Traditional poi is produced by mashing the cooked corm (taro root, either baked or steamed) on a papa ku‘i ‘ai, a wooden pounding board, with a pōhaku ku‘i ‘ai, a carved basalt pestle. Modern methods use an industrial food processor to produce large quantities for retail distribution. Freshly pounded taro without the addition of water is called pa‘i ‘ai and is highly starchy and dough-like. Water is added to the pa‘i ‘ai during mashing, and again just before eating, to achieve the desired consistency, which can range from highly viscous to liquid. As such, poi can be classified as "one-finger", "two-finger", or "three-finger" depending on the consistency, alluding to how many fingers are required to scoop it up (the thicker the poi, the fewer fingers required to scoop a sufficient mouthful).
Poi can be eaten immediately, when fresh and sweet, or left a bit longer to ferment and become sourer – it then develops a smell reminiscent of plain yoghurt. A layer of water on top can prevent fermenting poi from developing a crust.
History and culture
Taro, a root vegetable thought to be native to Southern India and Southeast Asia and the primary poi ingredient, was highly regarded by Hawaiians, who believed that the taro plant (kalo) was the original ancestor of the Hawaiian people. Poi was considered such an important and sacred aspect of daily Hawaiian life that Hawaiians believed that the spirit of Hāloa, the legendary ancestor of the Hawaiian people, was present when a bowl of poi was uncovered for consumption at the family dinner table. Accordingly, all conflict among family members was required to come to an immediate halt.
Although many of the world's people consume taro, only Hawaiians make poi. Hawaiians traditionally cook the starchy, potato-like heart of the taro corm for hours in an underground oven called an imu, which is also used to cook other types of food such as pork, carrots, and sweet potatoes.
In recent years,[when?] taro-production shortages (from pests and labor shortages) have led to higher prices for poi in Hawaiʻi. But at the same time, innovations in poi production have resulted in new formulations of poi that stay fresh longer and taste sweeter. However, such products generally sell at a premium price and require refrigeration, unlike traditional poi which can be kept unrefrigerated as it naturally ferments instead of spoiling.
Poi has a paste-like texture and a delicate flavor when freshly prepared in the traditional manner, with a pale purple color that naturally comes from the taro corm. It has a smooth, creamy texture. The flavor changes distinctly once the poi has been made: fresh poi is sweet and edible; each day thereafter the poi loses sweetness and turns sour due to a natural fermentation that involves lactobacillus bacteria, yeast, and Geotrichum fungi. Therefore, some people find fermented poi more palatable if it is mixed with milk or sugar or both. The speed of this fermentation process depends upon the bacteria level present in the poi, but the souring process can be slowed by storing poi in a cool, dark location. To prepare commercial poi that has been stored in a refrigerator, it is squeezed out of the bag into a bowl (sometimes adding water), and a thin layer of water is put over the part exposed to air to keep a crust from forming on top. New commercial preparations of poi require refrigeration, but stay fresh longer and taste sweeter.
Sour poi is still edible but may be less palatable, and is usually served with salted fish or Hawaiian lomi salmon on the side (as in the lyrics "my fish and poi"). Sourness can be prevented by freezing or dehydrating fresh poi, although the resulting poi after defrosting or rehydrating tends to taste bland when compared to the fresh product. Sour poi has an additional use as a cooking ingredient with a sour flavor (similar to buttermilk), usually in breads and rolls.
Nutrition and dietary and medical uses
Poi has been used specifically as a milk substitute for babies, or as a baby food. It is supposed to be easy to digest. It contains no gluten, making it safe to eat for people who have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance.
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