When I arrive at Mana Ai’s small industrial kitchen, a 21-year-old employee named Ka’le “Uhi” Maunakea is straddling a six-foot-long wooden board, one end piled with cooked taro the size of lavender ostrich eggs, the other smeared with what looks like ragged Play Doh. Lifting a heavy basalt pestle above his head, he heaves it into the mash, kneading and pounding until the taro—a starchy root vegetable—forms elastic dough that jiggles with each collision of the lava rock.
Customers lounge in the doorway, watching, while another worker, Fehren Jones, cuts the pounded dough called pa’i’ai into purple-red slabs that glisten like steak on the wax parchment. Then she wraps them in long narrow ti leaves tied tight with string. Minus the parchment paper, these green, leaf-bound packages are what sustained the ancient Hawaiians on their voyage across the Pacific Ocean a thousand years ago.
Pa’i’ai was the original instant travel meal: just add water and it expands to form poi, a wet, creamy starch that was the staple of the Hawaiian diet. Leave the poi in the heat for a few days, and it ferments into sour poi, a gluten-free probiotic with significantly more bacteria per gram than yogurt. In Hawaii it’s called a “local superfood” and today it is center to the meeting of worlds for Whole Foods yuppies, gourmands, indigenous cultural activists, locavores, environmentalists, and doomsdayers worried about the fact that Hawaii imports 85 percent of its food from 2,400 miles over the ocean.
Some parts of the taro caramelize under heat, turning a deep, rich color. Photo: Lindsay Gasik
Fehren slaps a piece of pa’i’ai in my open palm to taste and I play with it, pulling it apart and watching it recoil, before taking a nibble. It’s chewy and moist, with the faint sweetness of a mochi-ball. For comparison she gives me a slice of un-pounded taro, and the difference in texture is remarkable. Without the impact of the heavy stone, the taro is crumbly and dense, almost like pastry dough.
Daniel Anthony, Mana Ai’s founder, arrives shortly before lunch. He takes a phone call, and then settles onto the second board to pound poi. “I hope you’re not disappointed that we aren’t wearing our traditional loincloths,” he jokes. A few minutes later, he gets up and films a 15-second Instagram video of Maunakea and Jones pounding. Pounding poi is an ancient practice, but this is Honolulu in 2016 and contemporary, artisanal poi is in its infancy.
Selling and distributing hand-pounded poi has only been legal since 2011. The prohibition lasted exactly 100 years, beginning in 1911 when the Hawaiian State Department of Health traced an outbreak of cholera to poi diluted with unclean water. It finally ended when community organizers, including Hawaiian cultural educators, small taro farmers, and advocates of sustainable food sovereignty, like Anthony, convinced the Hawaiian legislature to grant poi-pounders the same cultural exemptions from health regulations that raw honey, steak, and sushi had enjoyed for years.
In the years between 1911 and 2011, only mechanized poi-mills were permitted to stay in operation, making what Anthony considers a bastardized version of poi.
“The ancient Hawaiians wouldn’t even recognize most of what’s being sold in stores today,” Anthony says. “It’s not the traditional recipe.”
According to Anthony, it’s the attention to detail by a human hand that differentiates high-quality from low-quality poi. Pulling a still-hot taro from the pressure cooker, Fehren points to the way some parts of the taro have caramelized under heat, turning a deep, rich color. This part is called koena, and Jones scrapes it into a container to sell to restaurants for desserts. Still warm, it’s gooey and mildly sweet, like toasted rice.