I ate a tin of Portuguese octopus not long ago and took a picture of the can, because I admired the artful cephalopod on its label. Within a matter of weeks I saw it staring back at me in an unexpected social media post, its wriggly pink arms and friendly white eyes rendered in strands of silk, merino wool, and baby alpaca yarn that had been hooked, sewn, and embroidered into a playful new existence.
Like many Philadelphia food lovers over the eight years, I’d grown accustomed to Aranita cooking and serving me beautiful food — not crocheting it into art with yarn. But ever since Aranita was forced to close her Poi Dog restaurant and food truck in July due to the pandemic, her creative powers have been channeled into myriad other streams. That includes a new line of sauces inspired by her Hawaiian roots, corporate recipe development, and also a veritable explosion of fiber creations. Many of them are inspired by food, from jars of Soom tahini to Spam cans, Bamba snack bags, and a half dozen other tins of imported fish, including works good enough to sell for triple-digit price tags, earn her features in art magazines, private commissions, and gallery shows in New York, California, and Philadelphia.
“It began as something to keep my hands busy because I love watching something transform under my fingers,” says Aranita, who can crochet for nearly five straight hours until her hands begin to ache. “It’s annoying when my hands are in pain. I’m not a time waster.”
Few who have watched Aranita, 36, build Poi Dog over the years would accuse her of wasting time. She and business partner Chris Vacca were on the vanguard of the city’s food truck revolution when their little cart appeared on Temple University’s campus in 2013 slinging Super Spam musubis, smoky Kalua pork, tofu poke, and sweet coconut mochi flowers that evoked her childhood growing up in Oahu and Hong Kong. Aranita had purchased and converted a former taco cart from a cook at JG Domestic, where she worked as a food runner while pursuing two Ph.D.s in classics and comparative literature — one at Bryn Mawr College, the other at City University of New York — before eventually dropping out with master’s degrees to focus on food.
“Food trucks were booming and we were in the right place at the right time,” says Aranita. “But food trucking is hard.”
The 80-hour work weeks, the rising costs of food truck events, increased city regulations, and other factors led them to also open a brick-and-mortar space with an expanded menu on South 21st Street in 2017. Their business grew steadily — until it skidded to a halt with the coronavirus.
“COVID definitely killed Poi Dog, no doubt about it. We were profitable. We were busy,” she said. “But all my catering business for 2020 was suddenly gone in the space of one day in March. I handed back thousands and thousands of dollars worth of deposits for events that were canceled into 2021.”
“I’m not bitter,” Aranita says. “It gave me a lot. Opening a restaurant opened me up to so many adventures I never would have envisioned.”
Launching a retail condiment company in December to perpetuate the Poi Dog brand has been one of those adventures. Buoyed by the guidance of a good friend in the sauce business, Aranita has bottled some of her most beautiful “Aloha Always” Hawaiian flavors, including a mildly spiced but gingery Chili Peppah Water that can warm a dish of pulled pork or rice like a splash of sunshine, a ponzu scented with Maui lavender that begs for crudo, dry seasonings, and soon-to-arrive guava katsu sauce. They’ve garnered instant support from Philadelphia retailers like Primal Supply, Herman’s Coffee, Riverwards Produce, Vernick Wine, and Di Bruno Bros., which just bought 30 cases and plans to collaborate with Aranita on promotional videos and cooking demos.
“It’s going faster than I can keep up with,” she says.
Poi Dog’s culinary legacy is finally off to a promising retail start. But the turmoil of losing her restaurant and the isolation from her many friends this year was traumatic. Those feelings found an outlet through the transformation of her crochet art, manifesting themselves early on in the quirky three-dimensional bunny heads impaled with carrots that she began feverishly crocheting for friends she missed. Many emerged with Greek mythology themes, like Testa di Bundusa, her rabbit homage to Caravaggio’s painting of Medusa’s lopped-off head.
“The bunny heads I’ve made through quarantine reflect all of my emotions: exasperation, despair, horror and dread,” she wrote in November announcing its inclusion in the online exhibition RECLAIMED, REIMAGINED at the Field Projects Gallery in New York.
That dread turned to joy in December when Aranita’s boyfriend, chef Ari Miller (of Musi BYOB and Frizwit), hid a diamond ring inside one of her bunnies (”Dopey”) and the two became engaged. They initially met in a Facebook conversation over waste oil recyclers (zero-waste cooking is another of Aranita’s passions), then fell for each other over 100-year-old tea at a party hosted by Kampar Kitchen chef Ange Branca.
One of Aranita’s early works also caught the eye of renowned Philadelphia fiber artist Caitlin McCormack, who saw those “bunny eyes glancing around sheepishly” and felt compelled to reach out: “I initially felt drawn to Kiki’s fiber art because I could sense that she crochets intuitively, similarly to the way I work. She gathers supplies and just sort of dives head first into a project, with a keen, innate sense of how to manipulate string into sculptural forms.”
Aranita grew up with artistic parents. Her mother, Kelly Kao, who died when Kiki was 15, was a graphic designer, “so I spent my childhood paying attention to packaging and thinking about logos.”
“I look at (a picture) of her face every day and wonder what she’d think of me,” Aranita wrote in a February Instagram post. Her father, Jeffrey Aranita, a professional photographer and painter, is “super supportive and excited, but is also still very confused about how I went from crocheting dog sweaters to showing bunnies in galleries. It is ridiculous.”
Her growing friendship with McCormack, with whom she has collaborated on a series of “Frankenbun” sculptures with her playful bunny heads affixed over the haunting forms of McCormack’s intricately crocheted bird skeletons, has played a key role in boosting her confidence.
“One thing Caitlin said early on resonated with me: ‘Think of string as a 3D line and how you can turn it into a 3D drawing or sculpture.’ ”
That approach has been especially apparent as Aranita gradually shifted away from rabbits (an obsession since childhood) to her recent embrace of food objects, like her series snacks or canned fish, whose figures practically leap off their labels in yarn, or the tasseled squid that dangles from a crocheted bottle of Squid brand fish sauce, now showing at Las Laguna Gallery in California.
“They’re all a little bit weird, not exact replications,” she says. “The demented-looking squid ... it’s reaching out and touching you like fingers ... asking you to pet it.”
Aranita, a classics scholar-turned-food trucker and chef dedicated to sharing Hawaiian flavors, has long been one of the more fascinating figures in Philly’s food scene. She’s also an accomplished writer who, over the past year, has been a contributor to The Inquirer. But the disruptions and challenges of the pandemic have revealed even more dimensions to her talents as she charts a new path forward.
“I think they’re all entwined,” says Aranita of her yarn art and sauces. “Both endeavors are so new that I haven’t had the time to devise long-term goals for either — or even for my life post Poi Dog restaurant. But one wonderful thing that running a restaurant has taught me ... is that opportunities come when I take next steps.”