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What Is Taro?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 23 July 2014
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Taro, or Colocasia esculenta, is a starchy edible tuber cultivated in many tropical nations. Because of its similarity to the potato, it is sometimes called the “potato of the tropics.” It is also known as kalo in Hawaiian, and as dasheen in some other parts of the world. For many indigenous peoples, taro played a crucial nutritional role in their historical diets, serving as a major staple food. These people brought varieties of it with them as they adventured, distributing the root throughout the world.

Both the leaves and root of the taro plant are edible, but they are toxic when raw. Initially, the primary concern with the raw plants was calcium oxalate, a crystalline chemical that can irritate the mucus membranes. However, it is now believed that the calcium oxalate merely acts as a carrier for other toxins, which enter the body through the damage to the mucus membranes caused by the irritant. Some people are more allergic to taro than others, and it should always be thoroughly cooked to prevent a reaction.

There are two basic types of taro. One variety is designed to be grown in partially flooded lowland fields. It can also be grown in drier highlands, as long as they are well irrigated. The other variety, highland taro, can only be grown in drier ground, and it has purple tinged flesh. In both cases, the coarse outer skin of the tuber is removed before cooking.

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Nutritionally, taro is a good source of vitamins B6 and C, along with dietary fiber, thiamin, copper, potassium, niacin, zinc, and iron. It can be boiled, stewed, baked, or fried, and is prepared in a number of different ways, depending on the regional cuisine. Often, the tuber is turned into a mash or paste and used in other dishes. In Hawaii, this paste is fermented to make poi.

Depending on the variety and the preparation, taro can seem rather bland. However, there is a underlying nutty flavor which is brought out by skillful or long cooking. Taro is often dressed up with condiments and other ingredients to make it more interesting, and still makes up a vital dietary component for many Polynesians and Africans. When selecting roots to eat, shoppers should look for roots that are firm to the touch, and store them under refrigeration for up to a week. Since the irritants in taro sometimes cause skin rashes, cooks may want to wear gloves while they peel the root and prepare it for cooking.

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Comparables
Post 3

Are there any other dishes you can cook with taro besides poi? Maybe what I had was not made right, but poi was one of the worst taro dishes I have had. The only reason I am asking for another recipe is because of the health benefits of the plant. From what I understand, taro is rich in nutrients and minerals that are great for your health.

parmnparsley
Post 2

@Georgesplane- Poi is really easy to make. It is very similar to making mashed potatoes. To make the poi, you will need some good Hawaiian taro. Dasheen is Japanese taro and is not good for making poi. Dasheen will be bland and tasteless.

Peel and cube the taro in a stockpot until it can be fork pierced. Once drained, place the taro in a food processor (or you can hand pound it with a mortar and pestle if you want to do it the traditional way). Add just enough water to the taro to create the consistency that you are looking for. One-finger poi is thick while three-finger poi is thin.

Once you have made your poi, let it sit on the counter covered in a little sprinkle of water and a clean damp towel for three days. This will turn poi slightly sour, giving it its distinct Hawaiian taste. Enjoy!

Georgesplane
Post 1

How do you turn Hawaiian taro into Poi? I went to the islands a few years ago and tried this peculiar dish. It was a little weird, but it kind of grew on me by the end of my trip. I would like to learn how to make it myself. If anything, I think Poi would be an interesting conversation piece at the next dinner party.

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