Monday, October 24, 2011

Harvest Ingredient 22: Taro--Ode To The Pacific

This is the most important plants under direct cultivation in the history of Polynesia.  All parts of the plant are used for various things besides just food.  For food, they roots and tops go into a variety of dishes.  We have all heard of Poi from Hawai'i as a staple at Lu'au's, well that world famous dish, or some might say infamous dish, is made from pounded (and in most cases fermented) cooked taro "roots."  Other traditional green dishes for the Lu'au are made with the leafy tops and is often mixed with freshly made coconut milk or cream.

Taro under dry farming
The part of the taro plant that gets turned into that most native Hawaiian of dishes poi is actually made from the corm of the plant, which is also called the "root."  The most common type of taro farming is "paddy farming," in which is grown in a semi-flooded or shallow flooded field.  In this is has in common growing conditions of the great mother grain of Asia:  rice.  In fact, in some of the very old paddy terraces of the Philippines, rice was grown in fields next to taro, and sometimes, still is.  Some taro can be "dry farmed," but conditions must still be fully tropical and high in humidity.  Although they do grow best and have the highest yield when grown in paddy conditions, the water must not be stagnant; and, more importantly it cannot be too deep or the basal (base of the growing stalk) will rot.  It is a food that must be grown with a great deal of skill, care and love.

Wet Farming
Taro is actually believed to be one of the oldest cultivated plants; and if the plants remind anyone of the "elephant ears" grown as ornamentals, well they are actually one and the same family.  Like sweet potatoes, that are often sold in garden centers by their ornamental name, without people have the slightest idea that the weird looking "root" that they sometimes encounter in the produce section often marked "eddoe" or "dasheen" on the East coast, is actually the same as the "bulbs" they seek out to grow for same same "bulbs" leaves.  In fact Elephant Ears are so widely grown, that anyone who has them in their yard can easily attest to their growing habit of spreading. Granted a lot of "Elephant Ears" sold in garden centers are from the very closely related Caladium, and others of the also closely related Xanthosoma, which is also grown for food, especially in the Caribbean and the Philippine (it is a South American native).  Armed with that knowledge,  all of sudden a whole group of people know more about Taro than they ever thought they would.  Indeed these plants are so popular that more types seem to be grown now for ornamental varieties, than for food--every year new ornamental types come out brilliant splashed with color, or deep hue of black, with or without stripes.

The type most widely grown for food is the eslculenta type.  This is the type that is the oldest.  There is a sub-species of this that has found to be native to western Australia, while the more widely grown parent is naturalized in other locations of the country/continent.  Both of these types really need to be grown in aquatic environments.  In it's raw form, taro is toxic and contains Calcium oaxalate, which can be destroyed by cooking or simply soaking in water over night.  Another variety known by it's "street name" eddoe is also grown for food.  It is closely related to the esculenta being like the Australian native a sub-species; it's botanical name is C. esculenta antiquorum.  In Spanish speaking areas of the Caribbean they are labeled "malanga," and that has translated into the marketing of these corms in the southeaster US as well.  That is a wide label to put on these, as it is also used for the corm of the related, but distinctly different botanically, Xanthosoma spp. also popularly known as tannia in the Caribbean
A variegated taro
Some of the regional names for this are:  

In It's Native Region:

In the Cook Islands, the green leaves are known as rukau, a simple Polynesian word that means "greens."

In Fiji it is called dalo.

In Hawai'i two types are grown, the watered or flooded type and the "upland" or dry type.  Taro is kalo in the Hawaiian language.  The former is known as lehua moli.  Taro is such an important native crop their that the modern term lu'au--that huge feast that most outsiders associate with Polynesia and "Tiki" in general, and very specifically to Hawai'i actually derives from taro a traditional taro dish served, that is, taro tops (lu'au) cooked with coconut milk and either octopus legs or chicken.  Another very traditional dish is the laulau, which consists of taro tops with salted salmon (or beef or pork or some combination) wrapped in Ti leaves.  I've not had the pleasure of trying this dish, but most people who've had speak very highly of it!  The upland type is typically made into chips. Of course, as mentioned the most famous taro dish in the world, poi, comes from the Hawaiian islands.  In Hawai'i taro is on the same level to the native Hawaiians as corn is to Native American, for more on this beautiful relationship, click here.

In most of the rest of Polynesia, it is traditionally baked in an imu or umu, the traditional earthen oven, used to bake the traditional pig for a feast.  In Samoa it is used in both savory and sweet dishes, with one dish cooked with coconut milk and onions (also prepared this way in Fiji), and another cooked with coconut milk and brown sugar.  In Samoa and Fiji the onions and coconut milk is also wrapped in taro leaves and baked--similar to the Hawaiian Laulau.  In Tonga, corned beef is wrapped in taro leaves and baked.

In the Philippines it is called gabi and is probably the oldest crop in the archipelago.  It is prepared in a variety of ways, and nothing is wasted.  There is even a traditional dish called "Laing" that makes use of the taro stem, which is cooked with fresh coconut milk and spiced with Bagoong--a fermented shrimp paste. 

In Taiwan, formerly known by is native Austronesian name of Formosa, it is also an ancient crop and it deep fried or made into chips.

There also numerous names for taro in Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua and Indian, especially in the Dravidian speaking south.

In The New World:

In Brazil it's known as inhâme and is typically steamed, with or without potatoes and other ingredients, or fried.  Interestingly these are thought to have be introduced from the Azores.

In Costa Rica it is called name' (a name that I have also personally encountered in produce section of the southern US).  It is eaten as a "potato chip."

In Cuba it is known as name'.

In The Dominican Republic it is also known as name'.

In Puerto Rico, it is called malanga.

In Suriname it is called areoi by Native Indians and called in creole or pidgin English "Chinese tayer."  Because several introduced varieties are grown side by side with the native Xanthosoma, they are some what interchangeable.

In Trinidad and Tobago, the leaves of true taro are sometimes sold as Callaloo, which is usually reserved for the leaves of the native Xanthsoma.

In the United States, as I've previously stated it is known as Dasheen in the south, in part because of it's use in Florida crops, a hold over from Spanish influence, int he 1920's the Florida Department of Agriculture tried to popularize this "Floridian food" using the name Dasheen.  This is still the name used amongst native in the southern Seminole territory, who treat them as a traditional dish boil them and dip them in cane syrup.  They are also marketed as name' and in some places malanga.  Elsewhere in the US, it is made into flour, that is good for pancakes.  On the west coast it is called taro and is popular in American Chinese dishes in various "Chinatowns."  It also is sold as a chip.

In Venezuela it is known as ocumo chino, where it is almost always boiled in stews.

In the Caribbean or West Indies, it is dasheen if it is large, and eddoe if it is small.  In modern times, the Spanish speaking islands have shifted to name'.  

The sacred connection that Native Hawaiians have to Kalo is so strong, that for the last few years an fierce debate has raged in regards to genetic modifications of the plant and patents held by the University of Hawaii on three specific lines of the plant.  These patents were granted to the university by the Bush administration back in 2002; the university has since sought world wide patents on the plants.  This did not set well with the native community and their supports world wide.  The university intends to use these patents to genetically modify taro plants through experiments that sound like they belong on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, than in a lab of a university that claims to have respect for the very native community that they basically stole these plants from.  As of now, genetic modifications are illegal until 2013.  This has become so absurd, that farmers that wish to purchase breeding stock, currently have to sign a licensing agreement with U of H that states "UH owns the taro culitvar..."--farmers are required to pay royalty to the university.  This affects all farmers of taro, not just Native farmers.  Article here.  Video below.

Modern Hawaiian Kalo (Taro) fold over pocket.  They make these in Puerto Rico too.

From the unpleasantness of that subject and on to the much more delicious discussion of how taro is cooked; many preparation have already been mentioned and described above.  Taro is remarkably versatile and can be made into the simplest of dishes by boiling, baking, frying or steaming.  It can also be transformed into a number of more sophisticated dishes as far ranging as sourdough taro bread to sweet dessert puddings.  Deep fried taro balls are popular in Formosa, in the Chinese kitchens there, they are lavishly stuffed and sometimes made into dim sum buns.  They can easily be the base for a rich cream soup, and go well into stews in lieu of potatoes.  In some places it is actually traditional to cook them with potatoes, such is the case in several south American countries.  In Hawai'i they not only make poi and tops, lu'au and go into traditional laulau, they are also made into a native dessert called kulolo; it also goes into less traditional dishes, from Hawaiian egg rolls, Island "potato" salads and Hawaiian tacos.  I'm guessing somewhere there are several recipes for pairing in the Spam there too!  On Maui there is even a restaurant called "Cane and Taro."

Japanese Taro

Taro also graces fried rice dishes, frosted sponge cakes, bread pudding, meat loaves, fruit smoothies, bubble tea, curries, miso and other soups, savory cakes and patties, ...even sushi rolls.  In native kitchens in Suriname and Venezuela it goes into the traditional stew sanchoco, in Tahiti it is cooked with sweet potatoes, in the Philippines it is sometimes paired with tapioca and made into a dessert pudding, while over in places as far away as Nauru and Kiribati, the leaves make convenient packages for steaming all sorts of stuff, especially seafood!  Taro can also be made into a pasta, and is used widely be people with food allergies; this same noodle is the traditional fried nest in the Chinese dish vegetarian happy trio (I've had this dish a least twice and it's good!!).  In Hungary it is cooked with eggs, while in South Africa it is mashed and served as the starch that goes with stews.  It is also popular with vegan's paired up seitan.  I could go on but I won't.  Suffice to say that Taro is a true gift from the Pacific to the rest of the world.

Steamed Taro Buns--China

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