Taro is more than just a bubble tea flavor. The satisfying and affordable carb has sustained human populations for thousands of years. Clarissa Wei dives into its origins.
The first time I peeled a freshly picked taro, my entire arm immediately broke out in a rash.
The starchy sweet tuber, with a taste akin to yams, contains quite a bit of calcium oxalate, a nasty skin irritant for some people but a defense mechanism for many plants in the same family as taro.
The trick is to treat it as a hazardous bio-product—wear gloves while peeling it and never serve it raw. Cook it with just the right amount of heat, and you get a cornucopia of tasty dishes.
Its potato-like texture makes it an ideal and cheap carb. In Cantonese cuisine, you’ll find taro sliced in beef soup, steamed with pork ribs, and deep-fried in a starchy cake with dried shrimp.
(Read more: 8 quintessential dim sum desserts, illustrated)
As a dessert, you might find it mixed together with potato starch and served in a brown sugar soup. When grounded into a powder, taro turns a pastel purple hue, making it the perfect coloring agent for assorted cakes and milk tea drinks.
It’s one of the world’s oldest food crops
Domesticated in Southeast Asia, taro is considered one of the world’s oldest food crops, with a history of over 9,000 years. Today, it remains a subsistence crop for many people around the world.
In Hawaii, young tubers are baked with coconut milk and chicken. In Korea, it’s served with beef brisket soup. In Brazil, the cooked corm is used as an alternative to potatoes. In Nepal, it’s dried and mixed with dried fish and turmeric.
Part of the reason for the plant’s prolific nature is its versatility. It can be grown in marginal soil and a variety of different climate conditions—in swamps, on terraces, and dry land.
It’s one of few crops in the world that can be grown in flooded conditions.
It’s beloved in water-heavy regions, and is a favorite for small farms because it provides a hefty source of starch with very little maintenance.
Taro also thrives in shady conditions, and it’s remarkably hearty. It’s one of few crops in the world that can be grown in flooded conditions, and is both a perennial and a rhizome, which means that it can live for more than two years, and that its underground roots can multiply by itself.
By weight, it carries more calories than potatoes.
These factors make it a darling of sustainable agriculture, not only for its ease of growth, but for its nutrition factor. By weight, it carries more calories than potatoes, and is also a reliable source of fiber and potassium.
How to spot taro in the wild
The taro plant is distinguished by its heart-shaped leaves, and in the wild, there are many lookalikes.
It’s closely related to many common houseplants in the Araceae plant family, like the gorgeous Swiss cheese plant, with its perforated holes and large forest-green leaves, and the common elephant ear, which is nearly everywhere in more humid parts of the world.
In southern China, where I’m based, glossy heart-shaped leaves poking out of the ground are a relatively common sight. Wild taro tends to grow on the edges of old villages, a remnant of the agriculture of bygone days.
So how does one tell wild taro apart from any other Araceae? It’s easy. Look closely at the singular, heart-shaped leaf, and you’ll find a purple dot straight in the center.