Poi to the World: Exploring an Ancient Hawaiian Super Food

Step outside of your comfort zone and explore poi, the super food of Hawaii.

There are several foods unique to Hawaii that all visitors should try. One of them is poi—the pale purple paste that results from pounding the kalo, or revered taro plant.

A root vegetable, taro is most often seen growing in large paddies, with sturdy stems standing two to three feet tall and supporting large, heart-shaped leaves. It’s what many island residents on Maui grow in their own backyards. While every other starch is imported into the Hawaii islands, only taro is grown locally.

Taro field worker
The centuries-old tradition of farming and pounding taro is still alive today. (©HTA)

Every part of the taro plant has a use: The root is pounded into poi; leaves are wrapped around pork, fish or chicken and steamed to make a flavorful dish called lau lau; stems are used to flavor stews. Entire civilizations throughout the Pacific 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 oral histories (mo’olelo) say that the first Hawaiian, Haloa, originated from the taro plant. Literally meaning “long stalk,” “long breath” and “long life,” Haloa is worshipped with chanting, hula and festivals. 

Despite its delicate flavor, poi can be an acquired taste—it is bland, and some don’t appreciate its paste-like texture. Even food-fearless Andrew Zimmern, star of the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods,” didn’t care for poi when trying it for the first time. But learning to love the flavor, though, pays off. Poi is one of the healthiest foods you can eat.

A study was done on the effects of eating a poi-rich ancient Hawaiian diet. Subjects replaced bread, pasta and potatoes (all starches), for poi and sweet potatoes. Their findings were shocking: Cholesterol levels dropped by 14.1 percent and an average 17 pounds were shed. 

Even though the dietary wonders of poi should be enough to convince anyone to incorporate it into his or her diet, we will admit that it isn’t the easiest of foods to eat. While we don’t expect you to slurp it down by itself like yogurt, but will applaud you if you do, we do hope that you can enjoy it the way most locals do, as a complementary side dish to traditional Hawaiian dishes, like kalua pork and lomi lomi salmon. When you are ready to try the purple stuff, there are an array of outlets to delve into—from luau and restaurants to factories and farms. 

Hawaiian plate lunch
Traditional Hawaiian foods like lomi lomi salmon are best enjoyed with poi. (©HTA/Tor Johnson)

Where to Eat Poi

Aloha Mixed PlateA friendly atmosphere, a view of the Pacific Ocean and ‘onolicious combo plates make this Front St. restaurant a must-try for locals and visitors alike. We recommend the Ali’i Plate, which includes pork lau lau, kalua pork, mac salad, rice, haupia for dessert and a generous helping of poi. 808.661.3322

Aloha Poi Factory—Fresh poi is pounded daily at this Wailuku Factory. Purchase sealed packages of poi to take home and share with friends and family. 800 Lower Main St., Wailuku, 808.244.3536

The Feast at LeleAside from its reference to the Hawaiian food item, poi also describes a traditional Maori dance prop that’s twirled and swung by dance performers. We recommend smothering poi—the food and not the prop—onto the imu- (underground oven) roasted kalua pork. 808.667.5353  

Mama's Fish HouseIn the quaint town of Paia is Maui’s premier fresh fish restaurant where poi is served as a complementary side to such daily catches as ono, monchong and mahi-mahi. 799 Poho Pl., 808.756.9147