For many years, chief among the obligatory Hawaiian vacation experiences was attending a luau and grousing about the poi.
"To put it mildly, it has an adhesive quality," reported a Globe and Mail travel writer in 1982. "Many visitors liken it to wallpaper glue."
The analogy dates back to at least the nineteenth century, when a Professor H.W. Henshaw tackled the topic in his column for The Youth's Companion: "Unappreciative Europeans are apt to describe poi as smelling and tasting like billstickers' paste. It may be so." Yet visitors' distaste for the dish didn't stop resorts and other tourist luau hosts from filling troughs with pounded taro. Perhaps the organizers hoped their customers would order another round of pina coladas to wash down the purplish mash.
But at the Mormon-run Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie, where there's no booze to distract diners who've ponied up $45 for a buffet supper, poi's role has been significantly scaled back. The Polynesian theme park this fall hired its first executive chef in an effort to upgrade its culinary offerings. Hector Morales, who spent 18 years cooking at the nearby Turtle Bay Resort, says it's his job to show visitors that Hawaiian food "is more than just poi."
To that end, Morales is focusing on the feasting aspect of the luau tradition rather than trying to recreate the meals served in ancient Hawaii. His menu includes pan-seared, wild-caught salmon with local lemon butter; raw ahi tuna with soy sauce and Molokai sweet potatoes with local coconut honey.
"I'm trying to introduce more farm-to-table," says Morales, who's teaching "more advanced cooking techniques" to staffers accustomed to baking chicken and steaming pork.
"They're really enjoying it," Morales says of the luau employees who've long worked merely to support the show's entertainment crew. The food, Morales concedes, was frequently disappointing.
"We're trying to step it up so people don't say 'I won't do that again'," he says.
Poi hasn't been banished from the luau, though: At the Polynesian Cultural Center, it's served in two-ounce plastic cups.
"You know what? If you put it in a big bowl, it doesn't look appetizing," Morales says. "I would say about 80 percent of people try it."