“Our kings were big boys because of this stuff,” a cheery, half-naked server told me, pointing to a big bowl of purple-grey slime.
What was the context, you might ask? I was at a luau in Maui, surrounded by tanned, buff, tattoo-ed Hawaiian servers, greedily helping myself to kalua pua’a (pork roasted underground), guava-honey butter and purple sweet potato. Life was good.
At the end of the bountiful buffet were this beautiful server and not-so-beautiful bowl. I recalled my primary school days, when I was taught not to offend other cultures by saying their food was gross – if you can’t hold your mouth, say something neutral, my teachers explained. “Looks interesting”, I mumbled as I gently put some slime on an area of my plate sectioned off from the rest of the food by a broccoli barrier.
The slime, in fact, was poi, a very traditional Hawaiian condiment for roast meats and, apparently, whatever else happens to be on your plate – it is treated like its own food group. It’s a mix of taro root and water, mashed together until an appropriately runny but thick consistency is achieved. The patriotic Hawaiian servers informed me that every nutrient you will ever possibly need to survive in any imaginable circumstance is in it. These descriptors, I know, don’t paint a very appealing picture. Why would I want to cover my glistening, succulent pork with a gooey, purple and, most alarmingly, healthy sauce?
Well, once I tasted it I felt slightly ashamed of my doubt. First surprise: it was cold, contrasting nicely with the rich, fatty pork – it provided the same kind of contrast that acid does. Second surprise: it was good. I can’t say that it tasted of much (think of how much water you need to turn a starchy root vegetable into a sauce), but what I did taste was earthy, hearty and fairly filling on its own.
The limited ingredient makes it extremely cheap and easy to make by hand, and though the server likely exaggerated the nutritional value, it’s easy to see how poi came in handy on an isolated, environmentally diverse island before it started importing things from the mainland. This, besides its intriguing use as a ubiquitous condiment, is what makes poi most interesting: the way it stands as a symbol for a largely lost Hawaiian culture.
Before missionaries started arriving in the early nineteenth century, not much island culture is documented. The missionaries, by setting up huge plantations and a very productive agricultural economy, began a process of informal colonisation. All this culminated in 1883, when the United States deposed Queen Liliʻuokalani and set up a provisional government. Shortly thereafter came imported beef, bread and milk. Though elements of Hawaiian tradition remain (the language and elements of the religion, for example), the food has been largely Americanised. Things like burgers, Caesar salads and pizza are made “island-style” with the substitution of mahi mahi for beef or, worse, with the random addition of pineapple. At the end of our trip, when I was getting tourism-industry-weary, poi served as a welcome reminder of local life.
So, lesson learned. Next time I see a bowl of slime I’ll expected a similarly meaningful experience. My primary school teachers would be proud.