POI: a sacred, life-giving food…sustaining living beneficial organisms that transform the nutrients contained in taro into a higher form of energy to nourish the human heart and soul
For centuries, taro has provided a nutritious staple food for Hawaiians and other Polynesians throughout the Pacific. In the Hawaiian culture, cooked taro that is blended, mixed with water and fermented is called “poi.” The use of poi is said to have led Captain James Cook and other early western visitors to Hawaii to describe native Hawaiians as being an exceptionally healthy people. More recent scientific studies have substantiated the observation that pre-western contact Hawaiians were among the healthiest races on earth.
In his book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, nutrition pioneer Weston Price states, “. . . the Hawaiian Islands present one unique difference in the method of preparation of their taro. They cook the root as do all the other tribes, but having done so they pound the taro, mix it with water and allow it to ferment for several hours, usually twenty-four or more. This preparation called “poi” becomes slightly tart by the process of fermentation and has the consistency of heavy strap molasses or a very heavy cream. The incidence of dental caries was only 2 per cent.”
Dr. Price correlates the health of native people directly with the percent of dental cavities observed. Price’s extensive research proved conclusively that dental decay is caused primarily by nutritional deficiencies, and that those conditions that promote decay also promote disease.
I became interested in poi many years ago while living in Hawaii. My studies of the herbs and the special foods of Hawaii kept leading me back to this “staff of life” of the Hawaiian diet, including its link to the spiritual origins of the Hawaiian people.
Taro symbolizes ohana or family, especially the extended family. The taro corm grows as a “mother” corm and from the mother comes the keiki, or children. The comparison of the taro plant and ohana comes as an ancient tradition. Having the same “root of origin” was a concept deeply felt by the Hawaiian people, and a unifying force little understood by malihini or foreigners. Hawaiian Kupuna and scholar, Mary Kawena Pukui explains, “you may be 13th or 14th cousins, as we define relationships today, but in Hawaiian terms, if you are of the same generation, you are all brothers and sisters. You are all ohana. Members of the ohana, like the taro shoots, are all from the same root.”
The ties of ohana or extended family were not limited to blood relatives. A child or adult person could be hanai or adopted into the ohana. This adopted person became family in every sense of the word.
The making of poi, the fermented paste of the taro corm, is indigenous to Hawaii. Nowhere else in the world is this ancient practice of food preparation found as a mainstream cultural and spiritual experience. The belief that taro, the source of poi, was God given, led to extremely strict protocols concerning the preparation and eating of this sacred food. Although the entire ohana participated in the planting and harvesting of the taro, only select people could prepare and mix the poi. Those specially chosen must be pono or righteous of heart and mind. According to Kawena Pukui, “Eating around the poi bowl was a time for pleasant sociability, no arguments or business was to be discussed.”
Little did I know when my interest in poi emerged that poi would become the sole reason my daughter would survive a life-threatening digestive illness! This occurred a few years after temporarily moving from Hawaii to California where I relocated for a time to further my studies in alternative medicine and healing. My second daughter was born at home in an easy and quick delivery. She was exclusively breast fed and seemed to thrive for three days. But on the third day she quit breathing and turned blue for no apparent reason. A successive array of pediatricians gave a grave prognosis –spinal meningitis. The doctors wanted her hospitalized immediately. One pediatrician however, after examining her thoroughly, told me that her strength and alertness did not indicate spinal meningitis but possibly a digestive disorder that was creating excessive mucus and blocking her airway after nursing.
I tried many kinds of foods–raw goat and cow milk, rice milk, nut milk, squash milk and many more, yet after ingestion of each of these foods my baby would quit breathing. She was soon diagnosed as failure-to-thrive. She cried constantly and rarely slept. Finally, after going from 8 pounds at birth to 5 pounds in three weeks, I remembered poi and the claim that it is a nutritious, life-giving and hypoallergenic food. I had poi air-shipped from Hawaii to California, thinned it with pure water and put it in a baby bottle for her to drink. She finished one bottle and cried for more. After three bottles of poi she fell into a sound sleep. She never stopped breathing again and began to steadily gain weight and to thrive. I was also amazed that as long as my baby had poi before or after breastfeeding, that she would have little problem with mucus or distress.
As she got older and required other foods, I began to mix poi with fruits and vegetables to create “poi pudding blends.” Even after several years, if my child would ingest food without poi included in the mix, she would have severe reactions such as fever, excessive mucus and would even go unconscious at times. My daughter lived on poi blends exclusively for four years and has needed poi on a daily basis to remain healthy and symptom-free for eleven years since. She is now a healthy and vibrant fifteen-year-old, free from all digestive disorders and associated problems.
Recent scientific research has concluded that poi may be beneficial for many medical conditions due to its unique blend of beneficial compounds and its probiotic activity. Taro has been grown in rich, acidic volcanic soil for hundreds of years, and further research will determine whether the beneficial microbes contained in taro are heat- and acid-resistant due to their adaptation to these growing conditions. Plant-based probiotic cultures that are heat- and acid-stable are of great interest and benefit to those suffering from digestive illnesses, as these probiotic cultures theoretically are able to survive bile salts and gastric juices in order to reach the small intestine where they, and the nutrients they provide, are needed to re-”colon”-ize the gut.
The following are just a few of the exceptional merits of poi:
- High in vitamins, minerals and enzymes. The nutrition in poi is better utilized than other foods due to fermentation (similar to yogurt) and small starch granules.
- High amounts of alkaline-forming elements in poi reduce gastrointestinal disturbances and are better tolerated.
- Helps prevent dental caries.
- Provides valuable nutritional support for individuals who suffer from indigestion, malnourishment, special health problems and those recovering from illnesses.
- Poi, if contaminated by pathogenic organisms, may purify itself with naturally occurring lactic acid- producing bacteria.
- Easily digestible and hypoallergenic.
Numerous studies have suggested that poi, as a probiotic, may be useful for the following diseases:
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Poi may also be helpful in modulating the immune system, in improving lactose digestion, in treating hypercholesterolemia, in preventing illness-related weight loss, in lowering blood pressure, in preventing alcohol-induced liver damage, in fighting urogenital infections, in improving celiac disease, in treating autism, and in down-regulating intestinal inflammation and reactions in infants, and in children and adults with food allergies and sensitivities, and more.
Richard Sarnat, MD, Paul Schulick, and Thomas M. Newmark, in their book The Life Bridge, state: “It is our firm medical and scientific judgment, based on thousands of years of human nutritional experience and countless scientific confirmations, that probiotic whole food, as traditionally consumed, is the best form of nourishment for humankind.”
Food alchemy can be defined as the mystical and chemical changes that take place in food during the ancient practice of fermentation.
The power of fermented foods offers amazing properties, natural nutrients, healing and purifying lactic-acid bacteria and compounds created during fermentation that supply powerful anti-disease defenses to the body.
Indeed, research is showing that the biochemistry of whole foods, and especially that of naturally fermented foods, is infinitely more balanced and comprehensively supportive of the body’s own tendency towards homeostasis than the more intrusive approach of using synthetic and isolated molecules to prevent and heal disease.
Based on the unique characteristics of poi, its long cultural historic use as a healing food, and sound medical science, poi has been proposed as being beneficial for many health conditions and diseases.
The Hawaiian people believe that poi has the greatest life force of all foods.
Poi is the ceremony of life that brings people together and supports the relationship of family.
A Hawaiian saying, “take time to eat poi” reminds us to slow down and enjoy life and health.
Lost in Hawaii: Memoirs of an Ancient Hawaiian Navigator
An accounting of family life during a transitional time in Hawaii’s history
My earliest recollection of taro and poi is when I was a little boy of about four or five. This would have been during the post WWII years of 1948 or 49. These were the years shortly after the great tsunami (tidal wave) of 1946 which struck the Hawaiian Islands and particularly devastated the beach community where I grew up.
The valley on Kauai where I grew up is called Moloaa Bay and is located on the north shore of the island. It is a beautiful crescent-shaped bay with a white sand beach and a stream that winds its way into the bay from the mountains two miles inland. In 1948, my mother was employed as a civilian by the U.S. Army Intelligence and was stationed in Tokyo during the occupation years following the war. While I spent some time in post-war Tokyo, I was also sent home to live with my grandparents in Moloaa. They had lost their home along with the entire village in the 1946 tsunami and, while everyone else had left the valley to live elsewhere, my grandparents collected the scraps of lumber from the ruins of devastated homes that were strewn about the valley and rebuilt a tiny home on a hill overlooking the bay where it was safe from the sea. They also replanted their wetland taro lo’i (irrigated terrace) to provide the most important food staple, poi, in what was, during that time, a mostly subsistence diet consisting of fish and seaweed from the ocean, garden vegetables and fruit from a family orchard fed by spring water, and poi made from taro. Meat was scarce during those years and staples such as butter, flour, sugar, crackers and bread were doled out carefully as they were hard to come by and refrigeration was non-existent because there was no electric or propane service. The meat that was available on rare occasions was salted heavily for preservation and consisted of much fat and was prized for the flavor that it added to a meal and as an added extender in soups and other dishes.
Taro planting and harvesting was a complete family endeavor such as is rarely seen today. Aunties and uncles and cousins all came to help and share in the harvesting process, which could last for as long as a week. During this time, everyone slept over as transportation and primitive roads made travel a carefully planned and prepared event–a far cry from the impulsive buying, and availability of inexpensive processed food today. Meals were shared by all and there was a festive atmosphere to the entire occasion. Much laughter, late night card games by the adults, story telling, and excitement among the young to have playmates from among the not-often-seen visiting cousins. The atmosphere was as close to a carnival as it could be.
While the taro was being harvested by some family members, others were busy preparing and heating large 55-gallon drums filled with water to cook the taro. The taro was then placed in the steaming drums and cooked during the night. Yet others were busy down at the beach setting fishnets and collecting limu (seaweed) for the great amount of food that would be needed to feed everyone. During the night while the fire was being tended, the adults would gather at tables lit by kerosene lamps and there would be singing and card playing by the old folks while we, the children, played together until it was time for bed where we would fall asleep to the soothing sounds of singing, laughter and storytelling by the grown-ups. All throughout the following day, the women, children and those men who weren’t involved in fishing or cooking, sat around huge pakini (deep metal pans) and peeled the skins off of the cooked taro. As soon as the first taro was peeled, it was consumed in as many ways as one could imagine–mashed and fried like a pancake, cubed and mixed with butter and canned milk and eating it just the way it was after peeling. While the taro was being peeled, the process of making poi was immediately started. Taro fed into the top of a hand-turned meat grinder mounted on a board and mixed with water came out of the screened end as a thick paste. The poi paste was collected in a pan and usually run through the grinder with a finer meshed screen again to make a smoother, more consistent poi. The poi was then taken into the house where it was divided up for all the family members to take home with them. During the poi-making process, the fish and seaweed that had been harvested from the sea were prepared along with the poi for a final feast for all. While fresh poi was nice, the adults always seemed to prefer a combination of adding sour or fermented poi to the fresh new poi. This combination added to the beneficial properties of poi, which, while not known in scientific terminology by anyone there, was intuitively known from a historical perspective.
Poi was not only a cultural food prized by our family for its nutritional benefits, but it also served to bond families in a way that has been lost today. Those times are past and mostly forgotten in today’s world but those memories are cherished and I feel very blessed and fortunate to have experienced the end of that era during my childhood.
E Ola Kakou I Ke Akua – May the Creator grant us life and health!
Written by Piikalama Boiser, 2003
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2004.