Taro, or Colocasia esculenta, is a starchy edible tuber cultivated in many tropical nations. Because of its similarity to the potato, it is sometimes called the “potato of the tropics.” It is also known as kalo in Hawaiian, and as dasheen in some other parts of the world. For many indigenous peoples, taro played a crucial nutritional role in their historical diets, serving as a major staple food. These people brought varieties of it with them as they adventured, distributing the root throughout the world.
Both the leaves and root of the taro plant are edible, but they are toxic when raw. Initially, the primary concern with the raw plants was calcium oxalate, a crystalline chemical that can irritate the mucus membranes. However, it is now believed that the calcium oxalate merely acts as a carrier for other toxins, which enter the body through the damage to the mucus membranes caused by the irritant. Some people are more allergic to taro than others, and it should always be thoroughly cooked to prevent a reaction.
There are two basic types of taro. One variety is designed to be grown in partially flooded lowland fields. It can also be grown in drier highlands, as long as they are well irrigated. The other variety, highland taro, can only be grown in drier ground, and it has purple tinged flesh. In both cases, the coarse outer skin of the tuber is removed before cooking.
Nutritionally, taro is a good source of vitamins B6 and C, along with dietary fiber, thiamin, copper, potassium, niacin, zinc, and iron. It can be boiled, stewed, baked, or fried, and is prepared in a number of different ways, depending on the regional cuisine. Often, the tuber is turned into a mash or paste and used in other dishes. In Hawaii, this paste is fermented to make poi.
Depending on the variety and the preparation, taro can seem rather bland. However, there is a underlying nutty flavor which is brought out by skillful or long cooking. Taro is often dressed up with condiments and other ingredients to make it more interesting, and still makes up a vital dietary component for many Polynesians and Africans. When selecting roots to eat, shoppers should look for roots that are firm to the touch, and store them under refrigeration for up to a week. Since the irritants in taro sometimes cause skin rashes, cooks may want to wear gloves while they peel the root and prepare it for cooking.