Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Poi, why I can never be kama'aina

This anecdote is actually from my Hawaii visit a few years ago, but it bears telling here. I had just gotten off the plane and arrived at my great aunt and uncle's house in Honolulu and was sleepily lounging on the couch watching TV. I saw a commercial that went something like this:

A boyfriend and girlfriend are shopping in the mall. Or rather, the girlfriend is shopping, and the boyfriend is playing pack mule. The girl excitedly points to one shop--"Oh, let's go there!"--goes in, comes out with a bag, then points to another shop--"Oooh, let's go there!"--comes out with another bag, etc., etc. The boyfriend faithfully carries the bags, but he is clearly not interested in anything in the mall. Until suddenly he stops, and looks up as if he's just seen the Holy Grail. "Oooh, let's go there!" he exclaims. The camera shot reveals that he's standing in front of a McDonald's. Voiceover: Come to McDonald's for our new taro pie! And we see a shot of the boyfriend taking a satisfying bite into a McDonald's taro pie, which looks a lot like a McDonald's apple pie except that it has a sort of purple mashed potato-looking filling instead of cinnamon and apples.

Welcome to Hawai'i. I have to say, I expected the guy to go for some big, juicy, beefy burger with extra bacon and cheese. That was the punchline I anticipated. But we're in Hawai'i, now. It's all about the taro pie. Being a U.S. state, Hawai'i has most of the regular American fast food and chain restaurants, though these may show hints of Hawaiian influence. Hawai'i also boasts a great selection of Asian cuisines--Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Korean, and more. Slightly harder to find is genuine native Hawaiian food, but you can find it if you look. Less of a cuisine and more of a compilation of cuisines that typifies Hawaii food today is the plate lunch.

So if I had to choose a single food as the quintessential Hawaiian food, what would I choose? Shave ice? It's so much better than the mainland's snowcones that the comparison isn't even fair: a fine snow soaked with sweet syrups of your choice of dozens of tasty flavors (my favorites: lychee, li hing mui, mango). Or maybe spam I'd choose spam as the typical Hawaiian food. Everywhere else in the world, spam is a joke, or an annoying thing to find in your inbox. In Hawai'i, it's a treat. Worthy candidates, but I think the quintessential Hawaiian food would have to be poi.

Poi was the staple of the native Hawaiian diet. It's made by mashing taro root into a paste and mixing it with water to achieve the desired consistency. Which is apparently something like the consistency of Elmer's glue. Poi is actually very much like Elmer's glue, except that it is purple and doesn't taste as good. No, I do not like poi. And I'm not exactly a picky eater. At our lunch buffet today, I ate the purple seaweed, I ate the raw octopus. And I liked it. I dutifully took a cupful of poi, since my mother who loves poi always told us to eat a little so we could "learn to like it." My grandmother loved it--she ate three cups of poi today. My grandfater remarked, "The poi is good today, nice and sweet." False. If anything, it was slightly sour, a paste that is mostly tasteless except for a vaguely yucky flavor. How anyone could find it delightful is beyond me.

If you ever go to Hawai'i, you should try some poi. Some people like it, and it is an important and prominent Hawaiian food. But I can't stand it. I wonder if it's like cilantro, where some people simply don't have the gene to taste the good herby cilantro flavor. I tried hard today, but I don't think I'll ever learn to like poi. And that is why true Hawaii locals will probably never fully consider me kama'aina.

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