Tara is a rhizomatous food plant with large peltate leaves attached to long petioles, grown for its starchy edible tuber which can grow to 70 by 60 cm.
Known throughout recorded history, this tuberous vegetable has been a staple food for many peoples. It was first cultivated in tropical America, and spread to Africa in the mid 1800s. They are especially popular in Cuba (malanga) and Puerto Rico (yautia). In Asia, especially China, travellers carried dried or smoked taro with them in their baggage, as did Polynesian sailors.
Taro is often oval but can appear in various shapes. White, pink or mauve, it is covered with a dark skin which hides a pearly-white flesh whose taste is somewhere between a potato and a chestnut. The large “elephant ear” leaves are used to wrap foods before roasting or steaming.
Nutritional values per 100 g
Calories: 95. Rich in protein, carotene, fibre, potassium and phosphorus.
Buying taro: It should be firm and feel heavy. Small round taro is originally from Asia. When it is larger and longer it is called West Indian dasheen.
Storage: Keep in a cool dark place. It will keep more than a week in the refrigerator crisper.
Freeze after first blanching for 5 minutes.
Cooking tips: Taro has more flavor than most other starchy tropical tubers; its taste is earthy, and has been described as more like nuts than potatoes.
Taro must always be eaten cooked. It is toxic when raw. The flesh turns yellow, purply-red or grey while cooking. Wash, brush and peel the tuber. Use gloves or oil your hands since the skin contains an irritant.
Cooking: boil, bake, roast, use in pur?es or as French fries. Any potato recipe can be adapted for use with taro, but always serve it hot since cold changes its texture.
It goes well with rich sauces.
Suggestions: To give it an exotic taste, pur?e taro with coconut milk.
Fried – Pure boiled taro with a very small amount of milk and butter. Add parsley, chives, a beaten egg, salt and pepper. Let cool. Make into small balls. Roll in bread crumbs and fry in oil.
The Chinese love to slice taro into thin strips to imitate swallows’ nests. It is usually served as part of a wedding banquet.
Pakistan – Boil taro in its skin. Drain, peel and squeeze out the flesh. Grate and mix with mint, cumin, an egg and some firm mango. Make into little cakes and fry in oil.
Hawaiian taro and Poi Making
Hawaiian taro is the lehua variety. Traditionaly, the root is cooked and pounded into poi.
Poi is a thick, purple-colored paste made by pounding taro. It can be bought fresh or “day-old,” which allows a sour flavor to develop. Poi is labeled “one-finger,” “two-finger” or “three-finger” to describe its consistency – the thicker the poi, the fewer fingers needed to scoop it up. It is used in many Hawaiian recipes or served as a side dish.
Taro chips – Blanch the taro for a few minutes in salted water. Drain and refrigerate for a few hours. Cut into very thin slices on a mandolin. Fry in oil. Salt.
How to cook taro root or satoimo
When I write about some ingredients or vegetables, I am usually quite confident that most people will like them. Lotus root for example may look exotic to western eyes, but is are quite neutral in taste. Taro root, or satoimo in Japanese, are a different matter though, because it has a texture that divides people sharply into like and dislike: sliminess.
Japanese people in general, unlike most peoples of the western hemisphere, love foods with slimy textures. Whereas in the American South okra is battered and coated and deep-fried to minimize the slime as much as possible, in Japan the sliminess is even enhanced and celebrated in many okra dishes.
Taro root is not as aggressively slimy as okra innards, but it definitely is rather slippery. (It’s the base ingredient in the Hawaiian speciality poi.) In Japan taro root is most often boiled or stewed in liquid, which dissipates the sliminess somewhat. It may however take some getting used to.
On the other hand, taro root is high in fiber, lower in calories by weight than white potatoes, and very filling. It’s a good alternative starch.
Incidentally, the Japanese word for taro root, satoimo means “potato (or starch root) of the homeland (sato)”.
Where to buy taro roots and what they look like
Taro roots are eaten all over East and South Asia, so you can find them at Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and South Asian groceries. (I get mine at an Indian grocery store in Zürich.)
Taro root looks rather hairy and intimidating, sort of like Hell’s Angel versions of potatoes.
How to prepare taro root or satoimo (as they are prepared in Japan)
You will usually need to scrub them fairly well – a stiff vegetable brush does this job the best, or a tawashi if you’re in Japan – because little bits of dirt tend to get trapped in the hairy bits.
Once they are scrubbed, you can peel them as-is with a peeler or knife. However, some people with sensitive skin react to the slime of raw taro root and get itchy. (This also happens with yamaimo and nagaimo.) To avoid this, you can also try this microwave method:
- Wash and dry the taro roots. Put on a plate and cover loosely with plastic wrap.
- Microwave on HIGH for 4-5 minutes if the taro roots are small or about the size of golf balls, longer if they are bigger.
- Peel each root while holding it in a paper towel or kitchen towel, since they’ll be hot. The root inside will firm but cooked through more or less. You can then put them into soups, stews, etc.
The itchy substance goes away once the roots are cooked.
Recipe: Satoimo (taro root) cooked in miso with tofu
This is an extremely simple dish where the taro roots are cooked in a miso sauce, with crumbled tofu. Actually I originally wanted the tofu to stay in neat squares, but it goes crumbled during cooking. It tastes good (if you like taro root’s texture) in any case.
- 5-6 small to medium taro roots, peeled with the microwave method
- 1/2 block firm tofu
- 1 cup dashi stock (traditional or vegan or water
- 2 Tbs. white miso
- 1 Tbs. soy sauce
- 1 Tbs. maple syrup or 1/2 Tbs. sugar
Cut the taro root into bite-size pieces if necessary – for small ones just cut in half. Put into a pan with the dashi stock, sugar or maple syrup. Crumble in the tofu.
Bring to a boil and cook down until the liquid is almost gone. Add the soy sauce. Thin out the miso with a little water or dashi until liquid rather than a paste, and add to the pan. Let simmer for a few minutes. Serve hot or cold.
Garnish with something green to perk up the beige.
Other ways to enjoy taro root
You can add taro root to stews, soups, and so on. You can also try making taro root chips. They are very nice in a Japanese style curry, instead of white potatoes.
Other slimy foods that Japanese people love
- Nameko – slimy small mushrooms
- Okra – even raw! Usually boiled or deep-fried though.
- Nagaimo and yamaimo – root vegetables that are slimy when raw. Often eaten grated and raw, with a raw egg for more slimy goodness.
- Mekabu, a type of seaweed
- Moroheiya, a tropical green vegetable, touted in recent years for its health benefits.