A blog maintained by Tevita Kete, PGR Officer
Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), Suva, Fiji Islands
This weblog documents the activities of Pacific Agricultural Genetic Resources Network (PAPGREN), along with other information on plant genetic resources (PGR) in the Pacific.
The myriad varieties found within cultivated plants are fundamental to the present and future productivity of agriculture. PAPGREN, which is coordinated by the Land Resources Division of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), helps Pacific countries and territories to conserve their crop genetic diversity sustainably, with technical assistance from the Bioversity International (BI) and support from NZAID and ACIAR.
SPC also hosts the Centre of Pacific Crops and Trees (CEPaCT). The CEPaCT maintains regional in vitro collections of crops important to the Pacific and carries out research on tissue culture technology. The CEPaCT Adviser is Dr Mary Taylor (MaryT@spc.int), the CEPaCT Curator is Ms Valerie Tuia (ValerieT@spc.int).
PAPGREN coordination and support
Mr William Wigmore
Mr Adelino S. Lorens
Dr Lois Englberger
Mr Apisai Ucuboi
Dr Maurice Wong
Mr Tianeti Beenna Ioane
Mr Frederick Muller
Mr Herman Francisco
Ms Rosa Kambuou
Ms Laisene Samuelu
Mr Jimi Saelea
Mr Tony Jansen
Mr Finao Pole
Mr Frazer Bule Lehi
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Monday, June 26, 2006
Posted 7:34 PM by Luigi
The Joy of Poi
By Benton Sen, Spirit of Aloha (Aloha Airlines Magazine) May/June 2006
As a horizontally challenged individual, my only handicap is overindulging in the fine art of lying down. Such a feat often requires the predictable necessities of life: chocolate peanut butter cups, double burgers, potato chips, caffeinated drinks and, of course, chest pains and a skyrocketing blood pressure. Several weeks ago, I was engaged in my familiar state of repose, surfing the cable channels in a compromised position. I was flat on my back on a hospital bed in intensive care. The only movement I could muster was raising my bed up and down. On my right, a heart monitor regulated the ebb and flow of my life and, on my left, a bag of saline solution hung from a pole on wheels, my new traveling companion.
An hour before, having failed a treadmill test, I lay motionless on a table and was given an injection to simulate a workout and stress my heart. If there was ever an easier way to exercise, this was it, and I was all for it. Then the cardiologist said I would feel a little hot and uncomfortable. As the drug coursed through my veins, I felt anxious, nauseated, my breathing accelerated and my heart raced. I looked at the doctor. "Relax," he said, "it will all be over in six minutes." Instead of asking him to explain the ramifications of his remark, I simply grasped the metal railing and held on for the roller coaster ride. Sensing that I was probably contemplating the arc of my life, one nurse said to the other: "I had a dream that you left the hospital to become a flight attendant." This restored confidence, because I laughed, the moment relaxed and the cardiologist looked at the nurse and said, "You would probably make more money," then turned to me and said, "You're done.
Back in my hospital room, I looked at the pared-down ration called lunch, a low-sodium affair, and reviewed the current station of my life. There, in the middle of the tray, was a container of poi. I had read that poi is a Hawaiian phenomenon, a tradition in the Islands, but, most important, it is considered a valuable part of an effective cardiovascular health regimen. It wasn't Godiva, but it would get me upright and out of the hospital. As I dipped my plastic spoon into the purple paste, I got a taste of my future days, realizing I would now be the living embodiment of a national health report.
Back in the 1700s, when Capt. James Cook first stepped foot in the Islands, he made a discovery that thwarted his taste for adventure. He tried poi, and said, "The only artificial dish we met with was a taro pudding, which, though a disagreeable mess from its sourness, was greedily devoured by the natives." Although Cook had a distaste for poi, like Hawai'i, he considered it a rare find. He described Hawaiians as exceptionally healthy, consuming substantial quantities of poi every day. In fact, early Hawaiians not only used the taro plant for food, but also used various parts for medicinal purposes, treating insect bites, fevers, heart problems and stomach disorders.
Taro was first brought to the Islands by Polynesians in double-hulled sailing canoes around 450 A.D. In ancient times, taro was associated with the god Kane, procreator and life giver, provider of water and sun. Wrapped in ti leaves and banana sheaths, the taro root, or corm, was cooked for hours in an underground oven then pounded into poi in troughs called papa ku'i 'ai made from hollowed-out logs. Water was added to the poi, mixed and kneaded to the consistency of a purple paste, then served in wooden bowls or hollowed-out coconut shells. Poi was considered so important and sacred in Hawaiian life that, whenever it was served at a family dinner, many believed the spirit of Haloa, ancestor of the Hawaiian people, was present.
As with many culinary rituals, there is an etiquette involved in eating poi. Westerners hold a fork, Easterners use chopsticks and Hawaiians use two fingers. Proper table manners dictate that the index and middle fingers should be held tightly together and dipped into the poi, rotated two times before bringing them to your mouth. If two people are sharing the same poi bowl, the first must remove his hand from the bowl before the second can put his in. When I was a kid growing up in Nu'uanu, my mother practiced a different tradition. She drove to Times Supermarket, lifted up a bag of poi and brought the plastic bag to her nose to examine its freshness. When we got home, she would squeeze the contents into a large bowl, add water from the kitchen faucet, mix it, then serve us bowls of poi with spoons and sugar. Was she defying ancient gods and a traditional way of life? I think she was simply taking the necessary shortcuts to expedite Hawaiian culture.
In this age of 24-hour gyms, personal trainers, organic foods and a predilection for smaller waists, lower cholesterol and hip-hugging water bottles, our culture is infatuated with prevention and promoting better health, and poi is part of the phenomenon.
In 1925, poi became the first breakfast of champions, served at the Moana Hotel, with cream and honey. That same year, a newspaper article touted it as a cure for seasickness and hangovers. In 1965, a State Taro Conference convened. Doctors, nutritionists and government officials determined that poi was a good baby food, responsible for saving the lives of several children with severe food allergies.
In Arizona, 4-month-old Teresa Mary Morrison had what doctors could only explain as a rare digestive difficulty-everything she ate came back up. Her parents tried everything, but Teresa kept losing weight, so a friend suggested poi. They found a jar in a Tucson gourmet store and Teresa kept it down. She began eating a pound of poi a day, gained weight and eventually graduated to other foods.
In New York, Ian House, a toddler, had an allergy to all foods, except mother's milk and poi. But poi was scarce in New York, so a newspaper editor there contacted the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and a case of freeze-dried poi was rushed to New York.
Closer to home, Hawaiian physician Terry Shintani launched the Wai'anae Diet Program in 1989. One participant, who tipped the scales at 425 pounds, lost 150 pounds after just one year on the program. His health drastically improved on the poi diet. He no longer needed daily insulin for diabetes or medication for hypertension.
"If dieters replace all other carbohydrates in their diet with poi, they'll probably lose weight," says Alvin Huang, associate researcher at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. Like oatmeal, poi has been proven to reduce cholesterol. Taro and poi are excellent sources of fiber and vitamins C and B-1 as well as potassium, magnesium and iron-plus, they have half the calories of rice.
Today, poi can be served with a sprinkle of sugar and a dash of hoe, because evidence suggests that it may also help fight colon cancer. In a laboratory experiment, a poi extract, placed in a test tube with colon cancer cells from rats, inhibited the cancer cells from dividing. "But it's way too early to assume that taro products would have similar effects in live rats and mice, much less in humans," says researcher Amy C. Brown, assistant professor of nutrition at the University of Hawai'i's College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. "It's not known what factor in the poi might be causing the effect." Previous studies indicate Native Hawaiians have lower rates of colon cancer than other ethnic groups, and Brown says she thinks poi might be a factor.
Although some health tests are inconclusive, taste tests aren't. One of Hawai'i's largest poi manufacturers, HPC Foods, maker of Taro Brand poi, has expanded its repertoire to include Hawaiian Poi Powder. An instant hit, you just add water and microwave. The company also makes taro bread and pancake mixes, taro haupia pie, along with taro pineapple, taro pumpkin pies and taro pan, a takeoff on Japanese an pan, sold most places there's a cash register, including, in Hawai'i, Star Markets, Longs Drugs and ABC Stores.
Based on the island of Maui, Hawai'i Taro Co. sells Maui Taro Burger throughout Hawai'i and on the Mainland. Through its Web site, you'll find recipes for taro tacos, taro parmesan and taro stir fry. "This is just the beginning," says owner Robert Mitnick. He's planning a new plant in Ha'ikü, Maui, which will produce 8 million burgers a year, intended for national and international distribution.
Taro can be bottled, but not contained. Now there's Hawaiian Lü'au Savored Taro Oil, made from a mix of taro leaves and sunflower oil. It's so high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat, that taro oil weighs in as being healthier than olive oil. Of course, to capture all the flavors of the Islands, you'll also find poi ice cream, poi bagels, poi cookies, kiwi-flavored poi, poi cheesecake, even poi dog biscuits.
With all the varied and wonderful evolutions through which this Hawaiian delicacy has gone, I still subscribe to evolution's original theory: survival of the fittest, not the fattest. Before I left the hospital, after surviving 'round-the-clock blood-pressure readings, plastic medication cups and late-night infomercials, the discharge doctor looked at my chart, then at the nutritionist's suggestions, and told me to lose 60 pounds. I thought about the white Styrofoam container of poi on my lunch tray the day before, my new best friend, and silently catalogued its health and dietary benefits, content with the knowledge that I would no longer have to see my weight displayed in kilos in Magic Marker on a white board. I put all my belongings in a plastic bag, shook the doctor's hand and asked if I needed to wait for a wheelchair. He said I could walk.
"You need the exercise," he said.
BENTON SEN was the recipient of a Walker Foundation scholarship from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass., and a writing fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center-both for a memoir-in-progress. He lives in Honolulu.
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