I had the pleasure and great fortune of going to Hawaii a couple of years ago. Only a weirdo like me would eschew beautiful beaches (which I also love, don’t get me wrong) in favor of hitting up botanic gardens and farms so I could check out the local flora-growing scene. On Oahu, I managed to make my way to the University of Hawaii’s Lyon Arboretum, where a fascinating taro (kalo in Hawaiian) conservation garden grows in the Hawaiian Ethnobotanical Garden there. The plants themselves are fantastically beautiful, with enormous, heart shaped leaves borne on thick stalks (they are also grown ornamentally in some places, known as “elephant ears”). In Hawaii, taro has an especially important position in native Hawaiian cuisine, culture and mythology, with a central place in the Hawaiian creation myth. After my botanic garden adventures, I was lucky enough to get into the famous Ono Hawaiian Foods in Honolulu – a tiny little mom and pop restaurant specializing in Hawaiian cuisine. Of course, I ordered poi (taro paste) and pork lau lau (pork wrapped in taro leaves), among many other delicious dishes. For me, there is no better way to learn about a culture than by learning about and sampling local cuisine – and in Hawaii, I learned about the rich history of Hawaiians as sailors and explorers, farmers and foragers, cooks and consumers by researching (and eating!) local food. If you’re lucky enough to get to go to Hawaii, keep in mind that there is far more to the islands and to Hawaiian culture than fruity cocktails on the beach – and don’t be scared to eat the poi!
A Brief History
It is thought that taro probably originated in India (or possibly Malaysia) and may have been cultivated as early as 5,000 BCE. According to the Oxford Companion to Food, taro cultivation spread both east and west from its origins: East to China and Japan (before 100 BCE), and from there to the Pacific islands; west to Egypt (right around 100 BCE), ancient Greece and Rome, then to sub-Saharan Africa and finally to the Caribbean and Latin America with the slave trade. Polynesians, famous sailors who traveled thousands of miles exploring and colonizing the various Pacific Islands, brought taro with them on their journeys, thus ensuring that the plant became an important part of the culture and diet of many Pacific Islands. In her remarkable book, The Food of Paradise, Rachel Lauden excerpts a Hawaiian prayer for planting taro, which illustrates the importance of the plant in Hawaiian culture: “Pause and receive thanks, O god/O Kane, O Kane-of-lifegiving water/Here is lu’au, the first leaves of our taro/Turn back and eat, O god/May my family also eat/The pigs eat/The dogs eat.” Upon first contact with Captain Cook, Lauden notes that the Hawaiian islands were entirely self-sufficient, in part because of taro cultivation.
- According to the University of Hawaii, native Hawaiians have historically recognized at least 300 varieties of taro, although only 60-70 survive today.
- Taro goes by many names across the world, including cocoyam, dasheen and eddo.
- Moon-viewing (or Tsukimi) is a Japanese festival honoring the fall harvest moon, at which taro is one of the foods offered.
- In ancient Hawaiian culture, only men were permitted to work with taro.
Taro (Colocasia esculenta) is a large tropical plant, sometimes growing as large as six feet tall, that is grown for both its leaves and its roots (technically, “corms”). Taro cultivars are divided into “semi-aquatic” and “dry” varieties – the semi-aquatic are grown in flooded paddies, much like rice, while the dry varieties are grown in moist soil (but still need quite a bit of water to produce). The plant is typically vegetative propagated, and rarely flowers. Taro is in the Araceae family, which also includes common houseplants like peace lilies, philodendrons and anthurium, along with skunk cabbage (seen commonly growing in Eastern North American forests) and the “Mexican breadfruit” plant, of which the fruit is eaten.
The plant is grown all over the tropical and sub-tropical world, and is an important staple in sub-Saharan Africa, parts of Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands. Nigeria, China, Cameroon and Ghana lead in world production of taro. In the US (and US territories), the plant is grown in Florida, Hawaii, Guam and Samoa.
Because taro is a tropical plant, you can find both the leaves and the roots virtually year round.
There are some water-related environmental issues with taro production in some places across the world. In Hawaii, wet-grown taro farmers have run into problems competing for fresh water for their crops, and wet-grown taro farms are in competition with native wetlands. Here’s an interesting case study on water issues and taro farming in Hawaii. The University of Hawaii (UH) has done research on creating genetically engineered (GE) varieties of taro, which outraged many Hawaiians. Here’s a comprehensive timeline related to UH genetically engineered taro breeding and the local movement to stop it. Taro farmers also use a variety of pesticides on their crops to control fungi, weeds and pests. If you’re concerned about this, seek out organic taro.
Taro corms are large, with brown, scaly (and sort of hairy) skin, with typically a creamy-white interior flecked with purple (although purple and pink varieties exist as well). When boiled or steamed, the corms turn a purple-ish color. Taro leaves are large and can be deep green, purple or variegated.
What to look for
Look for taro roots that are heavy for their size, with no mushy, black or dried-out spots. Taro leaves should be perky and green, with no wilted or yellow spots.
Nutrition and Effects on the Body h3Taro root is high in fiber, low in calories and loaded with vitamins and minerals, including Vitamin E, Vitamin B6, Vitamin C, potassium and manganese. The leaves of the plant are even better for you – just one cup of cooked taro leaves will provide you with 123 percent of your daily Vitamin A needs and 86 percent of Vitamin C, plus a host of other vitamins and minerals, including folate, calcium, iron and manganese. Unfortunately, both the root and the leaves of the plant are high in oxalic acid, which can be a serious irritant (and, if consumed in quantity, a toxin) to skin, eyes and the digestive system. Cooking destroys oxalic acid, and in most cases long cooking times – an sometimes as much as an hour plus for roots and 45 minutes for leaves – must be employed to render the toxin inactive. You should never, ever eat taro root or leaves raw, and many cookbooks and botanical texts recommend wearing gloves when preparing the raw roots and/or leaves, to avoid skin irritation.
Poi, the taro paste found in native Hawaiian cuisine, can be left for a few days to “sour” or ferment, as the natural bacteria (including lactobacilli, the dominant bacteria used to make yogurt and other fermented foods) from the skin of the taro inoculates the pounded taro mixture. Scientists speculate that sour poi can be used as a probiotic and nutritional supplement for those with digestive problems. Taro roots and leaves are also used in traditional herbal medicine for digestive ailments like diarrhea and for wound care.
What to Do with It
Taro is an important dietary staple used in both savory and sweet dishes across much of the tropical and sub-tropical world. Taro corms can be steamed, boiled, braised, mashed, roasted and fried, while the leaves of the plant are typically boiled or steamed and can be used like other cooked green, leafy vegetables (see the Nutrition and Effects on the Body section, above for more info on cooking taro properly). The root is also dried and turned into flour for making baked goods.
Taro is a fairly common ingredient all over the world – including in Pacific Island, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Caribbean, Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian and several African cuisines. In Hawaii, taro is cooked and pounded into a paste (poi) and used as a side dish or condiment. (As an aside, poi can also be made from other things – like sweet potatoes and bananas.) Chinese cuisine uses taro in dishes like this savory taro root cake. And here’s a video on how to make your own Chinese crispy taro root basket! In parts of West Africa, taro is used to make the staple dish fufu. It’s also becoming increasingly easy to find taro root chips at the grocery store, or you can bake your own.
Taro root is used extensively in sweet dishes across the world. In Hawaii, grated taro is mixed with coconut milk and steamed for a confection called kulolo (a similar dessert is made in Samoa, called fausi; in Thailand, an analogous dessert is bua loi phuak). In Chinatown in New York City, one can easily find taro ice cream, and in the Fillipino part of Queens, bakeries sell delicious sweet buns filled with purple taro custard (also common in Chinese bakeries). Here’s a beautiful-looking sweet taro cake made with taro root powder (with cream cheese icing!).
Taro leaves are similar in taste to spinach, although as we note above, must be cooked for muchlonger. In some Caribbean cuisines, taro leaves may be referred to as callaloo (although different plants may be called callaloo on different islands), and are cooked as a green vegetable. Hawaiians wrap all sorts of delicious things in taro leaves – called generally laulau, the parcels are usually steamed for several hours before unwrapping and eating.
Unlike many other root vegetables, taro corms cannot be stored for long periods of time. Store them in a cool, dark place for no more than a couple of days. Taro leaves are also highly perishable. Wrap them in damp paper towels and store in the fridge in a zip-top bag for no more than two to three days.
Stretching your fresh food dollar though preservation
Taro leaves can be dried – here’s a recipe for Filipino laing(taro leaves cooked in coconut milk) that uses them. You can also freeze cooked taro leaves and roots.
Easy Stewed Taro Root with Coconut Milk, Peanuts and Thai Basil
As mentioned above – be sure to wear rubber gloves when peeling and slicing the taro, to protect yourself from irritation, and never taste undercooked taro! Most taro, when cooked, turns a gray-ish purple color that can be a tad unappetizing, so I’ve tried to brighten it up with beautiful Thai basil. If you can’t find Thai basil, substitute regular basil, or scatter 3-4 chopped green onions over top. Serve this dish with jasmine rice.
1 cup coconut milk
1 cup low-sodium chicken stock or water
1 teaspoon salt
1 medium taro root, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
1 cup Thai basil leaves, stemmed and torn into pieces
1⁄2 cup unsalted peanuts, chopped
Lime juice, to taste
- Combine the coconut milk, chicken stock (or water) and salt in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
- Add the taro chunks and stir to combine. Cook on medium-low until the taro chunks are tender, about 45 minutes.
- Transfer taro and cooking liquid to a serving dish, scatter with basil and peanuts, and squeeze a bit of lime juice on top. Serve immediately.
(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)