Of all the culinary staples to be found at a luau, poi — a nutrient-rich paste made from mashed taro root — is the most divisive. As purple as a fading bruise, with the texture of baby food, the sweet and sometimes sour starch, once a pillar of the Native Hawaiian diet, offends the average American palate — which is exactly what prompted chef Lee Anne Wong to get creative with it. At Koko Head Cafe, her popular all-day brunch restaurant in Honolulu, she ferments poi into yogurt, sours it into hollandaise sauce, and bakes the koena, or the outer scrapings off the taro’s corm, the plant’s fuzzy underground stem, into dense but flaky biscuits.
Wong, who competed in the first season of “Top Chef,” is one of a handful of local chefs reinterpreting taro (known in Hawaii as kalo) for modern diners. By doing so she hopes to invigorate a Native Hawaiian culinary tradition, which for centuries relied heavily on the crop for both physical and spiritual sustenance (the vegetable features in the origin stories of Polynesian deities like Kane, the god of sunshine and fresh water). She also sees the plant as an exciting gateway to flavor. “Once you understand how to work with poi it becomes this incredible ingredient that’s really diverse and flexible,” she says, noting that the poi typically served at luaus geared toward tourists is factory produced. Compared to hand-pounded poi, “it’s the difference between having Whole Foods sushi and actually sitting down for an omakase from a real sushi chef,” she says. For this she pays a hefty price: between $12 and $16 a pound for pa‘i‘ai, the hand-pounded slab of pre-processed taro corm that becomes poi when mixed with water. “When you taste the stuff that’s been hand-processed and made with love, get that,” she says. “I think the mana” — a Polynesian concept that loosely translates to power — “is actually in the food.”
Here, six restaurants in Hawaii that are spotlighting taro in ways both new and old, from a six-course tasting menu in the Maui resort community of Wailea to a take-out-only shack off the Kamehameha Highway on Oahu.
Mud Hen Water, Oahu
Like his other Honolulu establishments Town and Kaimuki Superette, chef Ed Kenney’s buzzy cocktail bar Mud Hen Water focuses on seasonal ingredients from local farmers, with an eye toward invention. The local-born chef interprets island classics with a contemporary twist, dicing bits of Portuguese sausage, an island breakfast favorite, into soupy bowls of pocho mussels and flecking beet poke with smoked macadamia nuts. He also has a revelatory approach to taro, which he blends into hummus and serves with a kukui nut lavash. For the dish Yaki o Pa‘i‘ai, a small slab of pre-processed taro is pounded behind the restaurant then drizzled in shoyu and grilled yakitori style. Wrapped in nori, it’s reminiscent of mochi, but with a sweet-sour tang.
Waiahole Poi Factory, Oahu
This shack on the east side of Oahu was originally a poi factory, founded in 1905 when poi was still an affordable staple of the local diet. In the ’70s, after demand for poi declined because of westernization and rising costs, the building was converted into an art gallery; it reopened as a Hawaiian food counter in 2009. Poi is now hand-pounded on site, next to picnic tables where locals enjoy savory plates of beef luau stew, composed of slow-cooked taro leaves, dripping shreds of kalua pig (a salty butt roast served at a luau), and lomi lomi salmon, a ceviche-like side dish made with chopped tomato and cucumber. But as its name suggests, poi is the main attraction here, and that focus extends beyond the menu; owner Liko Hoe offers monthly workshops that examine the historical significance of poi in Native Hawaiian culture.
Koko Head Café, Oahu
After moving to Oahu from New York in 2013, chef Lee Anne Wong noticed a dearth of casual breakfast cafes catering to local diners. Cue her all-day island-style brunch house, which balances breakfast staples like a goat cheese frittata with her poke omelet (the cubes of tuna are fried and wrapped in egg). On occasion, Wong is also known to serve a poke featuring steamed chunks of taro, which she tops with seared skipjack tuna. But the dish she’s most proud of is her local-style eggs Benedict, supported by a poi biscuit and a drizzle of sour poi hollandaise. It’s called the Eggs Haloa, after the mythological Hawaiian figure who, as legend has it, reincarnated into the very first taro plant.
Pono Market, Kauai
Each morning, the cooks at this mom-and-pop lunch deli in Kapa’a begin steaming their laulau (salted slabs of fatty pork) by 3 a.m., giving the taro leaves encasing the meat enough time to cook. (Otherwise, enzymes in the leaves can cause an itchy throat.) The process takes six hours, which makes fresh laulau hard to come by — one reason the 100 bundles the cooks make each day are typically sold out by noon. For customers with a sweet tooth, kulolo, a traditional Hawaiian delicacy made from baked taro corms, is available on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and comes straight from two nearby companies: Kapa’a Poi Factory and Hanalei Taro and Juice Co. The dessert has a sticky-smooth consistency akin to Jell-O crossed with pudding.
Ka’ana Kitchen, Maui
At his restaurant within the Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort, a five-star beachside hotel, chef Isaac Bancaco works closely with local farmers to shape his seasonally evolving tasting menu. Recently, local Asian influences have punctuated the menu, seen in dishes such as breadfruit hush puppies, a watermelon salad dusted with li hing mui (salted dried plums), or fried chicken served with a side of buttery cake and mochi. And Bancaco isn’t shy about taking risks: One recent dinner featured a deconstructed Peking duck served whole, its heart topped with orange peel and shavings of aged pa‘i‘ai.
Helena’s Hawaiian Food, Oahu
When this neighborhood diner won a James Beard Award in 2000, it was only the third restaurant from Hawaii to be recognized by the foundation — after the upscale bastions of local cuisine, Alan Wong’s and Roy’s. The award simply confirmed what locals already knew: that this cash-only no-frills institution in the heart of Honolulu had been a reliable source of local food, colloquially referred to by Hawaiians as grinds, since 1946, when its founder Helen Chock first opened her doors. Her grandson runs the place now, sticking to time-tested favorites like kalua pig and pipikaula short ribs, the bony strips of dried beef favored by paniolos, or Hawaiian cowboys. Less hyped but just as memorable is the creamy squid luau, a native Hawaiian stew made semisweet with taro leaves and coconut milk.