Jan 21, 2012

Taro, The Heart of Ancient Hawaiian Cuisine

Wet-land taro field on the Hawaiian island of Moloka'i.
Taro was the all-important crop of the ancient Hawaiian. The art of gardening in Hawaii was more advanced than elsewhere in Polynesia, and taro culture was probably the most advanced in the world. Taro is the Tahitian name for the plant, the Hawaiian word is kalo; kalo is also called Haloa. Hawaiians identified with taro as an ancestor of the Hawaiian people. Taro did not just feed Hawaiians, but provided a familial connection between the people and the land (‘_ina). Taro symbolized the Hawaiian family unit with its main root, surrounded by offspring shoots, and topped by spreading green leaves. Hawaiians farmed about 300 different varieties of taro, including plants developed for either wet or dry locations. Today, about 80 varieties are known. Taro terraces or lo`i were built to farm wet taro plants, which required a ready source of water. The lo`i was built by first working the soil with tree cuttings, then building up the banks with mud, leaves and fine soil, and sometimes reinforcing the banks with stone. A stream would be diverted to flow through the lo`i to irrigate the plants. Taro served as medicine, as well as food in ancient Hawaii and was at the heart of Hawaiian cuisine. Taro is grown throughout the world, in tropical Africa, the West Indies, the Pacific nations and in countries bordering the Indian Ocean in South Asia.

All parts of taro can be eaten, the leaves, stalks and root, and can be found in almost every grocery store in Hawaii. With its mild but nutty taste, taro root can be cooked in similar ways to a potato, yam or parsnip – fried, baked, roasted, or added to stews and soups. Considerably firmer than a potato, taro takes longer to cook. Another reason to cook the taro root, stalks and leaves longer is that they contain tiny crystals of a substance called calcium oxalate. Chewing raw or half-cooked taro can set free these needle-like crystals and cause an uncomfortable itching in the mouth and throat. Cooking the taro thoroughly will prevent this. When preparing recipes that include grated taro, it is a good idea to cook the root before grating. Besides this warning, taro is considered one of the most nutritious starches in the world. Taro roots also provide a good source of fiber, contain a high amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, vitamins A and C. It is also hyper-allergenic, anti-bacterial, gluten free and low in fat, containing about 110 calories per cup. Taro flour is used in some infant formulas and canned baby foods as it assists with food sensitivities, including lactose intolerance. 

Poi is a starch dish made by pounding boiled taro roots and mixing it with water until it reached a smooth consistency. Poi was a traditional Hawaiian staple that was only eaten in Hawaii. Much more than just a staple food, sharing a bowl of poi ment to put aside personal differences. In traditional Hawaiian society, it was the task of the men to prepare food for meals. It was kapu (forbidden) for women to handle taro. Men and women ate separately and some foods were forbidden to women, including pork, bananas, coconuts, and some types of fish. Today, Hawaiians eat their poi in different ways, some eat it with salt, some with sugar, even soy sauce. Some like it thicker or thinner. Others like it several days old for a little extra tang. Here are a couple of recipes to try:

Poi Nut Bread
1 pound poi
3/4 cup water
2 cups flour
3/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3 eggs, slightly beaten
1 cup canola oil
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 cup nuts
Optional: add 1/2 cup raisins.

Mix poi and water together and let stand in bowl. In another bowl, mix together flour, sugar, cinnamon, baking powder and salt. Combine both mixtures with the remainder of the ingredients and place in greased loaf pans. Bake at 350˚F for 45 minutes. Makes 2 loaves.

Poi Biscuits
1 1/2 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons cold butter, cut into 6 pieces
1/2 cup poi
1 egg
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons butter, melted

Measure dry ingredients into a bowl or the work bowl of a food processor. Add butter and cut into dry ingredients until crumbly and well distributed. In another bowl, whisk together the poi, egg and buttermilk until blended. Add to dry ingredients and mix until a soft dough forms. Turn dough out onto a floured surface and knead a few times. Pour melted butter into an 8x8 inch pan. Cut biscuit dough into 8 pieces and place in pan. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until tops are golden brown. Serve warm. Makes 8 biscuits.

Taro Leaf Soup
2 cups taro leaves
3 tablespoons butter
1 small bunch young spring onions
5 cups coconut milk
2-3 tablespoons flour

Melt and combine butter and flour in a saucepan. Add coconut milk slowly and let the mixture thicken over a low heat. Add diced onions and taro leaves (with stems and veins removed). Add salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for 2-3 minutes and serve. Makes 2 servings.

Taro Chicken
1 chicken
2 medium-sized taro root
2 large yellow onions, chopped
2 cups chopped taro leaves (you can also use pumpkin leaves, or sweet potato leaves)
3 tomatoes
1 cup coconut cream
1 cup water
2 tablespoons lemon juice

Peel taro. Cut into thin slices and place in the bottom of a large saucepan. Cut the chicken into serving portions and place on top of the taro. Add the chopped onions, green leaves and tomatoes. Sprinkle lemon juice. Add the coconut cream and water and cook over a gentle heat for about 1-1 1/2 hours, or until the chicken is cooked. Serve hot. Makes 6 servings.

Taro Rice with Chinese Sausage 
and Long Beans
1 cup rice
1 1/3 cups taro, diced into 1/2" pieces
1 Chinese sausage (Lap Cheong), about 1/4 cup, thinnly sliced
4 dried black mushrooms
1 tablespoon small dried shrimps
2 shallots, finely sliced
1/4 cup water (or reserved from soaked mushrooms)
1 tablespoon canola oil for stir frying
1 spring onion, finely sliced
soy sauce to taste

Marinade for taro:
1/2 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper

Wearing rubber gloves (uncooked taro can cause itchy skin), peel, rinse, and dice the taro into 1/2" squares. Combine marinade ingredients then marinate taro squares for about 15 minutes. Rinse dried mushrooms, soak until soft. Discard tough stems. Squeeze excess water from mushrooms after rehydrated. Dice into similar size of taro. Rinse dried shrimps, soak for 5 minutes or until slightly soft. Drain, dry. In a wok or large fry pan, heat oil over medium heat for stir-frying, sauté shallots and dried shrimp for about 3 minutes, followed by mushrooms, long beans, and taro. Stir and turn constantly for about a minute. Then add about a quarter cup of water, cover. Let simmer for 1 to 2 minutes (prolonged simmering may render the taro too mushy) or until liquid is almost reduced. Rinse rice and cook it in cooker as usual. Toward the last 10 minutes of rice cooking, open lid and quickly spread all stir-fried ingredients flat on top of the rice. Cover again. The sign of the right timing for adding taro is that the rice is slightly bubbling and looks wet with very little amount of water. Continue to cook rice until done. Dish up, garnish with spring onion and add soy sauce to taste. Makes 4 servings.

Poi Mochi
1 bag of poi
2 cups water (more or less as necessary for consistency of thick pancake batter)
2 packages (10 ounces each) Mochiko (Asian sweet rice flour)
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 quart canola oil for deep frying

Combine all ingredients except oil; mix well. Drop by teaspoonfuls into hot oil and deep fry until slightly crisp. Drain on absorbent paper. Makes about 30 to 36 pieces.

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