Sunday, April 1, 2012

Kauai Flashback: Making Poi at Waipa

As we get closer to the warmer days, my mind retreats to memories of my time on Kauai last summer. This trip to the beautiful garden island of Kauai, Hawaii was definitely the highlight of my year. I had many amazing adventures during my short stay, one of which was the experience of making poi at Waipa!

What is poi? What is Waipa? Allow me to explain...

First of all, the photo at the top of this post is of the taro root plant, or "kalo", which is its official Hawaiian name. It grows all over the island and is steeped in history. The root vegetable that grows underneath this beautiful green plant is like a starchy, purplish-white potato. After it is boiled and peeled, it is ground up, mixed with water and made into smooth, silky poi!

Poi is a the Hawaiian name for this staple food made from taro/kalo. Water is added to it to make the consistency smooth and the result is an almost paste-like substance. "The creation story tells of the Earth Mother and the Sky Father which produced a still-born son. Once he was buried, the taro plant grew out of his body"( Kalo means "everlasting breath", and Hawaiians see the plant as their brother, thus creating a spiritual meaning and connection when it is eaten(

Waipa is really "The Waipa Foundation", an amazing non-profit "whose mission is to restore the health and abundance of the 1,600 acre Waipa watershed, through the creation of a Hawaiian community center and learning center....Waipa is a place where Hawaiians and community can renew ties to the 'aina (land and resources), the culture and a more traditional lifestyle; a place to create assets and opportunities for more culturally relevant teaching, sharing, learning and living; and a place to work towards brining health, vibrance and pono (goodness/righteousness) to our land, resources and community." (

My experience making poi at Waipa truly defines connecting through food -- everywhere I turned there was a lively conversation, a hardworking soul cleaning up and a group of helping hands cooking, cleaning and sharing.

I was led to Waipa by a friend who grew up on the island and we were welcomed by a slew of his "Aunties" and "Uncles" who have known him since he was a small child. It was such a beautiful display of love and community to see this friend sharing hugs, smiles, memories and even back rubs with his Aunties and Uncles. It is very common to call many people your "Auntie" or "Uncle" on Kauai -- it is a respectful, affectionate way to refer to anyone who is your elder in the greater Hawaiian community.

Making Poi:

The process begins with a mass boiling of all of the taro root. Once it is cooked and softened, the small boulder-like root vegetables in all shapes, sizes and shades of purple and white are put into large bins filled with water and placed in front of small groups of community volunteers, armed with dull knives ready to shave, shape and carve.

I pulled up a chair and learned the proper technique from some Aunties and Uncles who had been shaving down kalo for years. Every Thursday morning bright and early this process begins again, and by noon the poi is bagged and ready to distribute, sell and give away. I was playfully warned by my friend not to worry if Auntie Cathy loudly proclaims that I might be carving the poi incorrectly: "If she yells at you, it means she likes you", he said, so I was happy a little later on when I heard her stern voice directed towards my knife technique.

Each time I put my hand into the huge bucket of water and taro root, I didn't know what shape would emerge or how many slimy bits of the outer skin I would touch. I was careful not to shave too much off in order to preserve as much of this starchy vegetable as possible. Once each one was cleaned and peeled to the locals' liking, it was put into another bin, and sent on its way to the grinder. After some time I finally got the hang of this inexact science, and I quite enjoyed the meditative quality of the exercise. Huddled around the poi buckets, it was a pure moment of energy and connection around this little purplish-white root vegetable.

Probably one of the happiest looking people I've ever met was the man in charge of pushing the taro root through the grinder. The result definitely did not look pretty or appetizing in any way, but I did get a feeling of visual satisfaction seeing the tubs fill up with the literal "fruit" of our labour.

Once the greyish purple pudding-like mixture filled a bin or bucket, it was rolled over to where Auntie Cathy held court, at the weighing, bagging, twisting and tying station. My friend was called over to do the twisting honours, a privilege not to be taken lightly. Considering the high station of poi-bagger, I was shocked and delighted when I was called over to tie off the bags, a role not often offered to a first-time visitor. Apparently there was a proper way of doing this task as well, and I took in every little bit of instruction from the Aunties with care and respect.

After a long session of Auntie Cathy dipping her gloved hand into the vats of poi, weighing different sized bags, and others twisting those bags just so, and tying them off tightly and properly, the poi making process was finally complete. By the time the last bag was tied, the floor had been swept, the tables prepared for lunch, and the meal prepared by loving hands. It was a true vision of community in action, all hands, feet and hearts working together to make and serve Kauai's bounty.

Before we sat down to eat, a blessing was said and hands were held in a circle. The buffet was a gorgeous display of local Kauai food including kale, papaya, avocado, pork, citrus fruits, bread, fresh pesto, rice and of course, a healthy portion of poi. As we sat down at the row of picnic tables joined together, we shared jokes, stories, memories and conversation, all while enjoying our delicious lunch. To be honest there wasn't much of a taste to the poi, but it punctuated the meal in the perfect way, and really, for me it wasn't about the taste.

What made this whole morning and meal amazing for me was the beautiful joining of hearts and hands over a fresh, local plate of food, and the community connection between locals, visitors and men and women of all ages in the poi-making process itself. Over lunch I joked with an Uncle who asked me questions about Canada, shared smiles and hugs with the friends I was visiting, and enjoyed pleasant conversation with a local Doctor who does charitable works in the community.

So you see, friends, to me, this day of making poi was not really about the actual food itself, the magic was all in the connecting.

Aloha, sweet friends :)

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