Poi to the World is the trademarked slogan of a Honolulu company determined to make the whole world familiar with this Hawaiian staple.
My first encounter with poi was not a very pleasant, memorable experience. This took place at the requisite hotel style lua’u, way back in 1979 during my first visit to the islands. Even the well-known entertainer who was acting as emcee for the evening had some funny comments to make about it. I admit to tasting it, but was not thrilled about consuming a product that even a local was comparing to wall-paste.
“Think of grits without the texture” was the kindest thing he had to say about the thin pasty gruel that was placed in front of us.
Several years later, after making Hawaii my home, I had the opportunity to taste poi again and frankly was quite reluctant, but did not want to insult my hostess. I won’t say that this second experience made an instant convert out of me, but it opened new visions of what it could be. This version of poi was thick, very fresh, slightly sweet and was wonderful when eaten with the rest of the meal. This experience opened new possibilities and I started experimenting with poi in other recipes.
Poi is the result of mashed steamed or boiled taro root. Taro (Colocasia esculenta var. antiquorum or var. esculenta) is a member of the Aroid family. In addition to several cultivars ("cultivated varieties") used for eating, Colocasia esculenta has dozens of ornamental cultivars, which include plants such as philodendron, elephant ear, dieffenbachia, anthurium, pothos, caladium and alocasia, to name a few.
The taro or kalo as it was known to early Hawaiians achieved primacy in the islands as the most important of all crops and was produced in a large number of cultivated varieties. Humans have cultivated this edible corm for thousands of years and it can be found in most tropical and subtropical areas of the world. In Cuba, I grew up eating the antiquorum varieties of corms. There the taro-like corms are known as malanga, ñame and güagüi.
To the Hawaiians poi assumed much significance, with taro being associated with the god Kane, the procreator, giver of life, water and sun. As such, poi was the staple consumed by all and it was considered so sacred that any arguments or animosities had to stop and be put aside when a dish of it was brought to the table.
The taro corm is very high in carbohydrates and potassium, yet very low in calories and sodium. Besides being a source of calcium, vitamin B and phosphorus, it is also lactose free and hypoallergenic, making it a wonderful food for babies and even adults with digestion problems. Poi is credited with saving the lives of babies or very sick children that were unable to digest any other form of food, including mother’s milk.
Nowadays, the convenience of being able to buy fresh or dried poi in plastic bags or small plastic tubs is making it possible for this staple to be shipped all over the world, making it available to Hawaiians living on the mainland or anyone planning a Hawaiian lua’u anywhere.
FOR FAST COOKING
*Peel and cut taro corm in pieces. Pour enough water to cover and boil until soft, but firm. If it is to be used in the making of poi, cook a bit longer. Mash while still hot. *It can also be served as you would mashed potatoes or use in other recipes. On its own, taro is very bland but complements the tastes of other, richer foods. *Peel and slice taro and place in saucepan with enough water to cover, just adding a little bit of salt. Boil until able to pierce with a fork. It can be eaten with a drizzled dressing made with olive oil, a touch of salt, garlic and fresh lime juice.
If made small enough to be bite sized, the fritters can be served as pupu. This amount serves 4 people if making the larger fritters.
1 cup thick poi
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 egg yolk (save white and beat stiff)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 cup milk or whipping cream
Salt to taste
Oil for cooking
Combine all of the above ingredients. Carefully, fold in the stiffly beaten egg white. Drop by the spoonful in deep, hot fat or oil and cook until golden brown. You may add chopped, cooked meat, fresh herbs, carrots or other vegetables for variation.
NOTE: If you add a teaspoon of vinegar to your batter, the fritters will not absorb as much oil when frying.
The following recipe produces light, fluffy, slightly sweet biscuits. Makes 24
16 ounces fresh thick poi
3/4 cup all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
3 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
Sift the dry ingredients into a mixing bowl. Add poi and mix well. Drop by rounded tablespoons onto a well-greased cookie sheet. Press a spoon or a thumb into the top of the biscuits making a well. This will seem to disappear as the biscuits rise when they cook, but as they cool the indentation will reappear and should at that time have a small piece of butter put into each one.
Bake at 400oF for 20 minutes or until the bottoms are lightly brown.
The distinctive taste of traditional blini is quite unlike the average griddlecake and due mainly because they are made with buckwheat and a yeast batter.
According to a Russian source you should start the preparation at least 6 hours before you plan to serve them to give the batter plenty of time to “mature”. For optimum results, the blini should be cooked as soon as the batter is ready. The blini is a rustic culinary invention of Russian and Polish heritage that has acquired “haute cuisine” status through their thousand year history. The distinction between the rustic or sophisticated forms of these little pancakes is mainly in your choice of toppings and the presentation.
They can be completely at home on a delicate porcelain plate served with a dollop of sour cream or melted butter and a selection of caviar, pink sliced salmon, red salmon roe, smoked sturgeon or pickled herring. They can also be presented on a wooden tray topped with a savory cream cheese and a fresh fruit or savory salsa topping. Michelle Gamble of Honomu developed this local version of blini.
1 package active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water (110- 115oF)
1 teaspoon sugar
16 ounces fresh thick poi (*)
2/3 cup flour
3 eggs, separated
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 Tablespoons (3/4 stick) melted unsalted butter
To proof the yeast, stir the teaspoon of sugar and the packet of yeast in the warm water (use a thermometer to check the water temperature. Water hotter than 115oF degrees will kill the yeast while water not warm enough will not active it). Let stand for 10 minutes.
Mixture should froth up and double. Put the fresh poi, flour, egg yolks, melted butter, salt and yeast mixture in the bowl of a food processor. Process for one minute.
Turn off processor and scrape down the sides of the container. Process again for 30 seconds. Pour batter into a large bowl. Let stand for 1 1/2 hour. Mixture will double in volume
(*) Beat the egg whites until stiff and fold into the batter. The batter mixture will lose much of its volume.
Turn oven on to 200oF. Heat a heavy skillet or griddle.
Apply vegetable cooking spray or brush with butter. When surface is hot, drop batter by teaspoons full, cooking only three or four 3” blini at a time. Turn blini when sides appear dry and lightly browned and cook briefly on the second side. Lightly brush tops with melted butter and place in the warm oven until all blini are cooked. Blini can be made ahead of time and re-heated in a warm oven.
(*) NOTE: Do not use sour poi or blini will taste over fermented. To achieve the taste of sour poi, let the mixture stand 2 to 2 1/2 hours, but remember to place mixture in an even larger bowl.
Michelle suggests using a ginger jelly flavored cream cheese mixture for a topping instead of the sour cream and topping the blini with a tropical fruit and ginger salsa. When I tested the recipe, I made one batch as above and added some grated fresh ginger to the other batch of batter. We liked them both.
POI NUT BREAD
1 pound poi
3/4 cup water
2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3 eggs, slightly beaten
1 cup salad oil 1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup chopped macadamia nuts slightly toasted
1/2 cup shredded coconut
1/2 cup raisins
Mix poi with water and set aside.
Sift all dry ingredients together into a large mixing bowl. Take 2 tablespoons of flour and mix with the coconut, raisins and nuts. Set aside.
Beat eggs and combine with the salad oil and vanilla. Add to the flour mixture. Add poi and mix well. Fold in the coconut, raisins and nuts. Pour into two well-greased 5”x 9” loaf pans and bake at 350oF for 45 minutes. This is a heavy, moist and delicious bread – slightly pink in color and extremely nourishing.
ORANGE SHELLS STUFFED WITH POI
I came up with this recipe when I was asked to take something for a Thanksgiving potluck the second year after I moved here. At first there were some askance looks, but I can testify that I didn’t have any leftovers to take back home! It has become a favorite of our students at our cooking school. These portions serve 8-10.
4 or 5 oranges
2 pounds fresh, thick poi
4 ounces of Stilton or other blue cheese
2 Tablespoons dark soy sauce
Juice and pulp of the oranges
Fresh coriander, parsley or watercress leaves
Edible flowers for garnish
Slice enough of each end of the oranges so they can sit on the plate, but not so much that pulp shows. Cut each orange in half.
Using a curved serrated blade, such as a grapefruit knife, remove all pulp from the orange halves over a bowl to catch any juice, leaving a hollow, clean shell. Reserve the pulp and juice.
Place poi and crumbled cheese in bowl of food processor or blender, or you can mix the cheese into warm poi in a bowl. Add the soy sauce and the reserved orange pulp and some of the juice. You need a thick consistency, not too soupy.
Fill the orange shells with the poi mix.
Place in 350oF oven for about 10 minutes before serving.
Garnish each with a bit of green and an edible flower such as nasturtium or the individual buds of geranium. Place on a ti leaf covered tray or plate.
SOURCES: Economic Fact Sheet #1 (June 1989) Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics, University of Hawaii School of Tropical Agriculture; The Poi Company; Canoes Plants of Ancient Hawaii and Vladimir Reznick, Russia in US Cuisine. Recipes used by permission from The Poi Company, Honolulu; Tropical Taste Cookbook, by Sonia Martinez; Michelle Gamble, The Palm’s Cliff House and Island Cooks, a collection of favorite recipes, by Island Heritage.