A poi pounder is a stone shaped somewhat like a half an hour-glass with a rounded bottom. It’s usually carved out of a gray lava with tight pores. In those days, these stones were pecked at with a hammer stone to shape it – a process that took many many patient hours. Once the shape was finished then another stone would be used to polish the pounder. I opted to use a diamond-bladed grinder instead.
The poi pounder is used to break up then pound pieces of cooked and peeled taro corm into a dough-like consistency called pa’i ‘ai. This is then mixed or folded with water to thin to the desired consistency to make poi which is either eaten right away or is left to ferment for a bit to produce a sour poi. Today, most poi is made using a mechanical grinder, however there is still some who pound their poi. Pounding works the carbohydrates and protein in a way that simple grinding does not – almost like kneading bread to develop the gluten.
I’ve been growing taro for a while now, but have yet to make my own freshly pounded poi. Why? Because here in the middle of Texas, poi pounders aren’t exactly on any grocery-store shelves. In fact, there seems to be an absence of any online except for expensive ancient artifacts. I’m not interested in expensive artifacts meant to sit on a shelf. I’m interested in pounding poi. Sure, I can rice taro or grind it thru a meat-grinder, but something happens to taro when it is pounded that imparts to it just a little bit extra. Anyway, when I look at images of taro festivals, I see an abundance of pounders. Where are they getting them??? I am left with one option then – acquire a piece of lava and make my own. Inspired by Ray Grogan, his recommendations and images, I embark into unknown territory.
I decide, thanks to abundant consultation from Ray, that carving the stone with an angle-grinder with a 4.5″ diamond cutting blade would be the best way to go. The diamond blade cuts thru this stuff like butter, so I’m told. I’ve never used one before so it’s time to fine out. I hit up Pates Hardware for a Makita and a Grip-Rite diamond cutting blade and a pair of goggles and I’m in business. I break out my old leather gloves. It may not stop an errant blade, but it may give me just that little bit of an edge to get out of the way. Besides – the flying chips are sharp. And I grab my large headphones which work pretty well to dampen the sound. Safety first – looking like a complete goober is nothing compared to high velocity chips finding an eye or ending up with a persistent ring in the ears…
The plan is to go slowly. No massively big cuts. But rather, small cuts going around the stone, then more small cuts going around, and over and over again. As the shape gets closer, the cuts get smaller. It’s easier to take stone off than to put it back on. Since I had one hand to handle the grinder while I held the stone with the other, I rested the grinder on the bench and stabilized my hand with my knee then used small slow movements with the cutter and stone to facilitate the cuts. When my hand got tired, I took a break. Nothing makes an accident that can part fingers from the body like an exhausted and shaky hand holding a tool spinning at 10,000rpms. That morning I roughed the stone in pretty well – exposing more of the final shape. I took a break until the evening then hit it up for some more work. Confidence is higher. Hefting a spinning tool in one hand did make me nervous at first but once I got used to it things went smoother. Still – you always got to be mindful of where your fingers are and what might happen if you slip and be prepared.
Each evening I’d keep the stone nearby and pick it up and get a picture of where I’ll cut next in my mind. It may be a simple shape, but the stone was small and the shape barely fit within the stone so every cut had to be precise and purposeful. Also, great care and determination had to be fostered as it was far easier to remove stone than it was to put it back on. An errant cut and this project is toast. So I had to have a definite idea of what I wanted before I put the goggles on and started cutting. Hopefully my next pounder comes from a bigger stone and gives me more freedom to make the bell perfectly round – this one is a bit less round but to make it perfectly round would result in too small of a pounder. But, imperfections are just part of the character of a hand-made project and this taro pounder will pound taro as good as any. Still, the amount of precision one can get with a steady hand from one of those angle-grinders is just amazing. I’d find myself nibbling a few grains at a time to smooth this or that bump, or working the side of the grinding blade over parts to smooth the stone just a little at a time.
I opted to making cuts parallel to the length of the stone rather than perpendicular to its length. Ray Grogan recommended this and it’s a solid recommendation. I could just imagine making a cut around the diameter of the stone only to have it serve as a cracking point and having the stone break in half. Plus, the curve of the blade worked for me going the long way – it allowed me to rough in the shape of the bell and handle quite easily, making long cuts and nibbling between the cuts as I went around and around the stone. Ray mentioned stopping periodically to chisel the ridges off as he cut, but I opted to let the grinder do all the work and I’d let the side of the blade nibble gently – not pressing hard but just letting it cut as it could. Then I’d cut straight in some more to start the next layer to come off and then another cut next to it and nibble off the media between and repeat until I worked my way around the stone again.
After roughing the basic shape out of the stone, I sawed the end that was to be the pounding end off. It was a little tricky as I didn’t want to go too deep all at once. It’s easy to misjudge and come off at an angle. And it’s also easy to have the blade bind and my fingers were rather close to the cutting. I worked the stone around in circles as I cut rather than making one deep cut. Going deep with this blade, especially one-handed, is dangerous as the blade can catch and hank itself out of your grip – so I went slowly, cutting in a quarter inch then rotating the stone and so-forth until I was finding myself deep enough to catch a little. Then, I just pounded the end of the stone on the table to break off the over-hanging piece, rotating the stone and banging until all the over-hang was broken off. That left me a nub in the very center than I cut into and nibbled away until there was no sign of it. Then I started cutting the curve of the pounding end, going around and around in circles until I got to the edge where the pounding end met the handle end.
A lot of pounders out there today are very rounded all over. From the nob to the pounding end there’s little definition. I’m not sure why people make them like this when the historical pounders have a clear definition to their shape. The ones I like best are specimens in Hawaiian museums that exhibit a marked edge between the pounding side and the handle and a definite demarcation between the handle and the knob. I emulated this, working both sides to make a straight edge all the way around. It looks so clean this way. That required a very precise eye – it’s easy to take off too much stone so it got down to a ridiculous amount of minute nibbling. Nearly all the pounders I’ve seen have a definite knob on the end of the handle. Once I had the handle cut around with the grinder that I could wrap my fingers around comfortably, I started straightening it and developing the knob – this time cutting in perpendicular to the length of the stone, taking off a little and turning the stone until I’d gone all the way around then repeating. I’d cut in then gently move the blade sideways to abrade off the stone and rotate the stone a little and repeat until the part of the handle that terminated into the knob was straight.
Most knobs are angled a bit too – with the reason being apparent when I hefted the stone. The straight lower edge of the knob tended to dig into my hand when I hefted the pounder. I can imagine blisters after a poi pounding session. Not fun. So I repeated the same cut used to create the knob but this time at an angle, cutting in then rotating and repeating until the knob had a comfortable angel that didn’t dig into my hand. I used the side of the blade to smooth the tooling marks and make things more even, and worked the same on the pounding end to reduce the curvature – to flatten the curve until it matched what I saw in many of the images that I was using as models for this project. It was a lot of work taking off just a little stone at a time – little puffs of dust as I worked the side of the diamond blade against the stone over and over again, rotating the stone as I did to keep things even. I’d flatten then work around to smooth the shoulder a bit and then repeat. I also payed close attention to the edge of the pounding end to make sure I kept it straight as I flattened the curvature. Once I was satisfied, I took it inside and took a file to it to smooth the tooling marks further and work on the edge more – final touches. I could spend hours filing the tooling marks on the handle off, and may do so if I get bored, but I now have a functional and finished poi pounder.
Up until know, the only poi pounders I have seen are those in pictures on the web and in various books I have. I have spend years studying the pictures carefully and imagining what the stone would be like to hold and use. But after a bit of creative work and careful comparison, I now get to heft one of these tools in my own hands. It’s not perfect – the stone did not have much wiggle-room and cutting it perfect would have reduced the size below what I wanted. And yet, to look at it with a non-critical eye, it’s finished and ready for work. This was the first stone I carved since my teen years when I carved marble and limestone with professor Jack Campbell, my art mentor. Life has passed so fast and I’ve always missed carving and now am pleased to be carving again. I may have to get more basalt and make more stones and for grins and giggles grab some marble and a chisel and get creative again. Stone carving was a hobby I always took great pleasure in, but never got to do enough of thanks to complications of life. It has been on a long list of to-dos that has thankfully been brought to the fore-front with this particular project. Of course, this item is not meant to be a work of art to sit on a shelf – but a tool meant to be used – but it’s art to me nonetheless. Functional art.
My next project is a pounding board. It needs to be big enough to pound several pounds of taro, with a lip around the sides to keep the pa’i ‘ia contained and needs to be sturdy enough to withstand pounding. Oak would be ideal, as would maple. Maple samples I’ve seen seem to come close to my target size of about two to three feet long by about 16″ wide or so. It will have to be large enough that I’m not crowded as I’m pounding, but as a single-person board it doesn’t have to be all that big. Mango wood seems to be a popular wood in Hawaii so now I am seeking a plank that is big enough to carve out a pounding board. It won’t be cheap regardless of the plank of wood I find, but ultimately will be well worth it when it’s got chunks of taro corm being pounded into poi. Then on to a larger pounder and perhaps a two man board. I ‘ve seen large two-man boards that have seats carved into each end so that the pounder sits on the board, stabilizing it further as they work to pound the chunks of cooked taro corm into poi. These large boards are often carved out of a thick trunk of a tree, split in half to make two boards. I’ll need to get a bit better at the chain-saw before I attempt such a project but it is tempting with some of the large oaks here – perhaps if one dies I’ll get an opportunity to carve it, provided it’s not hollowed out from inside. The dream continues for certain. I’ll know better once I start pounding poi and start to develop my preferences. Better then to start off simple then work up from that.
UPDATE: Okay, the artist’s eye is never satisfied. However, the curvature of the pounding end – called mole and pronounced moley – just seemed to be more than the pictures I’ve seen. I’ve never pounded poi before and if the tools aren’t as exact as possible then I cannot gauge my experience accurately, so precision is crucial. I have no mentor here after all. The curvature of the mole determines how much surface area is in contact with the taro that’s being pounded. Too much curvature means a smaller contact-patch. Too little means too much. The Hawaiians perfected this over the centuries – so their tools are the perfect model to go by. I used this model extensively, for instance: http://www.hawaiiancollectibles.com/images/stones/poipounders/Mvc-002f.jpg If you’re going to emulate something, go to the source, right? I have a library of other links I used too in order to balance things out. I know my knob could be a little more carved but I’ve seen a variation of that and it would seem to be a personal preference and I like the way mine is now. But the mole end seems to be fairly consistent across the board among a large collection of pounders, so that is the end I focused on to make sure mine was accurate. When I start pounding poi and leaving lumps and making mistakes, I don’t want the tool to be at fault – but myself. I can improve myself and my technique with an accurate tool far easier than try to accommodate an inaccurate tool.
It is always helpful to watch someone else pound poi to get an idea of just what is involved. I don’t live on the islands and no one around here pounds poi, so I’m consigned to watching videos. One of these days I’ll make it back to the Islands and will bring my pounder with me. I’d be tickled to hit up the East Maui Taro Festival, for instance. April is a bad month for me since the kids are still in school – late May or early June would have been better. That may be a solo-trip then. However, to have an expert judge me and give me correction one-on-one would be great! Of course, if I’m producing smooth pa’i ‘ai – that’s what counts, right?
Naturally, poi is not all that taro is about. There are many different ways taro can be prepared. The corm – called kalo – can be pounded and dried and ground into flour which can then be used to make pastries and even pancakes. Yum. Taro pancakes with freshly harvested honey – that’ll be a must-do here before long. It can be cubed and eaten like baked potatoes in a variety of dishes. Riced too. Different taros have different suitabilities – only a few are suitable for making poi. A Chinese taro called Bun Long is ideal for making taro chips – kinda like potato chips. You can either salt them for a savory snack, or sugar them for a desert. The list goes on. I’d like to see taro become a regular addition to the average garden here stateside, as much as for it to experience a resurgence of interest on the Islands. Perhaps in time…
One of my favorite poi pounding videos that I have watched over and over and over again is “Pounding Taro with Danny” at Youtube: