Poi is the staple starch of Hawaiian food. Made from the root of the taro (kalo) plant, it's sticky, sweet, and a bit sour. It's a Hawaii must-try food.
Fresh bags of poi, still warm!
Purple and sticky. Sweet and Sour. What is this?
Bowl of poi at Highway Inn (Oahu)
What Is Poi?
Poi is the main starch when it comes to Hawaiian food.
It is made from the root of the taro plant. The Hawaiian word for taro is kalo.
Poi, as part of a Hawaiian plate at the Punahou Carnival (Oahu)
The texture of poi is sticky, pudding-esque. It can range from thick to thin, depending on personal preference.
Because poi was traditionally eaten with your fingers, we refer to the texture of poi by how many fingers you need to scoop up a bite. One-finger, two-fingers, or three-fingers? The few fingers you need, the thicker the poi ^_^
Bags of poi (Taro Brand) at Yama's Fish Market (Oahu)
The taste of poi is a combo of sweet with a bit of sour tang. It has a light purple color.
Bags of poi (Taro Brand) at Yama's Fish Market (Oahu)
People say poi is an acquired taste, but we grew up eating poi, so it tastes "normal" to me. That sticky, pudding texture grows on you and it is something I crave most when I'm in NYC or SF and feeling homesick.
Poi freshness chart at Yama's Fish Market (Oahu)
When poi is fresh made, it's more on the sweet side. As you let it sit longer, it starts to ferment and become more sour. Sour is not a bad thing (it actually has more probiotics when sour)! Some people prefer poi more sweet, others prefer it more sour.
Note the freshness chart above, decide which bag you want to purchase depending how sweet/sour you prefer your poi.
Taro fields at Haraguchi Farm in Kauai
Where does Poi come from?
Poi is made from the root of the taro plant. The taro plant grows underwater in flood paddy fields as you can see in the photo above.
Taro grows on all the Hawaiian islands. But Kauai island (specifically the Hanalei valley) grows the best taro. Kauai also grows the most taro, producing about 75% of the entire state's production.
Raw taro from Haraguchi Farm in Kauai
How To Make Poi
These are the very general steps, so that you can get a sense of the process:
1. You have the taro plant. Cut off the root of the plant (the leaves will be use for other Hawaiian dishes), and steam or bake it. If it is baked, an imu (an underground oven, like the one for kalua pig) is traditionally used.
Cleaning and peeling the taro (kalo) root.
2. After steaming or baking, next step is to clean and peel the taro. Note, you cannot eat taro raw. It will give you a super itchy throat.
Mashing the steamed taro (kalo) root.
3. Take the steamed root and mash it on a wood board (called papa ku‘i ‘ai). The pestle you use do the mashing is called a pōhaku ku‘i ‘ai.
4. At this point what you have is straight up, pounded taro. This is called pa‘i ‘ai.
Community poi day in Kauai. It's like a co-op, but for poi!
5. When you add more water to the pa‘i ‘ai (while continuing to mash/blend), it turns from pa‘i ‘ai to poi. You keep adding water until the reaches your desired consistency. Now you have poi!
Because making poi is so labor intensive, it's not something you typically do on your own. Local centers and foundations (like the one pictured above) often hold community poi days. It is like a co-op in that everyone shares in the labor and reward.
Yaki o Pa‘i ’ai at Mud Hen Water (Oahu)
I mentioned pa‘i ‘ai in step 3 of the above section. Pa‘i ‘ai is straight up steamed and mashed taro root, with no water added. If you continue to add water, you turn pa‘i ‘ai into poi. But you can also eat pa‘i ‘ai as-is!
A good example of this is found at Mud Hen Water in Kaimuki (Oahu) where they take slices (it's so thick you can shape and slice it) of pa‘i ‘ai, brush it with shoyu-sugar, and grill it. It's grilled pa‘i ‘ai is then topped with sesame seeds and serve it with nori! The dish is called Yaki o Pa‘i ’ai and it is a must-try.
Kulolo from Hanalei Taro & Juice Co. (Kauai)
Kulolo is a Hawaiian dessert that is made from poi (plus coconut milk and sugar). We have a whole post on Kulolo here.
Hanalei Poi sold at Costco Hawaii
Poi Health Benefits
Poi is not the prettiest dish. But in addition to the taste (which I love, but am aware not everyone does), poi has many health benefits that make it work seeking out. It is considered a Hawaiian superfood, with lots of vitamins, minerals and enzymes. Especially calcium and iron. When poi starts fermenting, you get a whole new set of benefits from the fermentation (similar to yogurt).
Fun fact: Poi is considered the perfect baby food, and many people feed it to their babies as their first "real" food.
Our lunch after poi community day. Poi, Portuguese bean soup/stew over rice, shoyu kale, poi bread, and mac salad.
How to Eat Poi
You eat it like rice! It's a staple starch. Here are a few examples:
- Some places (like Helena's Hawaiian Food) will give you sweet Maui onions slices and Hawaiian salt with every order. Take a slice of onion, use it to scoop up some poi, then sprinkle salt on top. And eat! So good!!
- Approach it exactly like rice, eating it with meats and veggies on the side. A great Hawaiian lunch plate would consist of: bowl of poi paired with lau lau and/or kalua pig, chicken long rice, lomi lomi salmon.
- Make fun "combo bites." You know how sometimes you dream of what the ideal fantasy bite would be? I do this a lot. So with poi it would be a big spoon with a base of poi (I want it thick and sweet) with lau lau (with lots of the luau leaf part) and some lomi lomi salmon (extra cold) on top.
- Sometimes kids like to sprinkle sugar on top of poi and eat it plain like that.
Chocolate cupcakes stuffed with poi at Highway Inn (Oahu)
Poi In Other Foods
Hang around Hawaii long enough and you'll see poi in many other forms including:
- Poi-stuffed cupcakes (photo above)
- Poi ice cream
- Poi English muffins
Poi mochi donuts at Liliha Bakery
- Poi mochi donuts (at Liliha Bakery)
- Poi pancakes
- Poi-banana bread, poi-mango bread, etc.
- Poi smoothies
Poi at Helena's Hawaiian Food (Oahu)
Where to get Poi
Fyi, I’ve included affiliate links below. I may earn a small commission (at no cost to you), if you purchase through the links.
First you have to decide: Do you want a bag of poi to take home and eat? OR do you want to go somewhere and eat poi as part of your Hawaiian meal?
- It is possible to get poi online! Not fresh poi, but dried and powdered poi from Taro Brand (a local poi company). Note, if you want to use this for poi smoothies: first make the poi, and then mix the poi into the smoothie. Don't spoon the powder directly into the blender.
Poi To Take Home
- Yama’s Fish Market (Oahu) - Go here for Hawaiian plate lunches but also for their big wall of Hawaiian and local treats. Think li hing mui snacks, haupia, cornflake shortbreads, and of course...bags of poi!
- Local Supermarkets - Foodland, Times Supermarkets, Marukai, and Longs Drugs are all reliable poi places.
- Costco Hawaii (Oahu, Maui, Big Island) - Always can count on our local Costco to have the goods! I don't know about Costco locations on the mainland but the Hawaii ones are excellent! Everyone loves Costco.
Poi bowl with kalua pig and lomi lomi salmon. Side of taro mac salad. From Hanalei Taro & Juice Co. (Kauai)
Poi To Sit and Eat
- Helena’s Hawaiian Food (Oahu) – I mention Helena's a lot on the blog, and that is because it is amazing. It's a really Hawaiian food gem, loved by locals and visitors. Plus, they are always so friendly! We usually eat here once a week, and we do a lot of takeout orders.
- Yama’s Fish Market (Oahu) – My two go-to Hawaiian food places: Helena's and Yama's. Yama's is takeout only, but they have two tiny outdoor tables where you can sit and eat. Poi comes with the lunch plates, and you can get bigger bags of poi to take home. (Most of the lunch plates come with a piece of plain haupia but don't forget to also try the chocolate and/or pumpkin haupia for dessert.)
- Waiāhole Poi Factory (Oahu) – Order at the counter, and seat yourself. (Try their kulolo for dessert, it’s served hot and with ice cream.)
- Kauai Community College Farmers’ Market (Kauai) – Open Saturdays, 9:30am-1pm. The Hanalei Taro & Juice Co. stand offers a poi bowl (pictured above is the small size) that comes with kalua pig and lomi lomi salmon. Get their kulolo and taro mochi cake for dessert.
Thursday 25th of July 2019
loving your detailed posts on the different foods of hawai'i, keep up the good work :)
Friday 26th of July 2019
Thank you so much, Kat! And hope all is well! I've been wanting to do this for a long time ^_^