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Friday, June 21, 2024
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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Taro

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Don’t let the threat of a scratchy throat scare you off from this deliciously starchy and versatile root vegetable

It’s a sweet, vanilla-coconut flavor that shows up in boba tea and ice cream, and the main ingredient in both savory, crunchy chips and perfectly bouncy, cakey doughnuts — but, before it gets transformed into some of the hottest food trends in town, taro starts out as a humble root veggie. It originates in Asia, but this knobbly corm is showing up more often in North American grocery stores, though we don’t blame you if you have no idea what to do with it. It could easily be mistaken for a sweet potato or dull-colored beet — except that its fuzzy brown exterior is irritating to the skin, the flesh and the leaves are toxic if eaten raw, and the texture can range from slimy to gummy if you cook it incorrectly. Ready to toss it into your shopping cart?

We’re here to advocate for giving taro a chance, because when prepared right, it is delicious: It can have a delightfully soft and custardy texture, a squidgy, springy chew, or a crispy crunch, and different varieties range in flavor from earthy and nutty to lightly sweet to meaty and savory. Plus, it’s suitable for people with gluten intolerance, full of fiber, and loaded with nutrients like potassium and vitamin B. We even have the perfect pairing to go with it: the latest episode of Gastropod, in which co-hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley explore the history of how this humble root was lost and found again as the food that sustained the Hawaiian islands for centuries prior to colonization.

But what is taro, anyway?

Although it’s a root vegetable, it’s genetically closer to your houseplants than to your favorite spuds; taro is in the same family as elephant ears, now commonly grown as a household ornamental. In fact, the root of the plant isn’t a root at all, but an underground stem called a corm. Those corms can vary in color from creamy speckled white to yellow, red, and green, though purple taro is the most common and best-known variety today.

Taro originates somewhere in Southeast Asia, though botanists aren’t quite sure where people started cultivating it for their dinner tables; there were likely several places, with DNA pointing to New Guinea as one of the major centers of taro domestication. Genetic and archaeological evidence, including remnants of taro grains on stone tools in the Solomon Islands from 28,000 to 20,000 years ago, suggest that this plant is one of the world’s oldest cultivated crops, predating staples like wheat by more than 10,000 years.

Today, taro has spread far from its homelands, and is grown in warm environments all around the world, including in many African countries and throughout the Caribbean. But it’s in Hawai’i where taro has some of the deepest historical and spiritual connections. When Polynesian voyagers arrived on these remote islands more than 500 years ago, they discovered that there were very few edible plants growing in their new home, and no starchy staples whatsoever. Fortunately, the “canoe plants” that Polynesians brought along on their journey included taro, and the plant became a staple, playing the role that wheat, rice, or corn did elsewhere. Before European colonization, some estimates suggest that Hawaiians could have eaten up to 15 pounds of taro per day. This vital status gave taro a starring role in Hawaiian mythology, where taro is the older brother of the very first man, making it the many-times-great uncle of every Hawaiian.

How is taro grown?

There are a few things that make taro pretty unusual. For one, it can be cultivated either in dry fields or in wetlands, where the corm will happily grow immersed in several inches of even slightly brackish water. The dryland varieties of taro do require lots of water, so they’re often grown on mountain cloud lines, where there’s plenty of moisture, though farmers around the world can now farm these water-loving plants even in places with very little rain thanks to drip irrigation. The different growing environments make a difference to the final vegetable: Dryland taro takes much longer to reach maturity, and has a drier texture better suited for chopping up and steaming, while wetland taro tends to be softer and stickier, which makes it better for the traditional Hawaiian preparation poi. (For more on that, see below.)

Though taro can flower and produce seeds like any other plant, it also reproduces by creating suckers, little plants that grow off the corm, which are a genetic clone of the original plant. This reproductive strategy also made its way into Hawaiian culture. The central corm is known in Hawaiian as “oha” and is the origin of the Hawaiian word “ohana,” family. Each of the suckers off this original oha can be removed and planted to become a brand-new plant, like children going off and starting families of their own.

“When we replant, we always take the older brother. And maybe the next brother or sister,” says Bobby Pahia, who runs Hawai’i Taro Farm on the island of Maui. “So we never have to look for seed, because it just keeps on generating seed over and over. I don’t know how many generations of crops I’m growing.”

How do you (safely) prepare and cook taro?

Taro’s toxic reputation comes from a substance in its leaves, skin, and flesh called calcium oxalate. Though calcium oxalate can be found in many plants, it’s present in particularly high levels in many varieties of taro. It will make your skin itch from handling the outer peel, and it causes pain, burning, and swelling in the mouth and throat, and even vomiting if you eat the leaves or flesh raw. (The good news for would-be taro farmers is that this means many potential pests will leave your harvest alone!)

Don’t let the fear of itch discourage you: A bit of cooking is all that’s needed to break calcium oxalate down. Protect your hands with gloves or a towel while peeling taro, or peel the corm under cool running water. If you want to eat the leaves, boil them in water for 45 minutes, changing the water halfway through; then, they can be eaten just like spinach or any other leafy green.

The taro corm can take a long time to cook when whole. We recommend cubing and parboiling the corm for 10-15 minutes or until tender, and then using it just like a potato: Roast the parcooked cubes for crispy taro chunks, mash them to make a kind of dough for poi or baking, or toss them in stews or stir fries to add a perfect chewy texture. For even speedier results, taro cubes can also be cooked in a pressure cooker. But make sure you serve your final results hot: Cooked taro has a tendency to become dense and waxy when it cools.

If you wander into an Asian or Caribbean market and find yourself faced with a few types of taro to choose from, consider yourself lucky: Different varieties and different ages of taro have different properties that affect the final dish. Pahia recommends a specific variety of taro called malanga, common in Latin America, if you’re looking to make taro chips, or any dish that requires a drier taro texture. Manna taros are very high in starch, making them best for poi and baking. Bun Long, an Asian varietal, has been bred to have less calcium oxalate, so it’s the easiest taro for a beginner to get into the taste without worrying about getting itchy from the peel.

How is taro used in different cuisines?

With such a wide global distribution, there are infinite variations on how this versatile starch can be cooked. In the Caribbean, taro is known as dasheen, and it’s often served mashed or alongside fish or meat; some chefs even slice it thinly and fry it to use as taco shells. Malanga taro often appears in Cuban and Puerto Rican cuisine, and can be found in the traditional beef stew known as sancocho as well as in mondongo, a slow-cooked tripe soup. Cantonese cooks mash and deep-fry taro in balls or press it into savory fried pancakes; Chinese dim sum often features taro as a dumpling filling; and in West Africa, cooked malanga taro is mashed and shaped into sticky balls called fufu, used to soak up soups and sauces.

In Hawai’i, taro is best known for its use in poi, in which cooked taro is pounded into a paste and blended with water into a pudding-like consistency. This pudding is then often fermented, which gives it a sour note akin to yogurt. Long before rice arrived in the Hawaiian islands, poi was the original partner to the traditional raw fish preparation known as poke. Unfermented, undiluted taro paste can also be combined with brown sugar and coconut milk to make kulolo, fudgy squares served for dessert.

Poi is still Bobby Pahia’s favorite way to eat taro, but thanks to the work of many Hawaiian organizations seeking to make taro more accessible, he also enjoys it used in all sorts of creative ways: pressed into flatbreads, baked into pies, and flattened into tortillas. Though Hawaiian taro consumption dropped to maybe five pounds per year since colonization, Pahia is delighted to see that this greatest of uncles is making a comeback and can be found on more and more Hawaiian families’ tables.

“There’s been a renaissance in Hawaiian culture,” Pahia said. “I’m seeing more people eat taro now. More than ever, more than my parents’ generation. I keep on growing more and more every year, and I still don’t have enough.”

If you’d like to try cooking with taro yourself, here are some recipes to get you started:

Valerie Bertinelli’s Taro Chips

Sarah Jinee Park’s Classic Hawaiian Poi

Max Falkowitz’s Taro Ice Cream

Hector Rodriguez’s Easy Caribbean Alcapurrias

I Am a Food Blog’s Crispy Taro Pancakes

Bill Leung’s Steamed Garlic Ribs with Taro

Bee Yinn Low’s Taro Buns

And, if you have the chance to visit Maui, don’t miss Lā Kāhea Community Farm’s ‘Āina Taco stand at the weekly Upcountry Farmers Market for taro tortillas and more, as well as chef Sheldon Simeon’s creative spins on taro at his restaurants Tin Roof and Tiffany’s.

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