Poi is the redheaded stepchild of Hawaiian foods.
If you go to a luau in Hawaii (which is something every visitor should experience at least once, as a fun crash-course in Hawaiiana), you'll be told that poi is among the Hawaiian foods the buffet offers, usually followed by a jokey comment about its unpalatability. Even the freebie tourist magazine, This Week, describes poi as "certainly an acquired taste." All of which, not unreasonably, sets you up to not like the stuff in the first place. You go in with a bias before you've even had a mouthful.
Granted, its appearance—it resembles a pale, light purple pudding—doesn't make it look very appetizing. But poi is very much a part of Hawaii's history.
It's made from taro, a root vegetable that was introduced to the islands by the Polynesian settlers who emigrated to Hawaii centuries ago. It's long been a staple of the Hawaiian diet, and is seen as having sacred properties as well. The Hawaiian word for taro is kalo, and according to legend, the first kalo plant was said to have grown on the spot where Wakea, the Sky Father, and Ho'ohokulani, the Earth Mother, buried their stillborn son, Haloanaka. Their next child was also named Haloanaka, the first Hawaiian man, whose duty it was to care for raising his "older brother," in the form of the kalo plant. For years, only men were allow to grow and prepare kalo.
Taro is cultivated in a paddy or large pond, and vast taro fields could be found all over the Hawaiian islands at one time. Taro fields once covered the area of Oahu that's now known as Waikiki, until the construction of the Ala Wai Canal in the 1920s, which drained water from the surrounding taro fields and fish ponds in favor of the booming development that would alter the landscape—and Hawaii's economy—forever.
Taro, like a potato (which it resembles in shape), is a versatile vegetable; you can bake it, boil it, or roast it. Poi is made by steaming the corm, or root part of the plant, and then pounding it until it's smooth, adding water until it reaches the desired consistency. The dish is meant to be eaten with the fingers, and the number of fingers needed tells you how thick it is—is it one-finger (very thick), two-finger, or three-finger (very runny) poi?
I first sampled poi at the Paradise Cove luau on Oahu ("For one magical evening, see through the eyes of an entire culture"). My reaction was a common one: it tasted like cold paste. The most interesting thing about it was its purple color; otherwise, it was pretty bland and unremarkable.
This wasn't surprising. For a luau of this size, the poi would've been prepared well in advance and kept chilled before serving, something which causes it to ferment and develop a sour taste. Some aficionados do prefer their poi on the sour side, but it's not the best choice for a newbie.
My tastebuds were newly awakened years later, when I dropped by the Hyatt Regency Waikiki for their Aloha Friday festivities. "Aloha Friday" is Hawaii's version of "Casual Friday"—somewhat redundant, given that Hawaii is already pretty casual to begin with. At the Hyatt, the day is celebrated with a free show in the afternoon, including not only hula and fire knife dancing, but cultural activities like lei-making, enjoying freshly sliced pineapple, and watching poi being made. A man holding a specially shaped stone, called a poi pounder, vigorously mashed the root into paste on the pounding board, after which we were invited to have a taste (with our fingers). What a difference. This was how you'd have poi at a non-touristy luau. It was warm and fresh, with a delicate taste. I became an instant convert.
For the uninitiated, a good introduction to poi is to see as it as an accompaniment to your meal, something you dip your food into, its blander taste providing a nice complement to salty dishes like kālua pig. The Hula Grill at the Outrigger Waikiki has recently launched an "Aloha Friday Lunch Luau" on weekends, serving up luau fare — kālua pig, laulau (meat or fish wrapped in taro leaves), haupia (a thick coconut pudding), and poi, for those who don't need to have the complete luau experience. The poi there was smooth and creamy (and the hula dancer was surprised I ate it all).
But poi is something enjoyed by locals as well. It's just another fast food offering at the Ala Moana Poi Bowl, one of dozens of restaurants at the Ala Moana Center's huge food court. Or you can rub shoulders with the locals in a more relaxed setting like the Kapahulu Poi Shop. The poi, which comes as a side with a combo plate, is served in a good-sized bowl, not the small plastic cups you're given at luaus. Not too runny, not too thick—it's two-finger poi, and not too sour.
In the same neighborhood you'll find another homey Hawaiian restaurant, Ono Hawaiian Foods. Don't let the unprepossessing exterior put you off; there's a reason there's a line outside (and it's not just because the place is small). If you go with poi instead of rice for your side dish, you'll have more than enough for dipping. Even day-old poi is available, for those who prefer a sharper taste, and the friendly staff is happy to explain what menu items are, which is helpful in overcoming poi-phobia. Farmer's markets —and there are numerous outdoor markets in the islands—are another ideal place to try it.