Saturday, November 15, 2008

Poi making at Waipa'a

I am visiting my friends Bill and Tanya Hill in Hawaii on the island of Kauai at the bay of Hanalei. They live down a small driveway next to the Waipa stream, passing through Hawaiian native lands, held in trust by the Waipa Foundation.

Each week on Thursdays the native community comes together at this Waipa' ahupua'a to make poi from taro they grow on their traditional lands. Poi is a traditional food that is rich in complex carbohydrates, fiber, and nutrients and helps combat obesity, diabetes and heart disease. The poi made on Thursdays is carefully weighed out, bagged and distributed by the Waipa'a around the island of Kauai to people who have ordered it ahead of time, native and non native alike.

Volunteers from the community, native and non native are invited to help out each week. Elders show up, people catch up on family stories and share knowledge. Weavers bring out their weavings, net makers their nets, and food is prepared for a lunch for all who helped out.

The taro is brought in the day before, sorted and placed into 50 gallon drums, then covered with water. Fires are made from pine to give just the right flavor, and used to heat the drums to boiling. They are left overnight on the coals and in the morning the taro is cooked through, ready for Thursday mornings 'poi pounding'.

When the taro is removed from the drums the skin slips off and the roots put in large buckets filled with water. The skin is brought back to the fields and used to grow the taro (just how was not clear).

Most of the volunteers arrive after 8AM (you are respected if you arrive early, some as early as 5:30) and we each grab a butter knife and begin to scrape the taro, removing the black and brown spots and any diseased or damaged portions of the root. This is closely observed if you are new, elders come over and tell you to scrape away from you, to clean off the rim of the bucket where you scrape the knife clean, or to not scrape away too much or don't cut out big portions. It is all precious you can tell.

The time around the buckets of purple taro is spent laughing, and talking about families, and for those of us who are new, about the taro itself, how it is made, where it will go, how it will be used .

It is like a potato in texture and size, and we carefully remove the black or brown surface, and look for hard and pithy areas which we cut out. They tell us that the people can tell if this isn't done well, it affects the flavor, and you can see the spots in the finished taro, so you feel all the more cautious.

The buckets of cut taro are brought to a machine they have devised, with a large grinder on tip and smaller below. This replaces the large taro pounder, and large stone pestle used to mash the taro in the far past. The young man tells me 'we are an adaptable people, so we use new technology', a familiar explanation intended for those who believe that native people should only do things as they did 300 years ago, as though nothing ever changes. I told him I understood...

And the poi becomes a paste, like taffy, and a designated person is given the job to weigh out the portions, while a team of people bundle it in bags, and place it in buckets to distribute. A clipboard full of names is evident as they plan their deliveries. They charge a price per pound, I never heard how much ($3/pound? or was it each bag weighed three pounds?). I tried to buy some but the elder woman, Auntie, said no, it was free to the volunteers who stayed and helped.

We stayed for lunch, which included fresh poi, purple and delicious, very much like mashed potato really, sweet and bland, mealy and smooth, all at once. Lunch also included fresh salad, green beans with sesame oil, rice noodles with chicken, and slices of avocado, all fresh and delicious.

We took our bags of poi home, and are eating it still, with every meal. It gets harder as time goes, you can break off pieces now. I can imagine making a 'potato pancake' from it, with sauted onions and chives; or perhaps use it as thickener in soup; maybe a sauce of some kind. It would be good to find more recipes for it.

It was a great pleasure to be part of something that is so in keeping with what we are trying to do in the northwest, the return to traditional foods, the understanding that local foods are the best.

Proceeds from the sale of the poi goes to the Waipa Foundation which is dedicated to keeping their ahupua'a alive and well; the people and the land.


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