Eating from the wild can create an unexpected culinary masterpiece or become a recipe for disaster. It is important to have sufficient information. Knowing something to be edible is not enough to prevent you from harm. Knowledge of content and preparation is essential. My daughter-in-law decorated our dinner plates with the wonderful heart shaped leaves of the taro plant commonly called elephant ears placed under some delicious stewed chicken. Whilst scooping up the juices my son popped the leaf in his mouth chewed it up and moments later was gasping for water and on the verge of a trip to the emergency room even though that would have meant thirty miles of rough roads at night. These plants have saponins that instantly inflame the mouth and throat causing chronic itching. He survived the experience and a lesson was learned.
Even though the usual part of the taro used is the rhizome or root, it, too, is toxic with calcium oxalate crystals and must be soaked and cooked. Taro root can actually lead to kidney stones and is best to consume with calcium rich foods as a balance. The coco yam and dasheen are the most common types of taro in Belize and can be found in most wet low lying land. Taro can thrive in flooded areas due to the air spaces in the petiole which act like drinking straws allowing exchange between the water and the outside atmosphere. It flourishes in flooded conditions but not in warm stagnant water which will induce rotting. Taro root is a food staple to ten percent of the world’s population being a great source of vitamins A and C and minerals; yet the leaves actually contain more protein and health benefit. Some cultures embrace the leaves and cultivate exclusively for its foliage. It is also grown as an attractive ornamental plant. To me the epitome of a lush tropical garden is that adorned with hibiscus flowers, bananas, coconuts, lots of taro and gingers, all abundant in delicious produce and the heady scent of ylang ylang.
Taro, Colocasia esculente, originated from South East Asia or South India and was carried by early seafaring travelers to many islands. Natural disasters probably caused the need to find new resources and settle elsewhere to ensure survival. Some travelers, fired by curiosity, were propelled to make remarkable journeys in canoes made from dug out trees sealed with coconut fiber and breadfruit sap, powered by sails and paddles and launched into the powerful Pacific Ocean. The travelers carried with them a cornucopia of plants and animals settling into new territory and becoming farmers rather than hunters and foragers of food. They found fertile land in Hawaii and began lives of domestication with respect for the environment. The earlier practices had made many animals and vegetation extinct and planting and nurturing was to be their best option. Taro was a very important crop and the settlers to Hawaii saw it as a sacred plant entwined in the story of creation. Haloa (taro) is named for the first born son of the couple who begat the human race. The Hawaiians loved and cared for the plant that would ensure their continuance. It became part of rituals conducted by the men folk who ground roots into ceremonial poi. Tradition has it that men cultivated and also prepared their family food. In early days more than 300 varieties were cultivated, some for wet lands and others for dry. Taro terraces were constructed, conditioned by mulched leaves and then flooded making new ground in which to plant.
The practice and reverence given to the taro plant continued on from 300 AD. Then in 2002 there came some trouble in paradise. The University of Hawaii who had been working on improving the crops patented three varieties causing fierce objection by the farmers who were required to pay for this stock. Then later genetic engineering of 3 varieties, inserting genes from stock of wheat, rice and grapevines, was done without permission of the people. Now outraged, the people fought to protect what was seen as their right. This battle continued for years before GMO was halted and patents dropped.
The early seafaring explorers, the Vikings and Polynesians, were responsible for introducing new vegetation wherever they landed. It is hard to truly identify the territorial origin of one plant. South America is credited with the emergence of potatoes and a multiple of root vegetables. Although taro is grown throughout the Americas, the potato became more popular. The use of taro leaves came from ancestral tradition and still today throughout Polynesia the versatile taro leaf is valued as a highly nutritious food. Best examples are from Samoans who make a dish called Palusami. The leaves are made into a rosette then filled with coconut milk and onions, rolled into a ball, wrapped in banana then breadfruit leaves and steamed in an umu creating a smokey, creamy, savory street food. You can do this in a steamer and cook for 50 minutes. Discard banana and breadfruit wrapper and cut into the delicious center.
Other country creations include:
- The West Indies: Callaloo, taro leaves and stems boiled and creamed and served alongside a boil up root soup.
- The Philippines: Laing, taro leaves, coconut cream, red chilies, ginger, shrimp paste, pork and onions simmered for about an hour.
- Vietnam: Canh Chur, soup.
- Tonga: Lupula, corned beef wrapped in taro leaves. Lu is the name of the taro leaf. It is interesting how many islands in that vicinity use canned corned beef; I am thinking that the reason is during the war that is what was available.
- West Africa: Leaf soup.
- Nepal: Maseura, balls of flour and leaves. The people there say, “Our life is as venerable as water stuck in the leaf of the taro.”
- India: Kosu Lati, young leaf buds cooked with tamarind and beans; seafood is added.
- Greece: many islanders credit taro as saving them from famine in World War11.
- Senegal: Jaaber, a side dish of stewed leaves.
- Bangladesh: stems cooked and eaten with prawns or fish, leaves and stems cooked with onions and coconut milk and eaten with meat or fish.
- Pakistan: Pakora, leaves rolled in gram (chick pea flour).
- Tumeric (yellow ginger), a commonly used spice, is used with coconut milk and seafood in many recipes. Here’s an easy recipe: dice onions and cook lightly in olive oil and butter, add chopped leaves and stems and cook for 15 minutes, add tablespoon of tumeric, cover with coconut milk and cook for a further 10 minutes. Enjoy.
I am always on the lookout for tasty survival food and was pleasantly surprised to discover taro leaves which I would rank as a delicacy. My favorite is the Samoan Palusami. You can find preparation demonstrations for this on You Tube which has become a marvelous self-help tool.
So it can be seen that taro is much revered, its use being widespread even though it never made it to our tables. YET!
Good luck and send any information you would like to share to