“The Protocols of Poi”

Craig Santos Perez
May 28, 2013
Comments 2

When you’re a guest in someone’s house, you eat and express thanks for whatever they feed you: a sign of respect. That’s how I was raised. I remember one time my grandma made liver and onions. I ate it out of respect. Somehow, it became “Craig’s favorite.” She made it for me, “special,” every time we visited.

The hardest part about trying to eat healthier now that I’m older: visiting my parents’ house or going to Pacific events/parties. I can’t refuse what is offered. I give thanks, even if that gift is SPAM or GMO. This is the reason why most Pacific Islanders will never become vegetarians: who can say no at a family BBQ?

Hawaiian poet Brandy Nālani McDougall wrote a poem titled “What a Young, Single Makuahine Feeds You,” which is a list poem of foods her single mom fed her:

“spam casserole,

spam and corn,

spam and green beans,

spam sandwiches,
vienna sausages,
portuguese sausages,
pork and beans,
onions and rice,

cold corned beef”

The poem ends: “from Uncle –
/ no matter /
which Uncle –
/ you eat whatever / Uncle brings.” For more than a century, Pacific Islanders have eaten whatever Uncle Sam has brought into our homes.


The most sacred food in Hawai’i is kalo (taro). Wākea (sky father) and Papa (earth mother) had a daughter, Hoʻohōkūlani. Wākea and Hoʻohōkūlani had a son who was stillborn. One of his names is Hāloanakalaukapalili. He was buried, and from his body, the kalo grew. Like the mango tree, new life emerged from the death of a loved one to feed and protect future generations.

You can eat the heart-shaped leaves, shoots, and corm of the kalo. Cook, pound, and mix kalo with water and you get poi. Cut the top of the corm and replant it. Huli. To turn.


Wakea and Hoʻohōkūlani had a second son, Hāloa, long breath. He was the first Hawaiian. The kalo fed Hāloa and his descendants. The older sibling takes care of the younger siblings, as the younger siblings care for the older sibling. ʻOhana is the Hawaiian word for family; ʻoha refers to the offshoots of the kalo.

Another poem by Brandy, “Hāloanaka” (another name for the elder sibling) ends by describing how the kalo teaches “love and ʻohana, our bright belonging.”

Another one of my favorite Hawaiian poets, kuʻualoha hoʻomanawanui, wrote a poem titled: “The Protocols of Poi,” in which the speaker explains, in Hawaiʻi Creole English (pidgin) to her “Brah”: “Poi is da sacred body of Hāloa, da first / ancestah, an das da first way to show mālama an aloha. / Respect da poi, respect da kalo, respect da ʻaina an respect da ancestahz, brah.”


The speaker then breaks down the protocols of poi, including how to mix the poi, clean the sides of the poi bowl, eat the poi with a spoon, and how not to add things “like ketsup, tobacco, shoyu owa sugar.” She reminds him that eating poi will keep him connected not only to Hāloa, but also to “yaw ʻohana, yaw kūpuna, yaw histrawry and yaw ancestry.”

Honestly, when I first moved here, I rarely ate poi, even though it’s very healthy (a complex carbohydrate with starch and fiber that reduces cholesterol and contains many vitamins and minerals). I ate white rice and white potatoes and white bread.

kuʻualoha’s poem ends: “An if you not Hawaiian—az how you respect us. Oh yeah—an give us back some waddah an ʻāina so we can keep growinʻ an grinding ʻum!”

I had never thought of eating poi as a sign of respect to the native people of the place in which I now live and eat. So I began slowly replacing my white starches with local poi. Trying it with breakfast, with lunch, with dinner.

My favorite poi at the moment is from Homestead Poi. The farmers at Homestead Poi harvest taro from Waiāhole and buy taro from local sources (according to their website). Their poi is made fresh every week, and delivered to Kōkua Market on King St. every Friday at 5:30 pm. One pound costs $7.29. You can also buy their poi at Ben Parker Farmers Market, Saturdays beginning at 8am, for $5 a pound.

Since I am not one of those settlers who has the power to give back some water and land to the Hawaiian people, I can at least financially support the local taro movement so they can “keep growin’ and grinding ‘um.”


Now, my partner and I eat poi at least once a day, about three pounds of poi a week, that we usually buy on Friday. As the week progresses, the poi becomes probiotic sour.

I’ve only lived in Hawaiʻi for three years now, and even though it is not my native land, I want to show my respect to the Hawaiian peoples. I want to support the Hawaiian sovereignty and cultural revitalization movements. I want to support local farmers who care and respect land and water and traditions. Eating from and sharing the poi bowl with my partner feels (and tastes) like family, like roots and life, like a moment of bright belonging.

2 thoughts on ““The Protocols of Poi”

  1. Dana, I’m guessing you were here on vacation? Poi is truly a Hawaiian staple which is consumed abundantly by locals, regardless of how ‘pure’ they may be. It’s at pretty much every family and community (vs. tourist) luau and other gatherings. Taro is not at all hard to grow, though various types are grown for the leaf vs. the corm that is pounded into poi. It’s true in my experience that few of my fellow haoles take a liking to it, but I have grown to love it and its healing goodness. Eating fish isn’t the same without some nice sour poi! The localvore food movement is alive and strong here, including renewed interest in and cultivation of kalo as a mainstay of Hawaiian diet culture. It’s so important here that a fierce fight was fought to prohibit turning it into yet another genetically modified ‘food’. Hope you’ll get a chance to try it again in a less contrived setting next time you visit!

  2. My guess is that Poi is comfort food to only a tiny percentage of those thousand or so “pure” Hawaiians. What Poi I saw while I was in Kamaina was not prepared to nourish Hawaiians, but for the entertainment of said Hawaiians and other locals sniggering at the Haoli tourists tasting the foul stuff at those artificial luaus hosted at $75 to $145 a head. Taro is a pain to grow, and Poi is even more of a pain to process. Real Hawaiians get their nourishment at KTA if not at McDonalds or KFC. Huli Huli Chicken and pork laulau play more important roles in the diets of Hawaiians.

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