Taro, dalo, dasheen, or cocoyam (Colocasia esculenta var. antiquorum)
ARACEAE, Arum Family
Taro is an important food crop to 100 million people living in the tropics. The entire plant is used in cooking. The large (up to 6 feet long) arrow-shaped leaves are a healthy leafy green that is usually eaten in soup, used to wrap other foods, boiled and served as a side dish or baked into caseroles. It’s quite delicious.
But today we are looking a bit lower than the tall erect leaves for our culinary inspiration. In fact we are digging under the soil to feature what is often called the root– taro root. It is the most culinarily important part of the plant, and it is the subject of today’s Coconut Baked Taro with Macadamia Nuts.
But before we get to the recipe I just have to share a little of what I learned about Taro while I have been in the Hawaiian Islands. First off, it is not actually a root but rather it is a corm– an erect, starchy, underground stem, which can grow to be over a foot long. It is often referred to as the potato of the tropics.
The folks that study such things surmise that taro was an ancient crop, and may even be among the first of all cultivated plants. Long ago humans learned to eat the bottom portion of the corm and then replant the leaves and top of the corm, so that they could return in 10 months for a rejuvinated crop. The information I found from UCLA says:
“It was probably first native to the lowland wetlands of Malaysia (taloes). Estimates are that taro was in cultivation in wet tropical India before 5000 B.C., presumably coming from Malaysia, and from India further transported westward to ancient Egypt, where it was described by Greek and Roman historians as an important crop. The ancient Egyptian word for taro was colcus or kulkas; the ancient Arabic word was qolquas; and the Greek word was colocasia, which is now the generic name. Taro also spread eastward into ancient China and Indonesia… The Maoris took taro to New Zealand, presumably aboard massive sea crafts like a Fijian camakau. Students of Pacific islanders have traced the migration of taro with the Polynesians from Indonesia and New Zealand eastward to the Hawaiian Islands (called kalo), where it presumably arrived in 450 AD.”
By the time Captain Cook came to the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, the indigenous population lived chiefly on taro and sweet potatoes, supplemented with things from the sea. As with most things Hawaiian a complex and romantic legend is attached to taro and how it came to these islands. According the local lore taro was the product of a union between mother earth (Papa) and father sky (Wakea) before man inhabited these islands. It is therefore honored as an entity superior to man and treasured as the most important food crop.
So prevelant was its ancient cultivation there that there may have been up to 300 cultivars in Hawaii when Captain Cook arrived. Poi is its most well-known Hawaiin preparation. It is traditionally prepared by peeling the corm and then pounding the flesh on a board with a stone (pohaku ku’I). The thick paste, which is then dried, diluted with water, kneaded, and then aged. Some ancient Polynesians were said to consume up to 20 pounds of poi per day!
If you are going to make anything with taro there is something you should know. Similar to stinging nettles it must be heated before consumption to remove an acrid, irritating property known as calcium oxalate. This substance occurs throughout the plant and can produce an intense itching and burning if eaten or handled with out gloves. It won’t hurt you in any permanent way, but it can be uncomfortable to some people.
In the Hawaiian Islands, taro is eaten only after being well cooked to destroy the toxins; the leaf (luau, also the name of the feast using taro leaves) must be boiled at least 45 minutes over low heat, whereas the corms are boiled in a deep pot with salted water until soft, or blanched and baked in the oven until cooked through as in this recipe.
serves 6 CLICK here for a printable recipe
Adapted from Sam Choy
- 2 lb taro (about 1/2 of a large corm)
- 1⁄2 c unsalted butter
- 1⁄2 c coconut syrup
- salt and pepper as needed
- 1⁄2 c toasted macademia nuts, roughly chopped
- 1⁄2 c toasted unsweetened coconut flakes
Wearing gloves, completely peel the taro. Then halve it lengthwise and cut it into 3/4‑inch cubes. Add the cubes to a large bowl and cover them with cool water and allow them to soak about 30 minutes to remove some of the starch (optional).
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Add the taro to a large pot of salted water, bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer. Parboil the taro until just beginning to soften. About 7 minutes. Drain the taro, returning it to the bowl.
While the taro is still warm drizzle the coconut syrup over it and add salt and pepper to taste and mix it well to get the taro completely coated.
Pour the taro into a buttered baking dish. Dollop the remaining butter all over the top. Cover the dish tightly with foil.
Bake in the preheated oven about 30 minutes.
Remove the foil and transfer the taro and any liquid to a large serving platter or bowl. Top with the chopped toasted macadamia nuts and coconut flakes, add additional salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm.
SERIOUS FUN FOOD