Taro. Isn’t that some kind of sweet potato that’s made into expensive chips? Or a purplish goop, called poi, served at Hawaiian luaus that no one really eats?
I admit those were my assumptions until a recent trip to Kauai where I stumbled upon a divine sweet: a moist, spongy taro mochi cake made with coconut milk and rice flour that I bought from a roadside truck in Hanalei.
So enamored was I with this enchanting taro treat, that I signed on for a tour of the nearby family-run taro farm which produced the purple-flecked delicacy.
Following our guide through lush, windswept green fields among waving heart-shaped taro fronds, I learned that Hawaiian taro farmers face a host of challenges, including hurricanes, flash floods, hungry wild boar and an infestation of apple snails. But they persevere because taro has been a revered food in the islands for over a thousand years.
In fact, Hawaiian folklore considers taro to be “the elder brother” of all Hawaiians and since it is disrespectful to fight in front of an elder, when a bowl of poi is uncovered, all argument must stop.
Taro also happens to be one of the world’s earliest cultivated plants. Easily digestible, a good source of fiber, Vitamin C, E, B6, calcium, potassium and iron, it is featured in the cuisines of more than two-dozen countries from Brazil to China. Every part of the plant is cooked and consumed: leaves are stir-fried, steamed or made into soup; stems sautéed, boiled or ground; and the roots (technically termed corms) are steamed, fried, mashed, and appear in everything from appetizers to desserts.
When I said a tearful goodbye to my sweet little Hawaiian taro mochi cake and returned stateside, I set myself a quest -- I love quests -- to unearth (pardon the pun) a range of international dishes made from this worldwide staple. Shouldn’t be too hard in the mini-United Nations we call the East Bay.
First stop: Berkeley’s Green Papaya Thai Vegetarian Cuisine, a pleasant café with a long menu, for their fried taro appetizer, a generous plate of warm sliced taro roll made with tapioca and rice flours and red beans. Deep-fried in a paper-thin sheet of bean curd, its crispy golden skin contrasts nicely with the creamy filling, in a typical lavender-taro-hue.
Taro plays a starring role in many Chinese dishes, including a taro cake traditionally eaten for Chinese New Years. Even McDonald’s has caught on; their restaurants in China sell taro pies.
Two dim sum classics highlight the taro root. Squat squares of pan-fried taro cake are made from rice flour and dried scallops, shrimp, mushrooms and Chinese bacon or sausage. But the more eye-catching morsels are taro dumplings. These pork-filled balls have a wispy, lacy shell that results from deep-frying the thick coating of boiled mashed taro.
I recently sampled some yummy dumplings at Peony in Oakland Chinatown; with their fluffy, crunchy coating, it was like biting into a crispy cloud. (Hint: for the best experience, ask for them to be brought piping hot).
Vietnamese cuisine includes taro in spring rolls, soups, and desserts. Piedmont Avenue’s stylish Xyclo offers appetizers in which taro plays a supporting role; in their Xyclo roll, it’s tucked inside crispy, cigar shaped tubes along with finely chopped chicken, shrimp, carrots, mushrooms and glass noodles.
Besides poi, the sacred mixture of pounded taro root and water, the taro plant is an essential part of another Hawaiian culinary tradition: laulau, which utilizes its leaves. Pork or chicken and salted butterfish are wrapped in taro leaves and then enfolded in inedible ti leaves. The chunky green packages are steamed for several hours, turning the taro leaves to a soft, smoky (and vitamin rich) mush.
Berkeley’s Wiki Wiki Hawaiian BBQ serves up hefty portions of island favorites to the starving-student crowd. My pork laulau actually wasn’t too bad. When I inquired how they prepare it, I was told that frozen pre-made laulaus are shipped from Hawaii. Have with scoop of rice and macaroni salad for the full island experience.
For an easy DIY luau, head to Berkeley’s Tokyo Fish Market. They carry frozen Hawaiian pork or chicken laulau with no added chemicals or preservatives. You steam them at home.
On the sweet side, taro turns up in a myriad of mauve incarnations:
The ubiquitous taro bubble tea drink originated in Taiwan. Taro powder provides a thickener, a nutty taste and the light purple color. I’m partial to the bubble tea at Albany’s Tay Tah Café on Solano Avenue.
A warming Chinese dessert for a cold evening: chunks of cooked taro in a bowl of hot sago (think tapioca) pudding. My go-to unassuming Chinese dessert spot: Oakland’s Yummy Guide.
My teen-age daughter turned me on to my favorite taro treat: Yogurtland’s taro frozen yogurt. One of the regular flavors in their two Berkeley locations, its tartness forms the perfect base for fruit and topping creations.
I am not done trekking the taro trail; there are many ethnic taro specialties yet to taste:
Toranguk, a Korean soup traditionally served at Chuseok, the harvest holiday.
Sinigang, the tamarind-based national stew of the Philippines.
And a range of Indian regional dishes including leaf pancake, stem saag and a spicy taro curry with prawn.
Anyone know a good Maldivian restaurant? I hear natives of the Maldives (stunning islands in the Indian Ocean) eat their cooked taro with grated coconut, chili paste and fish soup.