Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Perfect Poi

Whenever we have guests come from the mainland, it's always fun trying to get them to do 2 things.   Firstly, it's always a riot to get them to try to pronounce our street names, as we're driving home.   Particularly, names like Keeaumoku or Kalanianaole.  They always get stuck the first time.  But after a week with me they usually get the hang of it.  The other thing is to get them to try real Hawaiian food, particularly poi.   Somehow, foods like poi, lau lau, and squid luau just don't look appetizing to them.   People don't get poi especially.  They just don't know what it is.   So I try to put it in reference for them, I call it "mashed potatoes", but instead of using potatoes, we use another tuber root, the taro.

I honestly don't know what people complain about with poi.   People look at it and say that it has the texture of wallpaper paste.   But I absolutely love that smoothness that it has.   It's almost like jello pudding, but more viscous.   People find the gray color unappetizing.   But every time I look at it, I think that that lavender gray is such a pretty shade.   People don't like the tartness of day old poi.   I suppose that may be an acquired taste, but most people serve poi pretty fresh these days, so no one really tastes the more fermented stuff.  I guess, it's just something people aren't used to.   But for us that grew up with it, it's a must have food.  

I really love how unique poi is.   A lot of cultures eat rice as the staple of their diet.  A lot of cultures eat potatoes as their mainstay.   A lot of cultures must have bread in every meal.   But poi... poi is unique.   Only in the islands was poi the main staple of the Hawaiian diet.  Because it was such an important part of the diet, there were so many rules and ettiquite concerning your poi.  True Hawaiians believe you should never "dirty" your poi.   But me, I love dipping my kalua pig or my lomi lomi salmon in with the poi.  It just tastes so good together.   One brings out the flavor of the other.   Just like bread and butter.   And of course, as kids, we all at one time enjoyed the taste of milk and sugar with our poi.   

True Hawaiians would insist that poi should be eaten with your fingers.   There's that whole dipping wrist motion that you have to master properly too.   But in these modern times, you just can't help but eat it with a spoon.   We do however, still use fingers as our measurement of viscocity.   The ideal thickness is always 2 finger poi (thick enough to eat with 2 fingers).  Cheaper poi, which has been thinned with water a little is 3 finger poi.   That is probably the ideal range.  But in the past decade or so, excessive rains have damaged many taro crops, and poi has become a bit expensive.  Add to that the fact that many tourists come, put the poi on their plates, but wind up disliking it, and letting it go to waste, and we've definitely got a poi shortage on our hands.   So these days, it's not uncommon to go to a hotel and find them serving what I would grade as 4 or even 5 finger poi.   It's really tasteless and foul.   If you go down to New Orleans they have the expression "baptizing the gumbo", for watering it down to accomodate more guests.   But as much as I dislike watered down gumbo, poi is all about texture, and "baptized" poi is even worse.   On the contrary, not many people have ever tried poi while it is still being pounded.   Last Summer, I was as the Makaha Mango Festival, and they had a Hawaiian boy pounding fresh poi.  As he pounded, he passed out pieces (yes pieces) of poi that had been pounded, but before he had added any water to it.   The pounded taro actually had the chewy texture of really good mochi.   I really liked it, and I wonder why no one has ever thought to market it in that form.    Then again, I'm always partial to thicker poi.   That's when you know you've got the real good (un-watered down) stuff.

So... where do you get good poi?    Certainly not a hotel restaurant or some place like that.   Some Hawaiian food place?   The supermarket to eat at home?    Almost all of the poi that we eat come from bags of Taro Brand poi.   I really haven't seen many other brands of poi in the supermarkets.   The differences from place to place come from whether they have watered down the poi, or how long they have let it sit.   The true old Hawaiians really liked their poi kinda sour, but honestly I prefer it on the fresher side.   But if you've watered it down, processed it too much, frozen it and tried to reheat it, or anything like that, the poi loses all of its taro flavor, and you really don't get much of anything other than a texture.

Taro Brand Poi from Costco
While I was searching around though, I actually found a poi that really tastes different from other poi.   It all started when my son was first born.  I had remembered when my sister was a baby, she had a problem drinking formula and my mom had run out of milk for her.   So in Hawaii, pretty much all doctors recommend poi for babies who cannot drink milk (as they are lactose intolerant or whatever other reasons), because poi is simply so nutritious.   Remembering how nutritious poi is, and wanting my son to have a taste for local food, I wanted poi to be his first "real" food (after breast milk and baby cereals).   So just to be sure, I asked his pediatrician if this was okay.   She said yes, but she recommended we go with Hanalei Poi.    Hanalei Poi?   Was this a specific brand, or was it just poi that was made in Hanalei in general?  We visited Kauai that year, and drove up to Hanalei, but didn't see any poi company there.    Well, it turns out that Hanalei Poi is a special manufacturer that is pasturized and different from regular poi.   But it is really dang hard to find.

Taro Fields in Hanalei, Kauai
Hanalei Poi is pasturized and boiled much hotter than regular poi.   It's then tightly sealed and shipped.  Because it is boiled so hot and sealed so tightly, much less bacteria is found in the poi causing it to ferment much less (which is probably also why my pediatrician recommended it for my son).   The resultant poi, is the complete opposite of sour poi.   From the moment that I first opened it, it seemed a much brighter lavender color than the gray that we're used to.   It was every bit as smooth as regular poi, but it was much much sweeter.  Not artificially sweet as in adding sugar to your poi, but a natural fresh sweet taste that I had never experienced in a poi before.  You could taste much more of the taro flavor to the poi.   It was extraordinary.   Simply the best poi I had ever tasted in my life.   Here finally, was a poi that was truly different than any other poi.   But it was so incredibly difficult to find.

I was told that I could simply walk into Foodland and buy some Hanalei Poi in their freezer section.  But every time I went, I could never find it.    I went from supermarket to supermarket, but no one seemed to carry it.   Finally, the place I found it was another Hawaii institution.   More than an institution, it is a landmark both physically and culturally.   The place I found it was Tamashiro Market.    Famed for the big orange crab on the top of their light pink building inviting people in, Tamashiro is a monument to seafood in Kalihi. 

Ever since I was little I loved going to Tamashiro Market.  It was so much fun going through the turnstall and wandering down the cramped little aisles to find all kinds of things that you just couldn't find anywhere else.   They were the first place I ever saw jars of pigs blood on sale for your soups and stuff.   The lobster tanks and crab tanks were always full, and all little kids love staring at lobster and crab tanks.   They have tanks and tanks full of different kinds of limu, ogo, and other seaweeds.   Every New Year's Tamashiro is THE place to go to get fresh sashimi (an absolute must if you're Japanese for prosperity in the new year), and the lines for people getting fresh fish are ridiculously long.   Tamashiro is one of the only places (outside of Chinatown), that I've ever seen geoduck for sale. 

Opihi Poke from Tamashiro Market
As a fish market, Tamashiro is also the king of fresh poke of different types.   Besides the regular poke though, Tamashiro is the place for really rare finds, like opihi poke.   I love opihi.   Just thinking of opihi brings to mind Frank De Lima's chipmunk-esque opihi song ("Please don't eat me").   But you know how hard it is to harvest opihi?   Remember, they live on the lava rocks right amongst the smashing surf and the only way to harvest them is with a screwdriver and some daring individual with extremely sure footing (just like the "Opihi Man" song by the Ka'au Crater Boys).   Because of their tenacity and endurance, surviving the harshest of environments, we even adopted the opihi as the mascot for my IT company, Opihi Net, LLC.  The taste of the opihi at Tamashiro, is impecably fresh.   It is crisp and cruncy, and tastes way better than a large abalone.   But the truly, uber Hawaiian experience is having the opihi poke with your Hanalei Poi.   The combination is absolutely extraordinary.

When I was little though, my absolute favorite thing to get from Tamashiro was their bud-bud (pronounced "bood bood").   Bud-bud is a Filipino desert, which is roughly a foot long stick of mochi rice, coconut milk, and sugar, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed.   The caramel colored, coconuty sweet mochi rice is just one of those precious childhood flavors that you never forget.  I have never seen it anywhere except at Tamashiro Market.

For all of their love of markets, neither Bourdain nor Zimmern made it to Tamashiro's on their Hawaii episodes.   Too bad.  They both missed out the truest, freshest taste of Hawaii they could've gotten.   Had Zimmern tried Hanalei Poi, instead of diving straight into the hardcore 5-day old stuff, he might've liked it a lot more.   Maybe it's just as well.   With our taro shortages and our dwindling opihi population, these are 2 truly Hawaiian tastes that I would rather keep all to ourselves.  

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