Special Sauce

Mawrter Made features Kiki Aranita, M.A. ’11, co-founder of Poi Dog sauces

Kiki Aranita

Kiki Aranita, M.A. ’11, co-founded the Philadelphia-based food truck and restaurant Poi Dog to celebrate Hawaii’s food culture. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of the business, Aranita launched a line of retail sauces under the same name. Food was a big part of her upbringing, and after coming to ճԹ from NYU to study classics, she became more interested in food culture. An accomplished food writer, she is a senior editor at New York Magazine’s “The Strategist” and a contributor to The Guardian. She was a 2022 James Beard Media Award nominee and the 2023 recipient of the M.F.K. Fisher Prize.

GROWING UP WITH ‘VERY GOOD FOOD’

I was born in New York, but grew up in Hawaii and Hong Kong. It’s common in Hong Kong to have a cook at home, so we either ate out or ate at home with somebody else preparing food. I grew up on very, very good food.

FROM CLASSICS TO KATSU

Kiki Aranita in the Poi Dog food truck.
Kiki Aranita. Photo by Neal Santos.

While I was at ճԹ, I got very interested in Translation Theory. In one class, the book Remembrance of Repasts paved my way to think about food in ways other than nourishing us. That was a turning point for me. The effects of 2008 were trickling into humanities programs, and job prospects for classicists were probably the worst they’ve ever been. I wanted to look at restaurants through the same lenses of textual analysis that I apply to classics. I wanted people to understand the decisions behind food, the history, the cultural importance. I had a part-time job working as a food runner in a restaurant and worked in a wine bar. My then-partner, also a classics graduate student at ճԹ, was working on a food truck. We started Poi Dog together. One of the cooks I worked with had a taco truck he wanted to offload, so we got it really cheap. It was tiny, and that limited the menu: kalua pig tacos with a pineapple salsa, fried chicken with guava katsu sauce.

Poi Dog sauces and food.

OPENING—AND CLOSING—A RESTAURANT

We were scared to expand beyond the truck, but we had to make a change from the physically brutal business of putting a tiny kitchen together and taking it apart every single day. Poi Dog got very popular, and it ended up working out until … the pandemic. I wrote two articles about how it feels to close a restaurant, one for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the other for Food & Wine (which was nominated for a James Beard Award). It was so intense, and the feelings were so strong. We had lines around the block, people showing up in their Poi Dog T-shirts and hats. I didn’t realize that it would stir up so much grief. I regret that I didn’t start the sauce business earlier because it would have given the restaurant another avenue of income, and it would have saved us on labor if we had the sauces manufactured rather than making them in-house. Since I’m so small, I'm constantly knocking on people’s doors, but we’ve had some really big retail partners and clients. It’s amazing how you start with one small idea, and then you end up with a sauce business that’s going into Whole Foods in June.

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