Additional menu

Poi: Practical Joke or Not?

If you haven’t been to Hawaii, you may be wondering if poi is a real food dish served by Hawaiians or whether someone is pulling a fast one on you with food coloring added to Elmer’s glue.

You aren’t the first to question the validity and think that poi is a practical joke played on every tourist at every luau.  It looks strange, feels icky and tastes about the same, yet eating poi is one of the most authentic things you will find in the islands. The poi health benefits happen to also make it one of the healthiest.

Don’t Look at the Poi

What you can do with poi, health benefits of poi

No, it won’t have hurt feelings if you make funny faces at it.  But, the reality is that poi looks very strange. In fact, the most common reaction to seeing a bowl of poi, “Is poi glue?”  No.  But it is close, with its dull purple color and pasty, sticky texture.  It just doesn’t have the appealing look of bright yellow pineapple or the smooth attraction of papaya and mango.  It just plain looks weird.  Then, to watch a local eat it, you figure the joke is still getting set up for the punchline: when you eat it.

It’s a liquidy paste, so common sense and traditional table manners would have you grabbing a spoon.  Forget that!  Poi should be eaten with the fingers.  If you’re dainty, stick one finger in.  Those who are bold will put two or three fingers in and give new meaning to “finger-licking good.”  But to watch this, most are turned off.  So, don’t look or watch others digging in, if you are faint of fingers.

Is It Eaten Alone or With Something?

The only beautiful thing about poi is that taster discretion is always okay. What that means is that you can dip your fingers in and eat it as is or you can temper the taste by combining bites with various luau food like kalua pig or lomi lomi salmon. 

Many local kids are raised on poi as their first real food, sometimes mixed with a bit of sugar and milk.  Do you like sweet red apples or green tart ones?  As with most food, you can have your poi your way.  Experiment and see what you love.

Fresh poi maintains a stronger, starchy flavor, while poi that has been sitting for a couple of days develop a tang as it ferments. Some families make the poi stickier, while others have it runny.  The difference is really just how much water is added to the bowl.  All of the other things, like sugar or soy sauce, are added after the base is made.  That’s the beauty of poi, you can customize it to your tastes and likes.

It is Healthy!

fresh taro

The health benefits of poi have long been known by the Hawaiians.  Western science is still learning from research on the starchy dish made from the water root vegetable, taro.  This is a great way to make any dinner getaway extremely healthy. 

Taro and poi are very high in vitamins and is thought to be one of the true hypoallergenic foods out there.  Babies allergic to formula are often put on a poi-based product to provide nutrients without allergic reactions. Because the taro is fermented in the process of making poi, it is thought to be a good source of pro-biotics, aiding in digestive health.   

Poi is also very alkaline.  So, in spite of the gooey properties is has, it helps reduce issues with cavities.  Whether you suffer from food allergies or any array of digestive issues, poi is a great alternative food to provide you with natural vitamins and energy while helping alleviate issues.

Not Just for the Luau

There is no question that locals love their food and poi is not reserved for the luau.  You can buy it at any grocery or box store throughout the islands.  Many plate lunch restaurants will serve it as a side dish option.  In fact, McDonalds even offers a seasonal taro pie, which has a pudding-like center that is really almost poi. 

Poi is found everywhere in Hawaii, so when a local Hawaiian is trying to get you to try some, it’s not a trick.  They truly want you to experience a food that is special and unique to their culture. It’s their way to spread the aloha.

See how poi is part of a family’s life here.

Many locals will actually make their own, because we all know that grandma’s recipe is always better than how the store makes it (check out some recipes here).  Ancient Hawaiians saw the indigenous root, taro as a life-providing gift from the gods.  The process of making and eating poi is almost a religious experience and certainly reminds modern-day locals to slow down and enjoy the right things in life. Conclusion: poi isn’t a joke, though many jokes will be made about it.  And we’re okay with that.



  • Brian K

    Brian K has been a writer and publisher for 10+ years and has worked for LiveYourAloha as a freelance author and content manager for several of them. There's not much about Hawaii he can't tell you about!