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  • Writer's pictureCulinary Cam

Poi, a Hawaiian Staple #FoodieReads #LitHappens

This month, as we continue our dive into historical fiction from around the county, I invited the #LitHappens group to read Moloka'i by Alan Brennert.

On the Page

Set in Hawai'i - between the islands of Oahu and Moloka'i - this tells the story of Rachel Kalama who is diagnosed with leprosy when she is seven years old. As was the practice then, she is taken from her family on Oahu and sent to Kalaupapa, the quarantined leprosy colony on Moloka'i. While most people would view the forced isolation as the end of their life, Rachel carves out an existence and embraces living.

In exile Rachel finds a chosen family to replace the family she has lost. A native healer, Haleola, becomes her adopted "auntie" and teaches Rachel about the mythology and rich culture of native Hawaiians. Sister Mary Catherine Voorhies, one of the Franciscan sisters who care for girls at Kalaupapa, loves her like a daughter. And she meets and falls in love with Kenji Utagawa, a fellow leprosy patient whose diagnosis brings shame on his Japanese family. Rachel and Kenji marry and have a daughter, but the birth of their healthy child is a mixed blessing as regulations require that they give her up for adoption to prevent infection.

Leprosy might seem a morose topic, but despite being true to historical accounts, Moloka'i is a story the strength of the human spirit. It's about living, not dying. Brennert writes a compelling novel about Rachel's journey as she challenges and overcomes the limitations of leprosy. After I finished reading Moloka'i, I immediately picked up a copy of the sequel - The Daughter of Moloka'i. More on that soon!

On the Plate

There was actually quite a bit of food in the novel, including these passages...

"Certain things stood out in memory, she couldn’t say why: the weight and feel of a five-cent hapa'umi coin in her pocket; the taste of cold Tahiti lemonade on a hot day; palm fronds rustling like locusts high above, as she and her brothers played among the rice paddies and fishponds of Waikīkī" (pg. 3).

"After church came Rachel’s favorite part of the day, when Mama stopped at Love’s Bakery on Nu'uanu Avenue to buy fresh milk bread, baked that morning. Love’s was a cathedral of sugar, a holy place of sweets and starches: pound cake, seedcake, biscuits, Jenny Lind cake, soda crackers, cupcakes" (pg. 7).

"Dorothy’s brother Will brought twenty pounds of fresh skipjack tuna he’d caught in his nets that morning; Henry’s sister Florence made her best haupia pudding, rich with coconut cream; and Rachel helped her mother and Aunt Flo wrap ti leaves around the fresh beef and pork Papa bought at Tinker’s Market, the first meat they had seen in weeks" (pg. 9).

"Rachel was ravenous after her long trip, so Haleola cooked a midday supper and they feasted on grilled fish and roasted coconut" (pg. 65).

But one dish was mentioned multiple times: poi.

She dove eagerly into the smooth paste and kneaded it—with a little help from her mother—until, wondrously, it was no longer mere taro but delicious poi.

Truth be told, I have never been a fan of poi. So I decided to give it a try. All of the recipes were the same: steam and peel taro. Pound with water until the consistency you desire. There were a couple of challenges. First, my fresh taro was snowy white; it didn't have the distinctive muted purple hue of the poi from my childhood. So, I added in some natural color from organic beet powder and organic butterfly pea flower powder. They might have changed the flavor slightly, but adding flavor to something largely flavorless is always a good thing. Also to add more flavor, I treated the poi like mashed potatoes and folded in some pats of butter and stirred in salt.

And to add even more interest, I served my version of poi with taro chips.

That's a wrap for my Moloka'i-inspired dish. I can't wait to read the thoughts from the #LitHappens readers. And I will post about the sequel soon.

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Wendy Klik
Wendy Klik
Mar 20

Poi was certainly eaten nearly every day, quite like the midwest with potatoes or Asia with rice.

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