New cookbook explodes notion of poi and taro for residents, tourists

The new cookbook “Hawai‘i Cooks with Taro,” not only presents Hawaiian traditional and contemporary taro recipes with photographs and simple instructions, but offers historical anecdotes and food folklore related to the “root of Hawaiian culture.”

Authored by Marcia Mager, Muriel Miura and Dr. Alvin S. Huang, published by Mutual Press, this book is the first to focus solely on the sacred plant that is tied to creation stories, proverbs and a teacher for familial relationships in ancient Hawaiian culture.

“Much of Hawaiian taro and poi comes from Kaua‘i, grown from the water flowing down the mountains in Hanalei valley,” states Mager in the book.

Taro, a canoe plant brought by the Polynesians, is an international starch staple and has many names including gabi (Philippines), eddoe (West Indies), yu-tao (China), malanga (Dominican Republican), taioba (Brazil) and Colocasia (scientists around the world).

Pounding the plant is also an international practice, from West African countries that make the delightful foofoo to the Kosrae people of the Marshall Islands that make fafa.

“So important was taro to the Hawaiians that it became a symbol of royalty during the Hawaiian monarchy. Kamehameha III had his clothing decorated with taro designs made of gold,” writes Mager. “Taro’s main place, though, was in the Hawaiian home. From taro came poi … Hawaiians love their poi.”

The history, cultivation, preparation and nutritional facts are a warm-up for the body of the book which offers over 100 inventive recipes ranging from dips to desserts.

In an interview with Mager, she describes the impetus for writing the book: “As a local journalist in the islands for nearly two decades, I found out how sacred the taro plant is to the people. I became more and more intrigued and interested from a writer’s point of view — I’m originally from New York City, and aside from the bagel, there really isn’t any food that is so deeply connected to every aspect of the culture as taro and poi is to the Hawaiians,” Mager said.

Using her own work as a writer to dispel the stereotypes of Hawaiian culture among those who come to visit the islands, Mager feels this book can help illuminate the deeper meaning of the plant that is often rejected or joked about by tourists.

“The average tourist looks at the purple gooey stuff and doesn’t get how vital this plant is and was to this culture. The spiritual and health properties alone make this plant linked to literally every aspect of the people.”

Mager worked on the book for five years doing what she calls the favorite aspect of her job “sleuthing.” She contacted a professor at the University of Hawai‘i who led her to the beginning of the extensive research.

“He opened up his vault of dusty boxes and said, ‘There’s plenty of recipes in there.’ I hired a friend to help me go through it all, and we found hand-written recipes, never before shared with the wider community,” she said.

Mager also went to churches, temples and visited with chefs to compile the inventive ways to use poi or taro in cooking.

A collection of historical writings on taro by Isabella Bird, Mark Twain, Harpers Magazine in 1873 and ‘olelo no‘eau (Hawaiian proverbs), as well as drawings and photographs interspersed throughout the book make for an interesting read.

Recipes like Garlic Mashed Taro, Taro Coconut Doughnuts, Taro Gnocchi and Taro Pancakes might make the picky-poi-eater reconsider this staple that has sustained generations in many different agricultural civilizations.

Mager’s favorite way to use poi is in any of the baked goods: “Add some poi to muffins and it gives them an amazing moistness.”

The Poi Muffins, contributed by Muriel Miura, are on page 121, right above the Taro Coconut Doughnuts. Both seem incredibly simple to bake.

The book is available from Mutual Press for $15.95 at major retailers.

To learn more about taro, the history and cultivation techniques, check out this additional book: “TARO: Mauka to Makai: A Taro Production and Business Guide for Hawai‘i Growers,” available through UH Manoa at wwww.ctahr.hawaii.edu.

• Keya Keita, lifestyle writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 257) or kkeita@kauaipubco.com.

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