The Secret Sauce: Poi Dog Brings Hawaiʻi Flavors to Kitchens Everywhere
Chef Kiki Aranita brought local flavors from Hawaiʻi to the streets of Philadelphia eight years ago when she and her business partner co-founded Poi Dog. In a pandemic pivot, Aranita is now taking her favorite island-style sauces to kitchens everywhere.
Aranita grew up between Hawaiʻi and Hong Kong. When she moved to the East Coast, she missed Hawaiʻi – and the food – like crazy.
“I’ve made a life out of homesickness,” joked Aranita, who took matters into her own hands when she couldn’t find anywhere in Pennsylvania to satisfy her food cravings.
That’s when Poi Dog Philly was born.
Poi Dog, a pidgin term for mixed breed or mutt, celebrates the diverse fusion of cultures that makes up ‘local food’ in Hawaiʻi.
The blend of ingredients – from China, Japan, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Okinawa, Korea and the Philippine Islands – with traditional Hawaiian food, was born on the sugarcane plantations, where Aranita’s great grandparents and grandparents lived and worked. Today, this food feels like home for Aranita and continues to inspire her multicultural culinary creations.
“What I truly enjoy more than anything else is talking about Hawai’i’s very rich food culture and about stuff I grew up with that my family makes,” said Aranita.
Poi Dog Philly began as a food truck in 2013 before becoming a popular brick and mortar restaurant in Rittenhouse Square four years later where they served Hawaiʻi-style plate lunches, poke bowls, musubi and other treats.
Poi Dog also catered large-scale events, weddings and street festivals across Philly until, like many restaurants across the country, they had to officially close their doors in July 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, Aranita’s entrepreneurial spirit and love for Hawaiʻi is keeping Poi Dog’s power-packed flavors alive.
While serving up her famous Chili Peppa Water sauce at an event promoting UN initiatives for seed diversity last year, a friend and fellow chef said “you should bottle this.”
Aranita did just that. She began alchemizing in September and sold her first bottle at Christmas. Aranita is in the sauce business now.
“When it comes to the sauce, it can go everywhere,” says Aranita, who hopes to ignite that same “sense of discovery” as when you stumble across an amazing hole-in-the-wall spot.
After immersing herself in the world of consumer packaged goods, Aranita took her sauce recipes into the food lab.
“It’s really different writing a recipe for something that is going into a bottle versus something that you can tweak and tinker with that is immediately going into somebody’s mouth,” said Aranita, who collaborated with friends and experts to take her sauce to scale.
She worked with the Drexel University Food Lab to write formulas for her sauces and test pH levels, and then Gotham Grove walked her through industry standards and became her very first supplier. Aranita calls herself “indebted” for the support she received in kickstarting this new phase of Poi Dog and says being a part of a great food community and circle of women entrepreneurs in Philly has also been key.
Now, Poi Dog’s Chili Peppa Water and Maui Lavender Ponzu sauce are available on store shelves in Philadelphia, New Jersey, Oregon and Virginia and sold online ready to ship nationwide. A vegan version of her renowned Guava Katsu sauce is on the way, as are a series of pop-up events that will use Poi Dog’s sauces in dishes, paired with cheese and in mixed cocktails.
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