USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘poi’
Foodways
Myths
Narrative

Origins of the Hawaiian Kalo Plant

The informant is an 18-year-old college student attending university in Hawaii. She was born and raised in the Bay Area, California, but has a great deal of family living in Hawaii who she visited frequently when growing up.

While I was on a hike with the informant in San Ramon, California over spring break, I asked her if there were any Hawaiian myths or legends regarding the islands themselves, and she explained to me the history of the taro plant.

“Father Sky and Mother Earth were brother and sister, and they had, kind of like an incestuous relationship, and their first child was a stillborn and they buried it in the ground. That’s what taro plant is, in Hawaii it’s called kalo, and they use it to make a dish called poi. It’s really important to Hawaiians because each taro plant is like the first stillborn, and it’s kinda cool because a taro plant is a stem and a big leaf and there’s a little circle part in the middle that is supposed to be the bellybutton”

The taro plant, called kalo in Hawaii, is a staple in Hawaiian cuisine. This mythology incorporating the taro plant with the origin of the Earth itself shows how much importance Hawaiians place on the land. The land is often still viewed as being Mother Earth, and it is of the utmost importance that Hawaiians are respectful to their ancestors. So, it follows that Hawaiians must be extremely respectful to Mother Earth herself, their land, and this myth encourages every resident of the newly declared state to do their part to take care of their home and warns against wastefulness. This explains why so many native Hawaiians find it necessary to be rude to tourists and foreigners who carelessly destroy their sacred home. The informant said that anyone from Hawaii knows of the origin story describing kalo, and so I asked if there are any specific rituals or techniques that are employed when harvesting the plant. She said that she was not entirely sure, but she does know that you are supposed to pick the root a certain way so as to not hurt the stillborn child. Through this belief, the idea that it is important to not harm the land and to respect it is emphasized once more.

Customs
Foodways
general

Poi

My informant was born and raised in Hawaii. He talked about a particularly special food that is important in Hawaii, and then talked about how it is linked to Hawaiian culture in general:

“So poi is a very important food to the ancient Hawaiian culture. And supposedly the poi plant—the taro plant—came from the son of the main god, which is probably the sun god I believe, named Wakea. And so, supposedly when the ancient Hawaiians ate poi, it was kind of a family affair. The males were the ones to pound it and prepare it. It’s pounded out… basically you have to turn it into a paste. So you take the taro root, which is  kind of starchy, kind of like a potato. You just pound it out into a paste and add a little bit of water to it so you get the right consistency. And poi was a sacred food so nobody could be like, angry around the table when you ate poi, so it brought families together. And the way you ate poi was to take your index finger and middle fingers and dip them into the first joint of the poi bowl, and everyone would dip their fingers into the poi bowl and eat poi like that. And it was supposed to symbolize purity, or something like that, I’m not too sure. Personally, local Hawaiian culture is like… You won’t eat poi that often, it’s not quite continued specifically from ancient Hawaiian culture. So when you eat poi now, it’s generally not the same affair as it was during ancient Hawaiian days. So you’ll usually eat it with a Hawaiian meal with like, lomi lomi salmon or something like that. But it definitely hasn’t carried over with all of the same connotations to today. The production of it is dying out a bit, but some groups are trying to keep the ancient Hawaiian traditions alive. But normally now, if you get poi, you’ll just go to the supermarket and get a bag of poi. Personally, it’s kind of bland, so I don’t care for it that much, but I know people who definitely like it. I still eat it today at potlucks with my family. Generally, if people get together and have parties, we will just have potlucks as opposed to big luaus. Luaus are generally more festive for tourists who come down to have the Hawaiian experience. So anyway, the rule I was always brought up with was, ‘Bring more food than you ate.’ So we would get together and have potlucks after baseball games on Saturdays. So Saturdays would always have a giant assortment of food placed out from all different families, often including poi. But yeah, local Hawaiian culture is different from ancient Hawaiian culture. Generally Hawaiian people are kind of known to be really friendly and stuff, and to a large extent, I find that to be true. A lot of Hawaii people are generally chill. But it’s definitely not the culture you see like, on postcards.”

My informant describes how poi inherently carries a great deal of significance. There are special guidelines for how it is supposed to be prepared and eaten. These customs all promote a pleasant experience; there is no room for negativity around the table where poi is served. Eating poi is supposed to involve family and friends, so it brings people together. As my informant explained, the traditions surrounding poi are more formal when it is presented to tourists during a luau than when it is served at local potlucks. He talked about the differences between stereotypes about Hawaiians and what he actually thinks is true about locals; he agrees that locals have a positive vibe, but they don’t live life like postcards. Even so, they still make efforts to carry on some traditions, like eating poi. Although the poi itself may not be particularly tasty to my informant, he still appreciates its historical and cultural significance. He thinks that traditions like eating poi with each other help foster the kind of “chill,” positive, relaxed mindset that local Hawaiians have.

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