Poi is a starchy staple food typically found in several countries and regions, including Polynesian islands such as the U.S. state of Hawaii. It is the pounded mash of the root of taro plants (Colocasia esculenta) which proliferate in a wet pond or field. To process the raw root, there are some very important considerations, including boiling it sufficiently to neutralize its toxins. If purchased already processed and packaged, there are many ways to prepare and consume it, both traditional and uniquely modern.
Taro is sometimes called the “elephant ear” for its gigantic, fanned leaves. The root and bulb are not eaten. An underground swelling at its stem base, a store of plant nutrients, is called the corm. This portion is harvested and the plant is allowed to sustainably continue growing new leaf shoots.
The plant’s corm is boiled with a pinch of baking soda to break apart its insoluble and toxic calcium oxalate crystals, then pounded to a thick paste with a mortar and pestle. This is very labor-intensive, and traditionally requires two people to accomplish One pounds while another continually folds and kneads it like a dough. Water is added to control for desired consistency.
Poi seems to be one of those foods people either love or hate. With a subtle, fresh flavor, it is slightly reminiscent of a nutty sweet potato. Its color is initially light pink, but it quickly oxidizes to a light dirt brown. The texture is that of slimy paste. After it's made, its starch rapidly ferments to sugar and then to alcohol for an increasingly slightly sour taste, so it must be eaten relatively quickly.
Traditionally, it was a daily staple, popularly eaten mixed with milk and sugar. To slow its souring fermentation, it should be stored in a cool, dark cupboard shelf. When kept in a container within the refrigerator, it's recommended to pour a thin layer of water on top. This also acts to prevent starch from dehydrating and stiffening the mixture. Smooth and thickly creamy is its signature texture.
The best way to store poi is freezing. To thaw, it is still a good idea to cover it with a layer of water. It can also be purposely dehydrated for storage, and reconstituted with hot water. Traditionally, poi was a staple, the center of a plate, but more modern cuisines treat is as a side dish, or as a starch ingredient in breads and desserts. It is both nutritious and healthy, but it is also a natural laxative and excess consumption is usually avoided.
Whether for Italian pizzas or Japanese rice cakes, the addition of some poi to the dough produces a more moist, chewy, and slightly sour bread. In part for its creamy texture, its neutral taste, and its ease of digestion, it remains a daily staple and a base as baby food. Alternately, it can be used as a substitute for dairies such as sour cream or yogurt. It is also used as a thickening starch for stews, soups and puddings.