By Anni Caporuscio
The 7th Annual Hawai‘i Food and Wine Festival is a charitable culinary event taking place over three weekends on three islands from Oct. 20 – Nov. 5. Participants will embark on a grand tour of the agricultural and culinary uniqueness that is food in Hawai‘i, featuring at least 100 of the nation’s heavy hitting chefs, bringing Hawaii flavors onto the international scene.
Last year’s event raised $394,000 for Hawai‘i agricultural and community nonprofits. In June, as a promotion for the event, Hawai‘i Food and Wine Festival co-chairman Roy Yamaguchi led a tour of reporters from around the nation to four Hawaiian Islands exploring food origins. I got to tag along for the Kaua‘i portion of the tour, and learn about poi.
We all understand how deeply food expresses a culture. For Hawaiians, taro, or kalo, embodies a cultural sanctity that is not evident to a newbie with her first taste of poi. The taro plant is one of the plants brought to the islands via canoe so long ago, and it thrived as a main source of nutrition.
Taro is the leafy plant emerging from square wet fields you see from Hanalei lookout. Poi is made from the root portion of the plant, in an incredibly labor intensive process from start to finish.
Poi is incredibly valuable on a practical level. It is slightly fermented after it’s cooked, and contains probiotics and all the benefits that come with that. Poi doesn’t transmit bacteria and is shelf-stable indefinitely (it will sour and change in taste, but it never goes bad), which is highly beneficial for a pre-refrigerated culture. It is very high in calcium and is frequently served as starch on a plate, an accent, or calmant, to smoked or salted meats.
As a cultural outsider, poi is what I would term “folk food”, as in what common, everyday people eat. It’s like cornmeal across middle America, polenta for some Italians, or rice for Far East Asia. You can expect it as a staple on family tables.
But poi carries with it a deeper spiritual content (that as a cultural outsider, I can’t adequately speak to) and it has not made the jump to a fine dining menu in ways that polenta and grits have. You don’t see it dressed up, altered or shaped; instead it is left in its pure state like it has always been.
When I asked Mr. Yamaguchi about the applications of poi in fine dining, he shrugged and said efforts have been made to keep poi in the traditional form and not to popularize it. Unfortunately, many diners will push it aside, and it will taint the entire meal for them. For chefs aware of the significance of poi, this is a waste and they are then reluctant to serve it.
However, for the Hawaiian community on Kauai, great efforts go towards keeping the poi culture and community thriving. We visited Stacy Sproat-Beck at the Waipā Foundation during the weekly Community Poi Day. Poi-making is a community activity and Poi Day started as a response to rising prices of poi about 30 years ago. It’s a messy outdoors affair with many steps. The roots are cooked and fermented, then soaked. The skin is peeled off, composted, and rinsed to get the sticky film off. Next, it’s finely cleaned to remove any irritants. It’s then cut into smaller pieces and fed twice into the grinder for a velvety finish. Then bagged and labeled.
Poi Day processes about 30 to 50 acres of poi per week, which yields around 1,200lbs of poi! It’s distributed to the participants and then distributed to a list of recipients at low cost. The goal is to keep poi as a traditional staple on Hawaiian plates.
Visit waipafoundation.org to learn about Poi Day, Tuesday farm tours, educational events, festivals and all the work they do to preserve the culture through engagement with the land and food. My takeaway from Waipā is all the valuable togetherness essential to everything Hawaiian.
The Hawai‘i Food and Wine Festival tour also visited the Haraguchi Rice Mill, a traditional rice mill on the National Historic Registry, and a taro farm in operation for more than 100 years over six generations.
Education administrator Lindsey Haraguchi-Nakayama took us on a modified tour open to the public. The picturesque 55-acre farm is currently operating about 30 acres and farms year round, except during flash flood and active hurricane season, in which a flurry of activity takes place to rescue machinery and crops from flood water.
Farming taro is back-breaking hands-on trek through muddy fields work. I heard more than once, “thank God for tractors” when talking about traditional farming. Taro must be farmed by hand; otherwise you miss all the smaller plants surrounding the mother. And then there are the apple snails, giant pests removed with a net. And the weather, and all the other obstacles to farms make it a constant challenge.
During our visit, it rained twice, and we pulled snails off plants, got to examine a root just pulled from the field and waved to three generations of taro farmers. Lindsey says her farmer father married her teacher mother, and the family has since been educating the public on taro farming.
Visit haraguchiricemill.org for tour info, times, history, videos and more.
Find poi in bags or containers in local stores on the island. Look for the freshest poi, but don’t toss it when it sours; that’s just part of it. Refrigerate it. Serve it with pork or salty meats. Take the opportunities we have to learn about our food origins. It’s not as simple as we think.
- Anni Caporuscio is a food lover and can be found daily at her Kapa‘a business, Small Town Coffee.