Taro is perhaps the most culturally significant Hawaiian food on the Islands. Integral to the Native Hawaiian story of origin, Taro has been incorporated into sacred ceremonies and rituals for hundreds of years. Even today, Native Hawaiians must refrain from fighting at events where Taro is served. Many know Taro as a distinctly Hawaiian food, but it is also a food staple in Africa, India, and Oceanic regions.
Deemed the “potato of the tropics,” Taro is most commonly harvested for its roots, which can be prepared in a variety of ways. The plant itself can grow to be six feet tall and is characterized by massive, heart-shaped leaves. We recently planted several Taro plants at Gingerhill and are very excited to watch them grow! Taro typically takes 9-12 months to reach full maturity. In excitement for what is to come, we are writing this week about this sacred Hawaiian plant.
The Legend of Taro
Native Hawaiians consider Taro the “older brother” of the Hawaiian people. Legend has it that the Hawaiian deities Papa, or earth mother, and Wakea, the sky father, gave birth to the beautiful Ho’ohokukalani. Wakea and Ho’ohokukalani then bore a child named Haloa-naka, the Hawaiian name for “long quivering breath.” Unfortunately, Haloa-naka was stillborn, and the gods buried him near the house of Ho’ohokukalani. From the place where the stillborn baby was buried grew kalo, the Native Hawaiian name for taro. It was from Ho’ohokukalani’s next child, Haloa, that the Hawaiian race descended. Thus, Native Hawaiians believe that they are literally related to Taro, as they trace their lineage back to its human sibling. Indeed, the Hawaiian word for family, ‘ohana, derive from ‘oha, the name for the sucker of the kalo corm.
Origins and Cultural Significance
Though Taro requires more maintenance than other Hawaiian crops, its spiritual significance resulted in widespread propagation. Traditionally, men propagated and prepared Taro, as women and children were not allowed to cook Hawaiian food. However, all members of the family performed agricultural duties and would contribute to the cultivation process in some way. Families would eat this plant in its various forms almost every single day. Even today, Taro makes its way into lots of local Hawaiian food.
Because Taro was culturally venerable and nutritionally rich, Native Hawaiians considered it a staple Hawaiian food for hundreds of years. However, its true origins lie in Southeast Asia, where Indians began propagating the plant thousands of years ago. Since then, Taro has traversed the world over, reaching Egypt by 500 BC and China by 100 BC, and continuing on to other parts of Africa, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and the Americas. The first Hawaiian settlers, voyagers of Polynesian origin, brought Taro from their Native Islands and began cultivation between 500 and 700 AD.
Today, farmers all over the world collectively cultivate 11.3 million tons of Taro annually, with Nigeria ranking as the world’s lead producer. Hawaii itself consumes 6.5 million pounds of Taro per year, but it only produces about 4.5 million pounds. Propagation has fallen drastically in the last two centuries. Hawaiians attribute the drop to the influx of other staple foods, like wheat and rice, from the West. Occupying 350 acres of Hawaiian land today, the acreage allotted to Taro cultivation has fallen to a shocking 1% of its prior 35,000 acres. As a result, Hawaii must actually import 2 millions pounds of Taro from Fiji per year.
Worse still, modern farmers typically employ mono-cropping methods of Taro cultivation. Abandoning the traditional crop rotation, companion plantings, fallowing, and composting of their Hawaiian Natives, modern farmers have begun growing Taro of ever-lower quality. Although there are over 300 varieties of Taro, 90% of Taro grown today is Maui lehua.
The decline in high-quality Taro cultivation has incited a wave of 21stcentury Native Hawaiian activism. In 2007, activists compelled the Senate to create a Taro Security and Purity Research Program. In 2008, the Hawaii State Legislate created the Taro Security and Purity Task Force via Act 211, uniting Taro farmers, UH representatives, and local agencies in their efforts to cultivate healthy Taro. That same year, the legislature outlawed the cultivation of genetically modified Taro.
Uses and Benefits
Taro is incredibly versatile in the way of cooking. Anyone familiar with traditional Hawaiian food knows that Taro is one of its primary ingredients. The roots, or “corms,” of the taro plant, are great for making healthy chips or baking flour. Natives used the leaves to wrap lau lau, a traditional Hawaiian dish made with Kalua pork. The most common way that Native Hawaiians prepared Taro was to steam, mash, and ferment it to make a versatile, carbohydrate rich paste called poi. Native Hawaiians frequently served poi at ceremonies and celebrations.
Taro is also incredibly nutritious. It is an excellent source of essential trace minerals like manganese, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, copper, and phosphorus. It also contains anti-oxidants, compounds that cleanse cells and fight free radical damage to prevent cancer and other diseases. It’s high levels of Vitamin C support immune function. Vitamins A and E improve the health and elasticity of the skin. Fiber in taro controls insulin and glucose spikes, stabilizing blood sugar for sustained energy. Taro also yields several cardiovascular benefits, including reduced arterial stress and blood pressure.
Arguably one of the most digestible foods in the world, Taro is easy on the digestive tract and nourishing to the body. Some also apply it topically to treat swelling of bites and infected wounds. However, Taro also contains high levels of calcium oxalate. You must therefore steam it before consumption to eradicate its toxic elements.
Taro, scientifically known as olocasia esculenta, is a perennial member of the Araceae family. There are over 300 varieties of Taro, each with slightly different properties and ideal growing conditions. Taro is therefore quite adaptable to Hawaii’s numerous microclimates. While Taro generally grows in wet, tropical climates, some varieties achieve optimal growth in or around bodies of water, whereas other “dry land” varieties thrive in mulched areas with frequent rain. Chinese taro, for example, is a popular dry land variety of Taro.
At Gingerhill, we grow Taro in our wet, fertile soils. However, most Native Hawaiians utilized lo’i, pond fields created through terracing and irrigation, to grow Taro. In order to create a lo’i, Native Hawaiians would first clear an area, create a terrace, and leave organic materials like kukui branches, weeds, and grass to decompose, creating natural mulch. (Apparently the Native Hawaiians were employing permaculture principles long before modern sustainable farmers.) They used the earth’s natural contouring to determine the boundaries of the lo’i and then strategically diverted water into it. To ensure proper irrigation and growth, Natives positioned lo’i between mauka and makai so water would flow. Those growing Taro in drier areas would use fern, ti, ginger, and banana leaves, as well as old, fallen taro leaves, to create a natural bed of water-retaining mulch.