Many of us grew up eating poi. Some of our parents fed it to us when we were babies. As children, we’d sprinkle it first with a bit of sugar before dipping our fingers in it. As we got older and acquired a refined taste for it, we’d move on to three-finger or even sour poi. A bundle of steaming lau lau seems lonely without a side dish of poi, and a Hawaiian plate just isn’t complete without it. We chuckle when our mainland friends are too scared to try it, and many of us know how important the kalo plant is to Native Hawaiians and their culture.
But many of us kamaʻāina, even Native Hawaiians, have never pounded a batch of poi, seen it done, or really know what fresh poi tastes like — we’ve never had the opportunity. Many of us also don’t know that the poi we grew up eating — usually bought at the supermarket in a sealed, plastic bag or frozen in a container — is processed, commercialized and doesn’t quite resemble what Native Hawaiians actually ate. Or that trying to make and sell poi the traditional way, using a pōhaku on a wooden board, became a political battle at Honolulu Hale (city hall) a few years ago.
Daniel Anthony has been working to change that. For the past five years, he’s been teaching people about the history of poi, its health benefits and how to make it themselves by hosting poi pounding get-togethers, teaching classes and workshops, and public demonstrations while wearing just a traditional malo (which gets everyone’s attention). Daniel makes what is known as paʻiʻai – the precursor to poi – which has less water than poi and yields a taffy-like texture and sweeter taste.
Native Hawaiians made paʻiʻai because pounded kalo in this form doesn’t spoil easily and can last while traveling. Water can then be added to paʻiʻai to make poi to the consistency one desires. Paʻiʻai keeps so well, that Daniel actually ships it around the world through his company, Mana Ai, which roughly translates to “power food.” Hawaiʻi ’s best chefs, such as Ed Kenney of Town in Kaimuki, discovered that paʻiʻai can be used to make exotic flat breads, pastas and even replace other starches.
Daniel is so passionate about changing the way Hawaiʻi eats that he’s become an ambassador for Native Hawaiian culture and a food activist, and has made quite the name for himself while doing so.
The 34-year-old from Waianae has hand-pounded poi for celebrity chefs, recently appeared on the Today show and was featured in Sunset magazine. This summer, Daniel made a television appearance with beloved brave eater Andrew Zimmern on the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods America.
words by: Marie Tutko
photos: Jack Wolford
For more information on Mana Ai and ordering your own batch of freshly-pounded paʻiʻai, visit www.manaai.com.