Taro has been cultivated for more than 2,000 years by Asians, Africans and Polynesians, and a few hundred varieties have developed over time. It is, of course, Hawaii’s "soul food," the starchy corm pounded to make poi, the food that sustained early Polynesians who came to the islands.
Taro is still an important part of our culinary scene. A luau could not happen without poi, kalua pig and lomi salmon, eaten in combination. Laulau don’t exist without luau (taro leaves). Taro chips, poi bread and biscuits, chicken or squid luau, kulolo and even nishime depend on taro. In fact, taro can be substituted for potatoes: mashed with butter and milk, fried crisp as chips, steamed and eaten with butter, braised with coconut milk, made into hash with corned beef or kalua pig, puréed in soups, diced in salads. Perhaps it’s time to buy a corm or two and experiment with this ancient yet contemporary food that is nutritious and tasty.
Do remember that taro must be cooked thoroughly (even the leaves) to break down the needlelike calcium oxalate crystals that can cause stinging to the throat and mouth. Poi taro tends to be starchier than dry-land taro, but both can be cooked as you would a potato: Steam, boil or bake it until it is soft when pierced.
Here’s a simple way to prepare taro: Peel taro and cut into bite-size chunks. Place in a saucepan and cover with coconut milk. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until taro is tender. Add salt to taste.
Hawaii food writer Joan Namkoong offers a weekly tidbit on fresh seasonal products, many of them locally grown. Look for "Fresh Tips" every Wednesday in the Star-Advertiser.