ho‘owali ‘ai process is like kneading bread dough – it develops the characteristic “tackiness” or elasticity of ‘ono poi. Using an electric mixer does not develop that ‘ono poi characteristic. Adding too much water at once, or not mixing it thoroughly, ruins the quality of mixed poi. Families knew who had “good mixing hands” and those were the family members who mixed sweet poi for everyone’s enjoyment.

Our kūpuna taught about the mana of kalo and poi through the story of Hāloa, the first human being and the younger brother of kalo. The first child of Heaven and Earth was stillborn. His grieving parents buried him, but soon afterwards a plant grew from that spot – the first kalo plant – named Hāloanakalaukapalili. A short time later a second child was born. This child was Hāloa, named after his kaikua‘ana (older sibling). All Hawaiians are descendants of Hāloa. Thus, great respect and reverence was demonstrated in the handling of kalo and poi. Respectfully, the family poi bowl was always kept tidy and clean. They would kahi (carefully wipe with clean, wet fingers) the inside rim of the family poi bowl before and after serving from it. Inner and outer rims of individual bowls were free of dribbles before placing the poi bowl before diners.

The ‘ōlelo no‘eau “Ke hō‘ole mai nei o Hāloa” references Hāloa’s mana. Translated it means “Hāloa denies that.” It is said that whenever business is discussed before an open poi bowl, it will be denied by Hāloa. Thus, if a medical kahuna is called upon for help while eating poi, it was a sign that he was not the right person to treat the sick person. However, if called to someone’s death bed while eating poi, he was able treat the illness, for Hāloa would deny that death.

Traditionally, kalo and poi are the Hawaiian staple foods… if only we could find poi and afford it today. At a Hawaiian health meeting in the mid-1990s, Mrs. Hillary Clinton asked why poi was so expensive. We told her how lo‘i kalo (taro fields) had been converted to sugar cane and pineapple fields for corporate farming, and how our lo‘i kalo were eliminated and the lands used for roads, towns, schools, homes and commercial business centers. We explained how the fresh water needed to irrigate lo‘i kalo has been diverted to cane and pineapple industries, to golf courses, and to residential communities.

Today, one commercial brand of poi is priced at just over $6 per cup. If moderate amounts are eaten at three daily meals, the cost of poi would be about $18 a day for a woman and $24 for a man. The per-year cost of poi is about $15,330 for a husband and wife, and for a family of four the cost is about $24,000… if only we could find poi and afford it today.

Since the 1960s, the traditional consistency of poi has changed. Current poi production adds water and prepares ready-to-eat poi with electric mixers. Thus, the characteristic elasticity of traditionally mixed poi is gone. Nowadays, dipping two fingers into a poi bowl and “deftly swirling your wrist” will no longer capture a mouthful of poi. Auē. Today we pay far more for less poi and we cannot always find it.

The U.S. government sets industry standards for many food products, specifying quantities and ingredients for foods such as bread, mayonnaise, ketchup and so forth. These “standards” set the ingredients for the food being sold by a specific product name (“bread” or “fruit juice” or “mayonnaise,” etc.). Thus, if a different ratio of eggs to oil than that specified by industry standards is used to make a new mayonnaise, the new product would not meet U.S. standards and, would have to be labeled by another name such as “salad dressing.” The same applies to fruit juice. Today, most “juice drinks” contain only 10% real fruit juice. Some newer drinks only include water, sweetener, artificial flavoring and food coloring. Consumers must read labels closely; some “juice” contains no fruit at all, just fruit “flavors” and deceptively colorful pictures of fruit on the packaging.

Unfortunately, poi is neither registered nor controlled by a U.S. food standard. Thus, auē, we pay far more for far less poi. If only we could find poi and afford it today.