Real Food Encyclopedia | Taro
It is thought that taro probably originated in India (or possibly Malaysia) and may have been cultivated as early as 5000 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 illustrated the importance of the plant in Hawaiian culture and notes that when Captain Cook landed on the Hawaiian islands, they were entirely self-sufficient, in part because of taro cultivation.
Fun Facts about Taro:
- 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.
What to Look for When Buying Taro
Taro corms are large, with brown, scaly (and sort of hairy) skin and 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.
When shopping, 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.
Sustainability of Taro
There are some water-related environmental issues with taro production in some places across the world. In Hawaii, wet-grown taro farmers (as opposed to taro farmers growing in dry areas) have run into problems competing for fresh water for their crops, and wet-grown taro farms are in competition with native wetlands. The University of Hawaii (UH) has done research on creating genetically engineered (GE) varieties of taro, which outraged many Hawaiians. 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.
Because taro is a tropical plant, you can find both the leaves and the roots virtually year round.
Taro and Geography
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.
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 sealable bag for no more than two to three days.
Cooking with Taro
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, including sweet potatoes and bananas.) Chinese cuisine uses taro in dishes like this savory taro root cake. In parts of West Africa, taro is used to make the staple dish fufu. Along with the taro root chips you’ll see at many grocery stores, 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). Taro ice cream is quite popular, as are sweet buns filled with purple taro custard.
Taro leaves are similar in taste to spinach, although they must be cooked for much longer. 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; generally called laulau, the parcels are usually steamed for several hours before unwrapping and eating.
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.
Taro root is high in fiber, low in calories and loaded with vitamins and minerals, including Vitamin E, Vitamin B-6, 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 — 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.