What is poi?


Mr. Lorrin Andrews, in his Hawaiian Dictionary, gives the following definition of the word poi: “The paste or pudding which was formerly the chief food of Hawaiians, and is so to a great extent yet. It is made of kalo, sweet potatoes or breadfruit, but mostly of kalo, by baking the above articles in ovens under ground, and afterwards peeling and pounding them with more or less water (but not much); it is then left in a mass to ferment; after fermentation, it is again worked over with more water until it has the consistency of thick paste. It is eaten cold with fingers.”

The learned Hawaiian lexicographer does not give the exact meaning of the word. Poi is a name given to mashed kalo, potato, breadfruit or banana. The kalo (a species of arum esculenam) when cooked, is mashed or pounded with “a stone, specially made for that purpose, until it becomes like a good soft (flour) dough. From that stage it is then reduced to what is called poi. It is only at this stage the word poi is used. When the taro is merely mashed, or pounded into a hard pulpy mass, it is called a pa‘i-ai or pa‘i-kalo. When it is reduced to a still softer condition, and could be twisted by the fingers, it is then called poi—whether hard or soft (poi pa‘a or poi wahī). When the poi is too soft, it is called poi hehe‘e.

Our kanaka savant ventures to give his definition of poi. He thinks that it primarily means to gather up; to collect, to pull up; to hold or lift up an article, lest it falls down or spills over. It is analogous to the word hi‘i, “to lift up; to carry upon the hips and support with the arms, as a child.” An expert poi pounder will call the attention of an unskillful person when pounding taro, saying: “E poi mai ka ‘ai i ‘ole e hā‘ule ma waho o ka papa.” (Gather up the ‘ai [root] lest it falls over the board). He found a French definition of the word “poi” in Boniface Mosblech's “Vocabulaire Oceanien—Francais, et. cetera” (Paris 1843) to wit, “boullie de taro” (soft taro). That does not give the derivative definition of the word (kalo) any better than Mr. Andrews.

In conclusion, we add the old legend pertaining to the origin of kalo (taro).

Wākea was the husband, and Papa was the wife, and they two were supposed by some ancient Hawaiian traditions, the very first progenitors of the Hawaiian race. They lived on the Ko‘olau side of the island of O‘ahu, and also at Kalihi.

Their first born son was of premature birth. The little fellow died and his body was buried at one end of their house. After a while, from where the child’s body was buried, a new kind of plant shot up. Nobody knows what it was.

Finally, green leaves appeared. Wākea called the leaves “Lau-kapa-lili” (the quivering leaves) and the long stalk or stem of the plant was called “Hā-loa” (long stalk or stem). The plant was finally called by Wākea as “Hāloa.” The word “Hāloa” afterwards became “Kaloa,” and it finally becomes “Kalo.”

The second son of Wākea was named “Hāloa” in remembrance of the first Hāloa or the kalo plant. And the mountain of Kualoa, Ko‘olaupoko, O‘ahu is called the “Pali kapu o Hāloa,” or the “Sacred mountain of Hāloa.”

Below are 50 different types of kalo, most of which are represented in the graphic above:

01 Tsurunoko

02 Akado

03 Iliuaua

04 Bun-long-woo

05 Āweu

06 Mana ‘Ulu

07 Mana ‘Ōpelu

08 Mana Uliuli

09 Mana ‘Ula‘ula

10 Mana Lauloa

11 Mana Ke‘oke‘o

12 Piko Lehua Apei

13 Piko ‘Ula’ula

14 Piko Kea

15 Piko Keokeo

16 Piko Uaua

17 Piko Uliuli

18 Piko ‘Ele‘ele

19 ‘Elepaio hākea

20 Uahiapele

21 Manapiko

22 Tahitian

23 Kāī Uliuli

24 Kāī ‘Ala

25 Kāī Kea

26 ‘Apuwai

27 ‘Apu

28 Pi‘i ‘Ali‘i

29 Pa‘akai

30 Moana

31 Akuugawai

32 Nāwao

33 ‘Ula‘ula Kūmū

34 ‘Ulaula Moano

35 Hāpuu

36 Lihilihimōlina

37 Mana ‘Ele‘ele

38 Moi ‘Ula‘ula

39 Black Magic

40 Niue ‘Ulaula

41 ‘Oopukai

42 Manini Uliuli

43 Nihopuu

44 Niue Uliuli

45 ‘Ohe

46 Lehua Maoli

47 Lehua Keokeo

48 ‘Apowale

49 Wehiwa

50 Kūoho


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