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Kalo, pa‘i‘ai a me pōhaku.
Image: martha cheng

‘Ae ‘ai

Poi-pounding is not a crime

Daniel Anthony says I’m the reason he’s in trouble.

A few weeks ago, I took a picture for another publication of Anthony pounding taro at the Ward Farmers’ Market, prompting a visit from a health inspector who informed Anthony that he was in violation of health codes by selling poi “off the board.” Not that Anthony really operates under the radar– clothed only in a malo, with his sometime-mohawk, he’s hard to miss–the outspoken celebrity chef of the taro-pounding circuit.

I was drawn to Anthony by an interest in his fledgling business. Mana ‘Ai, which sells hand-pounded taro, officially started a little less than a year ago. Before then, Anthony pounded mostly for educational purposes– for Kapiolani Community College culinary students, with Punana Leo schoolkids, at fundraisers and health fairs. He’s pounded for the Iron Chef of Japan, for Ming Tsai and Roy Yamaguchi and has fielded calls from the Food Network.

The vision

Anthony wants Mana ‘Ai to be the “first certified poi-making business on the planet,” he says. By “certified,” he’s not referring to health codes or business licenses (though he does have one–back off auditors!); he means following the rules of traditional Hawaiian poi-making. “I’m not worried about the Department of Health,” he says. “I’m worried about my ancestors waking me up at two o’clock in the morning because I’m not doing it the way I’m supposed to be doing.”

Mana ‘Ai’s goals are many–to feed the community, to preserve tradition, to educate people on these traditions. Anthony sees pai‘ai, his primary product, as a gateway drug to a healthier community; more people pounding taro means less trouble for society overall.

“The same stroke to pound the taro is the same stroke to punch a guy,” he says. “Give the kids taro to pound, they don’t need to beat each other to prove a point, to show how Hawaiian they are. Brah, show me how Hawaiian you are, go sit down on a board pound some taro.…The same people that are dealing drugs, start dealing good food in the community, you wouldn’t even need to change clientele. I mean, it’s easier to find Hawaiian crack in the Hawaiian homestead than it is to find pai‘ai.”

The process

While commercial poi is everywhere, found in bags and plastic containers from Costco to Foodland, Mana ‘Ai’s pai‘ai is different. Most poi sold is cooked taro that’s been run through a food mill and mixed with water for thick, just pourable consistency. Pai‘ai is the precursor to poi, before the water’s been mixed in. Taro is cooked (Anthony prefers steaming or pressure-cooking) and pounded on a wooden board using a pohaku, or stone pounder; essentially, the board and pohaku function as a full-body version of a mortar and pestle. Anything can be pounded–taro is most common, but lately, Mana ‘Ai has also been selling breadfruit pai‘ai. Pai‘ai then is just the taro (or other starchy substance), with only a little bit of water used to prevent it from sticking to the pohaku. When the taro is pounded, it has a thicker, sticky, taffy-like texture, more like a stiff paste that’s just firm enough to be sliced. Straight off the board, it’s even slightly sweet, some of the starchiness having been broken down into sugar.

Hawaiians used to travel with pai‘ai, which was more practical to carry than the more liquid poi. Tastewise, Susanna Ok, chef de cuisine of Downtown@the HiSAM–which has a standing order for pai‘ai with Mana ‘Ai–says “I wouldn’t even compare it to poi. It’s dense and starchy like poi mochi. Everybody likes poi mochi…whereas people either love or hate poi.”

Still, even the most delicious pai‘ai eaten day after day gets a little bland and tiresome. Anthony is developing pai‘ai recipes for a cookbook, juxtaposing this traditional Hawaiian food with other cuisines–a sort of Hawaii Regional Cuisine being developed in a Hawaiian homestead kitchen rather than a fine-dining restaurant. He makes a pizza dough with pai‘ai and flour and uses the dough for calzones filled with kalua pig and poi. He’ll refrigerate it to firm it up and grate it like cheese over salads or slice it and fry it like a katsu cutlet.

Meanwhile, Ok serves up similarly unique preparations of pai‘ai at Downtown. She’ll roll out the pai‘ai and cut it into patties, then pan-fry it and top it with grilled fish and tomatoes or ogo and tobiko, drizzled with a sweet shoyu sauce. Orders of taro flatbread, in which Ok mixes pai‘ai with yeast and flour, bakes and tops with what’s on hand (last week: smoked duck, gruyere, and kumquat mustard), sell almost instantaneously.

Since turning Mana ‘Ai into a business, Anthony has pounded 14,000 pounds of pai‘ai, using taro he sources from all the islands. But Mana ‘Ai may no longer be a business if the DOH decides selling pai‘ai off the board is illegal. While Mana ‘Ai could still sell to restaurants like Downtown because they cook the pai‘ai before serving it, it’s just as important to Anthony to be able to sell it off the board.

The law

The DOH does support traditional, cultural food preparations: think of the poultry hanging in the windows of Chinatown butchers without refrigeration, fish cut on wooden boards in sushi bars. But selling hand-pounded pai‘ai is an unprecendented business and Anthony and the DOH are sitting down this week to try to figure out the details.

Anthony’s already got his guard up, a sense of “us” versus “them.” For him part of this fight is for his would-be cohorts, an effort to free his fellow Hawaiian culture practitioners from the burden of government regulation. And a healthy sense of civil disobedience makes the journey more fun without obscuring what’s profound about his underlying mission. At last weekend’s Hawaii Healing Garden Festival, Anthony gleefully tells people that by eating his pai‘ai, they’re taking part in an illegal activity, as determined by the DOH.

“When [the health inspector] told me it was illegal, the first thing that came to my mind were the hundreds of kids that I serve off the board,” Anthony says. “According to the Department of Health, making food the way my ancestors made it is illegal…. this is the cornerstone of our community. If we can’t make poi to feed our community, if we can’t have young men attempt to start a business honoring our tradition, we’re in a lot worse state than we thought we were in.”

Mana ‘Ai pai‘ai can be found by joining the Mana ‘Ai Facebook group, other info at [manaai.com].