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Pounding into an ancient rhythm

Daniel Anthony's Mana Ai uses the storied method of poi pounding to craft this slow food

By Nina Wu

LAST UPDATED: 2:24 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011

Approaching Daniel Anthony's home in a Kaneohe valley, you can hear the rhythms of rock on wooden boards in a regular cadence, as the smell of steamed taro wafts into the air from pressure cookers set up outside.

It's community pounding day, when Anthony, 33, an entrepreneur and advocate for hand-pounded paiai — pronounced "pah-ee-aye" in Hawaiian — teaches the traditional practice of kui ai to anyone who wants to learn.

Paiai is the pure, pounded starch of taro in its unfermented and undiluted form. Add water and knead, and paiai expands two to threefold, becoming poi.

For the last year and a half, Anthony was able to make his traditional hand-pounded paiai but couldn't sell it because of health permit requirements. So his family-run business, Mana Ai, launched in 2009, wasn't making much profit.

But its prospects are looking brighter, following passage of a new law that allows him and others to sell hand-pounded paiai and poi to consumers as long as they are made in a certified kitchen.

Anthony received his Health Department certification this month to make his paiai, borrowing the kitchen at Heeia Pier General Store & Deli. Eventually, as the state agency updates its rules, he might be able to sell it to consumers straight from the pounding board.

While poi pounding seems on the surface like a simple procedure, there is an art and protocol to the practice dating back to the days of the ancient Polynesians, who sustained themselves on it while voyaging across the ocean.

Every step in preparing the taro, from washing the outer peel to paring it down to its starchy core, has a name. Every stroke of the pohaku (stone pounder) has a different name, too, according to Anthony, who strives to keep as closely as possible to the old Hawaiian way.

Anthony gets his taro from farms throughout Hawaii, including a family taro patch on the Windward side. Using quality, local taro is important to him.

The stone pounders come in different shapes and sizes for varying skill levels, and the boards, typically made of monkeypod or mango wood, are hand-shaped in a laborious process that in itself is another art form.

It's the ultimate slow food, given the amount of time it takes to steam, then peel and pound the taro. Watching the taro as it's transformed is part of the fun.


» Buy Mana Ai paiai from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sundays at Haleiwa Farmers Market.

» For info on buying paiai or community pounding days, visit www.manaai.com, call 542-1326 or email eat@manaai.com.


ANTHONY LEARNED the art from watching his dad make paiai as a child growing up in Waianae. Although he has more than 20 years of experience under his belt, he says there's still more to learn.

With swift and deft movements, Anthony puts a little bit of water on the board in front of him, followed by taro, then lifts his pohaku and quickly pounds it to a gummy paste.

He keeps going until he hears a certain quality of sound indicating the paiai is ready and that it's smooth, not lumpy.

Doing it the right way also means putting on the right kind of dress. So sometimes Anthony dons a malo (loincloth) and kihei (cloak knotted at the shoulder) for his demonstrations. It's the uniform of a poi pounder, he says, and it also keeps you cool.

Paiai, made the traditional way, is safe to eat and can keep for weeks without spoiling, according to Anthony.

It's also much denser than the poi packaged in commercial facilities, which add a lot of filtered water. You might get away with low-quality taro in a machine, but not on the pounding board, he says.

"If you don't pound it, you can't call it paiai," says Anthony.

Consumed straight from the pounding board, there's a difference in freshness and consistency.

Anthony thinks poi's potential as a quality, Hawaii-made product is as marketable and viable as Kona coffee. He also believes the ability to sell hand-pounded poi creates opportunities for local taro farmers and keeps the art alive.

Paiai, after all, is made from taro, which holds symbolism as the sustenance as well as the "older brother" of the Hawaiian people.

"It's also the most expensive starch on the market," says Anthony.

HE STARTED the community pounding days after being shut down by the Health Department in 2009. The official action initiated a whole movement, with a community of paiai supporters, including the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, eventually getting behind Anthony.

It would take a lot of persistence and patience to get the business up and running again a year and a half later, but Anthony was determined not to give up.

With the new law in place, the Health Department is working to exempt hand-pounded poi from the permit process for cultural considerations as long as it's properly labeled and producers pass a food safety certification exam, according to environmental health program manager Peter Oshiro.

Those new rules are expected to be in effect by the end of the year, he said.

In the meantime, Anthony continues to conduct weekly Wednesday workshops at his home and plans to offer them in other communities around Oahu.

Mana Ai is a regular vendor at the Haleiwa Farmers Market, and Anthony's paiai could soon be on the menu of Town and other restaurants that emphasize local food products.

His paiai sells for $15 per pound and can be purchased online at www.manaai.com.

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