Of all the years of my life enjoying poi, which pretty much dates back to when I was born, I’ve never ever tried Paiai, the “mother dough” that makes it. That is until now!
To put it simply, Paiai — pronounced “pŭh-ee’-eye” (not “pie-eye”) — is the pounded taro before enough water is added to thin it down as poi.
Hawaiian wetland taro, (“kalo” in Hawaiian). Image source: manaai.com
Above is an example of Hawaiian wetland taro, better known in Hawaiian as Kalo. From the website Mana’ai.com, they explain that at one time, there were over 300 varieties of Kalo. Today there are less than 100, including the yellow Mana Ulu and white Lehua Kalo.
Paiai, the “mother dough” of poi, created by pounding steamed Hawaiian taro. Image source: Manaai.com
After the corm root is steamed and cleaned, the taro is pounded with a minimal amount of water on a wooden board called a papa kuiai, using a stone pestle called pohaku kuiai… or known to the rest of us as a Poi Pounder.
The pounding actions causes the starch molecules to crush, forming a gummy mass of that’s fit for travel and long-term storage. That is Paiai, which eventually ferments, creating a beneficial bacteria called lactobascillus. This beneficial bacterium, naturally found in our intestinal tract, is known to fight cancer, while resisting the onset of rot and the growth of harmful bacteria.
From Paiai, when you continue to knead with more water you get poi, as shown above in “2 fingah” consistency.
Going back to Paiai, above we have an example that I had the good fortune to try some recently, made fresh that day by Wang Chung’s Chef Kaimana Chang. He explained how sacred this is to his family, which made me feel even more honored that he shared this “private reserve” Paiai with me!
Above is a slice of Chef Kaimana Chang’s Paiai, which to serve, he simply sautes it in a little oil and seasoned with Hawaiian salt. That’s it.
Chef Kaimana Chang plates up the sauteed and Hawaiian salt-seasoned Paiai with a simple arugula and tomato salad with citrus vinaigrette. Which here it must be noted that due to health regulations on selling Paiai commercially, Chef Kaimana was not selling the Paiai he was serving on this occasion, but just sharing his own very limited supply as a kind gesture to personal acquaintances and friends.
And? OMG! Love it! It’s like “the other mushroom”, in that it has a meaty texture to it, with a slightly savory flavor profile, mainly because the flattop he sauteed it on was “seasoned” if you will. No doubt at the core of it, it’s super-concentrated, very firm poi, both in taste and texture, yet having developed a crust from being sauteed, with the fat from the oil infused in the browned crust further boosted in flavor from the Hawaiian Salt really kicks it up a notch! The crispy greens and acidic tomatoes, along with the sweet and tangy citrus vinaigrette went absolutely superb when eaten in tandem with the Paiai. I’m telling you, this very unique and simple vegan Paiai Salad that Chef Kaimana created is absolutely brilliant!
Due to supply and demand, there’s very few places on Oahu you’ll find Paiai. One of those few is Chef Ed Kenney’s Town Restaurant in Kaimuki, where on the dinner appetizer menu they have Paiai, sauteed and seasoned with Hawaiian Salt, served with Kunoa Ranch Lowline Beef and Cucumber & Green Papaya Salad with Hawaiian Chili Oil Dressing for $15. Also at Chef Kenney’s sister restaurant Mahina and Suns in Waikiki on their dinner pupu menu, they have Paiai, served with Akule (big eye scad), Pohole and Tomato. You can also now order Paiai online at Mana’ai.com.
If you have the fortune to come across this rather rare, very traditional Hawaiian delicacy, you’ll find Paiai a unique eating experience that’s super healthy, while if prepared and served properly, really ono!
This Cooking Hawaiian Style episode video featuring Kalo expert Daniel Anthony is very informative about Hawaiian taro, including how it’s cooked, cleaned and made into Paiai. It’s then used to make Paiai Meatloaf and Paiai Kulolo: