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.
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.
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.