Most visitors, upon first glance, would pooh-pooh poi, a purple Hawaiian paste made from the boiled tuber of a taro plant. The dish—with its slightly sour taste, gray-purplish color and gluey consistency—strikes many as unpalatable; indeed, hotels make sure to throw cream and sugar into the mix when serving it to tourists. Locals, however, relish it sans sweetener. They can only pity those who are missing out on the delicate flavors of a staple that is chock-full of fiber, vitamin C, magnesium, potassium, and other minerals.
For the Polynesians who colonized Hawaii and much of the South Pacific islands, taro was one of the few sources of starch in their diet. Its importance as a food source spilled over into various myths and customs. For one thing, taro was believed to be an ancestor of the Hawaiian people. Only men were allowed to cultivate taro, and an initiation during childhood was making one’s first batch of poi. Additionally, when a bowl of poi was unveiled during mealtime, all family strife had to cease.
Today poi still has a lead role in Hawaiian cuisine, making regular appearances on plate lunches, supermarket shelves, and family BBQs. While most of the country’s taro crop is turned into poi, an increasingly large percentage of it is fried, salted, and eaten as chips. Visitors are advised, however, that chips can be eaten anywhere on the mainland, but nothing is as quintessentially Hawaiian as poi.
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