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Poi to the World

Places where the cuisine differs from home invite a sense of culinary adventure, a step outside your comfort zone. In Hawaii, there are several foods that all visitors should try. One is poi, the pale purple paste that is the result of the pounding the root of the kalo, or taro plant. A root vegetable, taro is often seen in large paddies, with sturdy stems standing two to three feet and supporting large, heart-shaped leaves. It's what covers the most ground on the flat bottom of picturesque Hanalei Valley. Every part of the taro plant has a use: the root is pounded into poi; leaves are wrapped around pork, fish or chickena nd steamed to make a flavorful dish called lau lau; stems are used to flavor stews. Entire civilizations throughout the Pacific have 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 mo'olelo (oral histories) say that the first Hawaiiian, Haloa, originated from the taro plant. Literally meaning "long stalk," "long breath," and "long life," Haloa is worshipped with chanting, hula and festivals.

Historically, most families grew their own in their backyards and pounded it into poi by hand for their meals. Modern life is very different, but we still love poi, even if we don't grow it ourselves. Some may yearn for a simpler time, but the reality is that when it's time to make dinner, we don't go into our own backyard for the ingredients--we go shopping.

That doesn't mean the poi that we eat needs to be different, according to Hanalei Poi Company owner Michael "Bino" Fitzgerald. Hanalei Poi is manufactured with beautiful simplicity. "We're not manipulating the ingredient much at all, "says Fitzgerald. "We're letting the taro be the taro. The whole premise is to mimic on a commercial level what we did at home all those years ago."

Fitzgerald's production facility is not much bigger than a three-room plantation home. A rotating staff of a half a dozen people--out of 15 total--does much of the work by hand. Taro roots are peeled, inspected, ground and cooked. During the last stage, a starchy-sweet smell wafts into the neighborhood. (People in the area often remark on how nice it is to smell the taro cooking.) A pounding machine transforms the cooked taro into the beloved stuff of our islands, which is packed into one-pound containers for grocery stores and markets or sold in bulk to the most popular luau on Kauai.

Taste is subjective, but one reason for Hanalei Poi's popularity may be the absence of a certain sour flavor that many associate with poi. "The souring comes from the plantation days," explains Fitzgerald, himself a third-generation taro farmer. "In those days they needed a source of food to feed the plantation workers, and taro was the abundant crop here in the islands." To feed so many mouths, poi was mass-produced and stored in barrels.

In these casks, the poi would ferment. People grew accustomed to the taste, which persists in much store-bought poi today.

"The poi we ate at home growing up was not the poi that was out there in the stores," he goes on to say. "We did things at home to preserve the freshness and quality--that's what Hanalei Poi is recrating." Does it taste better? "We like to think so!"

Market research conducted prior to the opening of Hanalei Poi revealed that the average age of a poi consumer was 47. Fitzgerald wanted to change that and appeal to the younger generation, and he did. "We created a product that kids love. Moms tell us that their kids will come home and snack on a tub of poi, or take a tub of poi and some dried fish to school for lunch," he says. "My own kids have grown up on it--and it's their comfort food now."

Only 30-something himself, Fitzgerald is a graduate of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He studied business, intending to return to the taro fields and bring poi back to the people. "It's about marketing this ambience of Hanalei, this lifestyle. It's more than a food, it is a memory of Hawaii and a good experience." That, he explains, is why Hanalei Poi has stayed local. "We could have put our mill in Lihue, or gone to Oahu and been in the mix of things there, but lok at this--we're next to the taro field. Right out back we have taro patches. [It also]just made really good sense for us to be here in Hanalei and in this community," he says.

Fitzgerald's location certainly facilities the freshness, which is hard to beat: The taro comes right out of the field. The scene at the mill, too, is decidedly north shore. work is being done, but there's no frenzy; people move at a comfortable pace. Looking like small chalk mounds, peeled taro roots sit in large bins, awaiting the grinder.

Outside in the afternoon sunshine, a few workers are on break. One of the boys is having his long hair braided by an auntie. Everyone is joking and smiling in their knee-high rubber boots.

Around 75 percent of Hawaii's taro is grown on Kauai, the majority on the north shore. Its reach, however, is far: Hanalei Poi will ship containers of frozen poi anywhere in the world that FedEx can reach in two days.

Articulating something close to his heart, Fitzgerald reminds me that "alot of people have been displaced from Hawaii. It's a joy to picture them having a luau at their home on the east coast or west coast or Chicago...wherever. Food is not only what sustains us; it enhances our lives and is the makeup of many family traditions. It's our culture; it's who we are."

Poi can be an acquired taste--it is bland, and some don't appreciate its texture. Even food-fearless Andrew Zimmern, star of the Travel Channel's "Bizarre Foods" didn't care for poi. Learning to love the flavor, though, pays off. As Fitzgerald informs me, it's "one of the healthiest foods you can eat on the planet." Dr. Terry Shintani, author of the hit nutrition book, "Eat More, Weight Less," concurs. He extols the many wonderful qualities of poi as a natural, whole food.

"One of the great things about poi is, it would take eight pounds to provide one day's worth of calories. You can't really get fat eating poi because you can't eat enough of it; it's too bulky. Native Hawaiians in ancient times ate a lot of poi, and they were slim. Except for the royalty, because they were eating a lot of roast pig!"

There are countless examples of poi saving the dietary day. Babies allergic to milk, for instance, can often take poi quite well. They can be fed diluted poi at a very young age, and it's said to help them to sleep soundly through the night. Poi is also used by outrigger canoe paddlers to carbo-load, Hawaiian-style, before a long-distance race.

Dr. Shintani studed the effects of eating a poi-rich ancient Hawaiian diet. The subjects swapped bread, pasta and potatoes, all starches, for poi and sweet potatoes. Cholesterol levels droppped by 14.1 percent and, on average, 17 pounds were shed. That's pretty compelling stuff. Poi's health benefits begin with it slow glycemic (sugar in the blood) index. High glycemic foods are linked to all sorts of trouble, the most common being diabetes and obesity.

Foods like poi, with only one percent fat, lots of fiber and very little sugar, allow you to fill your belly but not overdose on sugar.

"What's really good," continues Dr. Shintani, "is that they don't process things out of it. The whole taro root is there." Indeed, poi meshes nicely with the initiative to eat food that's not overly processed. Increasingly, people are opting out of eating products that are too many steps away from nature. We're jettisoning those foods that make us overweight, sap our energy, and simply don't make sense. Most agree that the desire to go back to a healthier way of eating is a good thing, but it's not always easy to find simple, natural foods beyond the fresh produce aisle.

On Kauai, however, there's Hanalei Poi, which contains only two things: Taro root and water. You can find it at major groceries and fish markets on Kauai, and it's also served at the Smith Family luau and Grand Hyatt Kauai luau. Fitzgerald's favorite way to enjoy his product is with chicken or beef lau lau. "To get that, go somewhere like Pono Market [in Kapaa] and get the lau lau plate with Hanalei Poi." The best thing to do, says Fitzgerald, with a grin, is to "go to a fish market, buy a pound of poke [Hawaiian-style raw fish] and a pound of Hanalei Poi and try 'em together--Do it like the locals do."

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