Text and Images by IJfke Ridgley
They say that poi is an acquired taste, but it was one I had yet to acquire. The quest to do so began in knee-deep water, mud squishing between my toes as I leaned down to inspect the delicate stripe of pink on the green ha (stalk) of a taro plant. Hanale Bishop, the owner and farmer of this idyllic lo‘i (taro patch), separates the makua (mother plant) from the keiki (offspring) of his recent harvest. At his farm in the back of Waiāhole Valley, breadfruit, papaya, banana, and ginger also flourish, but as we speak, it becomes clear that his main focus is taro. Hanale produces poi weekly, and must constantly tend to his crop.
I am here because of Hanale’s brother, Ikaika, who talks of taro the way others talk of wine: with passion, appetite, and discerning taste. I grew up not more than 10 minutes away, next to the Ko‘olau mountain range that frames the back of the valley, but my last experience in a lo‘i was during an elementary school class trip. To me, the texture and taste of poi brought to mind wallpaper paste, the sour starch that remained untouched on my luau plate. But hearing Ikaika wax poetic about the sweetness of some varieties and the surprising colors of others made me question everything I thought I knew.
I soon learn that the taro farming community on O‘ahu is much smaller than I’d imagined, full of inside jokes and old family ties. Ikaika and his wife, Tara, laugh when I read them the names of people I intend to contact, as they are all good friends. The two accompany me to different farms to talk story and politics and swap huli (the cut taro stalk for replanting). Along the way, I learn that there are upwards of 70 varieties of taro to be found in Hawai‘i, resulting in a rainbow of poi ranging from brown to green or even red or yellow.
“Just like when someone is interested in wine, the different types of wine become relevant to them—trying different grapes from different regions. I think it’s similar,” says Chance Tom, another farmer in Waiāhole Valley. Like the fruit, taro is affected by the conditions of farming: the variety grown, its location, the condition of the soil, the farmer’s handling of the plant, and the time it is harvested. These factors affect the taste, color, and texture of the poi, just as the types and growing conditions of grapes affect wine. Want a sweeter taro? Use a more mature corm, as the starch in the tuber will eventually turn into sugar. Want a gummier poi? Pound wetland taro.
For those who know the difference between taro varieties, moi and mana lauloa are often favorites, both having rich flavors and sticky consistencies—though each farmer is quick to say that choosing a favorite taro is like choosing a favorite child. Kamuela Yim, a farmer at Kāko‘o ‘Ōiwi in He‘eia, prefers pi‘i ali‘i, a taro that creates a red poi. “It’s sweet when fresh, but has a different kind of sour than other poi once it ferments. I’ve never tried to put it in words before,” he says. Mana ‘ulu results in a yellowy-peachy poi that tastes faintly of breadfruit. Lenalena, a favorite of Ikaika’s, results in green poi and has a very smooth texture.
When it comes to success at growing different varieties, all signs point to Anthony Deluze, a farmer with a passion for the history of taro who has been growing the starch since he was a child (though he is quick to downplay his expertise). At his small plot, which is sandwiched between Sears and the Pearlridge Center parking lot, we sit at a garden table piled with fresh cassava and turmeric. Here, where he has been farming taro for the last five years, the growing conditions are different than the lush windward side, but he is learning how his almost 30 varieties of taro handle the terrain. He shows me the differences between each, some dramatic and some minute, while fingering a ruffled leaf or pointing to a striped stalk. He calls one of his favorites, from the hard kā‘ī family, “the jasmine rice of taro,” since its aromatic scent will fill up a house when cooked.
Despite all the diverse varieties of taro, we still mainly consume one kind, primarily the pasty purple poi that comes from Maui lehua. Not only is it suited for production, reaching maturity more quickly, but consumers are accustomed to it. “Lehua produces pink poi, and pink poi looks good, therefore it tastes good,” Ikaika explains. Yim recalls giving freshly pounded brown poi to his daughter for a school trip. She returned with the bag untouched. “It’s gone bad,” she told him. “The color is no good.” It was only when he had her taste it that she realized how delicious it was.
For ancient Hawaiians, taro was a staple food and resource, a versatile plant with many uses. There was taro perfect for pounding poi, and other varieties harvested for luau leaves. Certain types of taro were used for ceremonial purposes; others were perfect for fishing bait, such as the mana ‘ōpelu. Although some ancient varieties and the knowledge of how best to grow them have been lost, diverse types of taro and their end products are regaining popularity. Deluze likens the growing demand for pa‘i‘ai—pounded taro before water is added to make poi—to a “second Hawaiian renaissance,” exposing a new generation to differences in flavor.
This resurgence of interest is evident as Tom fields calls for taro while we talk on his impeccably maintained lo‘i. Community outreach groups, as well as local chefs and Hawaiian charter schools, want to get their hands on different taro varieties to pound their own pa‘i‘ai. Nowadays, movements toward sustainability and increased interest in Hawaiian culture are making people turn to taro, but it’s simply good eating that’s making them stick with it. “It makes you feel good, it makes you feel strong, and people start to crave it,” Tom says.
As I sit and pound mana ‘ulu at Ikaika’s direction, the steamed corm slowly taking on the consistency of mochi, I think of the long hours, the sun, the mud, the immense labor and greater love that go into each bowl of pa‘i‘ai—and how that green poi at the farmers market just might blow my mind.
Find the best poi:
- Hanale Bishop sells his Homestead Poi at the Ben Parker Farmers Market on Saturday mornings in Kaneohe from 8 a.m. to noon, although he’s usually sold out of poi by 8:30 a.m.
- The availability for poi from Kāko‘o ‘Ōiwi in Kāne‘ohe, where Yim farms, can be found on its website at kakoooiwi.org.
- Anthony Deluze can be contacted for his batches of organic poi via his Facebook page Ka‘onohi Poi or at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about growing your own taro varieties, visit Deluze’s Facebook group page, Kalo Cultivars of Hawai‘i and the South Pacific.