Poi : a sacred, life-giving food

Poi sustains living beneficial organisms that transform the nutrients contained in taro into a higher form of energy to nourish the human heart and soul.

For centuries, taro has provided a nutritious staple food for Hawaiians and other Polynesians throughout the Pacific. In the Hawaiian culture, cooked taro that is blended, mixed with water and fermented is called "poi." The use of poi is said to have led Captain James Cook and other early western visitors to Hawaii to describe native Hawaiians as being an exceptionally healthy people. More recent scientific studies have substantiated the observation that pre-western contact Hawaiians were among the healthiest races on earth.

In his book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration , nutrition pioneer Weston Price states, ". . . the Hawaiian Islands present one unique difference in the method of preparation of their taro. They cook the root as do all the other tribes, but having done so they pound the taro, mix it with water and allow it to ferment for several hours, usually twenty-four or more. This preparation called "poi" becomes slightly tart by the process of fermentation and has the consistency of heavy strap molasses or a very heavy cream. The incidence of dental caries was only 2 per cent."

Dr. Price correlates the health of native people directly with the percent of dental cavities observed. Price's extensive research proved conclusively that dental decay is caused primarily by nutritional deficiencies, and that those conditions that promote decay also promote disease.

I became interested in poi many years ago while living in Hawaii. My studies of the herbs and the special foods of Hawaii kept leading me back to this "staff of life" of the Hawaiian diet, including its link to the spiritual origins of the Hawaiian people.

CREATION MYTH

The Taro or Kalo root was the child of Papa and Wakea, the mother and father of the human race. Born without arms and legs, the root was buried at the center of the house. The next morning, a taro plant called Haloa (long stalk) emerged from the burial spot; it became one of the original ancestors of all humans. Kalo represents the god creator Kane, as well as prosperity, fertility, kinship and longevity.

OHANA

Taro symbolizes ohana or family, especially the extended family. The taro corm grows as a "mother" corm and from the mother comes the keiki , or children. The comparison of the taro plant and ohana comes as an ancient tradition. Having the same "root of origin" was a concept deeply felt by the Hawaiian people, and a unifying force little understood by malihini or foreigners. Hawaiian Kupuna and scholar, Mary Kawena Pukui explains, "you may be 13th or 14th cousins, as we define relationships today, but in Hawaiian terms, if you are of the same generation, you are all brothers and sisters. You are all ohana . Members of the ohana , like the taro shoots, are all from the same root."

The ties of ohana or extended family were not limited to blood relatives. A child or adult person could be hanai or adopted into the ohana . This adopted person became family in every sense of the word.

The making of poi, the fermented paste of the taro corm, is indigenous to Hawaii. Nowhere else in the world is this ancient practice of food preparation found as a mainstream cultural and spiritual experience. The belief that taro, the source of poi, was God given, led to extremely strict protocols concerning the preparation and eating of this sacred food. Although the entire ohana participated in the planting and harvesting of the taro, only select people could prepare and mix the poi. Those specially chosen must be pono or righteous of heart and mind. According to Kawena Pukui, "Eating around the poi bowl was a time for pleasant sociability, no arguments or business was to be discussed."

PROBIOTIC

Recent scientific research has concluded that poi may be beneficial for many medical conditions due to its unique blend of beneficial compounds and its probiotic activity. Taro has been grown in rich, acidic volcanic soil for hundreds of years, and further research will determine whether the beneficial microbes contained in taro are heat- and acid-resistant due to their adaptation to these growing conditions. Plant-based probiotic cultures that are heat- and acid-stable are of great interest and benefit to those suffering from digestive illnesses, as these probiotic cultures theoretically are able to survive bile salts and gastric juices in order to reach the small intestine where they, and the nutrients they provide, are needed to re-"colon"-ize the gut.

The following are just a few of the exceptional merits of poi:

*High in vitamins, minerals and enzymes. The nutrition in poi is better utilized than other foods due to fermentation (similar to yogurt) and small starch granules.

*High amounts of alkaline-forming elements in poi reduce gastrointestinal disturbances and are better tolerated.

*Helps prevent dental caries.

*Provides valuable nutritional support for individuals who suffer from indigestion, malnourishment, special health problems and those recovering from illnesses.

*Poi, if contaminated by pathogenic organisms, may purify itself with naturally occurring lactic acid- producing bacteria.

*Easily digestible and hypoallergenic.

Numerous studies have suggested that poi, as a probiotic, may be useful for the following diseases:

Diarrhea

Gastroenteritis

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Inflammatory Bowel Disease

CANCER

Poi may also be helpful in modulating the immune system, in improving lactose digestion, in treating hypercholesterolemia, in preventing illness-related weight loss, in lowering blood pressure, in preventing alcohol-induced liver damage, in fighting urogenital infections, in improving celiac disease, in treating autism, and in down-regulating intestinal inflammation and reactions in infants, and in children and adults with food allergies and sensitivities, and more.

Richard Sarnat, MD, Paul Schulick, and Thomas M. Newmark, in their book The Life Bridge , state: "It is our firm medical and scientific judgment, based on thousands of years of human nutritional experience and countless scientific confirmations, that probiotic whole food, as traditionally consumed, is the best form of nourishment for humankind."

FOOD ALCHEMY

Food alchemy can be defined as the mystical and chemical changes that take place in food during the ancient practice of fermentation.

The power of fermented foods offers amazing properties, natural nutrients, healing and purifying lactic-acid bacteria and compounds created during fermentation that supply powerful anti-disease defenses to the body.

Indeed, research is showing that the biochemistry of whole foods, and especially that of naturally fermented foods, is infinitely more balanced and comprehensively supportive of the body's own tendency towards homeostasis than the more intrusive approach of using synthetic and isolated molecules to prevent and heal disease.

Based on the unique characteristics of poi, its long cultural historic use as a healing food, and sound medical science, poi has been proposed as being beneficial for many health conditions and diseases.

The Hawaiian people believe that poi has the greatest life force of all foods.

Poi is the ceremony of life that brings people together and supports the relationship of family.

A Hawaiian saying, "take time to eat poi" reminds us to slow down and enjoy life and health.

Kalo was so revered for its nutritious properties that a Hawaiian proverb calls it the "big-leaved fish of the land."