Though many people in Polynesian and Southeast Asian countries enjoy growing and eating taro, this plant is deeply embedded in Hawaiian culture and plays an integral role in traditional Hawaiian cuisine. Taro, or “kalo” in Hawaiian, comes from the plant family of araceae. It has a rich nutty flavor and is a vegetable root of a light purple hue. In ancient Hawaii, taro was eaten not only as a nutritional side, but also taken for its healing power and medicinal properties and celebrated through rituals as well. However, due to its high content of calcium oxalate (said to cause kidney stones), taro can only be eaten when it has been well cooked and should never be eaten raw. Cooked taro is a strong source of potassium (which is well-suited for the humidity of a tropical climate) and contains vitamin C, E, the B vitamins, copper and magnesium.
The green taro leaves are rich with vitamins A and C and a fair amount of protein. In Hawaii, taro leaves are often used for wrapping laulaus, a dish of steamed pork or chicken with salted butterfish (black cod) or pork fat added for flavor, which is first wrapped in taro leaves and then wrapped again in ti leaves.Taro roots require substantial amounts of water in order to grow, which makes the tropical climate of the Hawaiian Islands ideal for the cultivation of this root. The leafy plant flourishes in a wet environment, whether through frequent rain showers or flooded fields. Taro can be grown in two ways, in a dry patch or in an irrigated patch. The irrigated fields or lo’i are constantly submersed in several inches of water, allowing the plants maximal hydration during the grow process. The Hanalei Valley on Kauai has some of the most expansive taro patches in Hawaii.
In Hawaii, wetland taro is used to make poi, which is the most popular form of eating taro. Poi is an ancient Hawaiian dish made from the paste of baked or steamed taro that has been fermented and is often served at luaus. Dry land taro is used to make taro chips or for use in Chinese dishes.
Legends of Taro
According to Hawaiian history, the significance of taro is far more than just a delicious Polynesian staple. As legend goes, taro played a significant role in Hawaii’s creation story. Originally the father heaven, or sky, had a stillborn child with mother earth. When they buried the child, a taro plant grew in its place. The second son of the earth and sky became the father of all Hawaiians and was taught to revere the taro plant as one would an older brother. This love of taro was then passed down to all Hawaiian descendants and is an attitude which is still present in theory today. According to the Hawaii custom, just as one would not argue or fight in front of their elders, fighting or arguing is interdicted when a bowl of poi is open.
Historically, because of the important role taro played in Hawaiian cuisine, only men were allowed to prepare a dish containing taro.
Taro can even be eaten right after being cooked, which has a taste somewhat similar to a sweet potato. It can even be prepared as bread, not dissimilar from “potato” bread one might see for sale in grocery stores, and has also been prepared as a veggie-burger option. But this Hawaii-grown root is also used in other unexpected areas. It is not often that a vegetable or root is the chosen flavor for trendy desserts, but frozen yogurt stores often feature sweet taro as a frozen yogurt flavor. Taro powder is also sold as an ingredient to add a hint of sweetness teas and smoothies. This vegetable’s savor proves to be a favorite as a crunchy day-time snack, a staple at a luau, a delicious addition to tea or a refreshing dessert. It is clear to see why the Hawaiians love taro –there are so many ways to enjoy it.