Root Vegetable

Everything You Need to Know About Taro

February 28, 2015

Every week we get Down & Dirty, in which we break down our favorite unique seasonal fruits, vegetables, and more.

Today: Get to know a tropical tuber you might have been missing out on.

Taro

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If you thought Jerusalem artichokes were confusingly named, it turns out tropical tubers might be even more perplexing. In Roots, Diane Morgan explains that “taro” is the common name for four different root crops: 1) malanga or American taro (Xanthosoma sagittifolium); 2) giant swamp taro (Cyrtosperma chamissonis); 3) false taro or giant taro (Alocasia macrorrhiza); and 4) true taro (Colocasia esculenta). 

True taro is what we are talking about today, but even once we’ve established that, the nomenclature can still be bewildering. Taro goes by a number of different names (satoimo, elephant’s ear, cocoyam, etc.), which is not all that surprising considering that, like all things, taro has its own name in every different place that it’s grown and that taro is grown in more than 40 countries. It's actually one of the world’s oldest cultivated plants, as Morgan elaborates: “References suggest that it has been domesticated for over five thousand years in tropical Southeast Asia, cultivated even before rice or millet.”

Taro is sometimes referred to as "taro root," too, but while we're getting technical, the part of the plant we eat that is grown underground (the leaves and leaf-stems are edible, too) is not the roots, but rather the corms and cormels.

Taro

There are more than 100 varieties of true taro, but in the continental U.S., you’re most likely to only come across two of them:

Dasheen (C. esculenta var. esculenta) is the variety shown throughout this post. It’s large -- shown here next to a clove of garlic (2, pictured above) -- so large that you’ll sometimes find it sold cut in smaller sections. Once cooked, its flesh is drier and more crumbly than that of eddoe. 

Eddoe (C. esculenta var. antiquorum) is smaller, ranging in size from that of a fingerling potato to that of a large lemon. They are a little blander and more moist (sorry) than the larger dasheen. 

Both types have visible rings (1, above) running down the length of the corm, and although ours is fairly smooth, both dasheen and eddoe can have a shaggy exterior. Neither type is likely to be labeled by name, but you can easily distinguish between the two visually. Recipes will often specify which type you're looking for, but if not (or if you can't find one or the other), they are similar enough in taste that most of the time you can use them interchangeably.

Taro

Where to buy & how to store
You can find taro at well-stocked grocery stores or Indian, East Asian, or Latin American markets. Choose firm specimens free from soft spots, mold, and cracks, and store them in a cool, dark spot for a few days. For most of us, a brown paper bag kept at room temperature will suffice, but a root cellar would be better if you have one.

How to prep & notes of caution
Scrub them well, put on a pair of gloves, and then remove the skin (4, above) with a paring knife or a vegetable peeler. Gloves are called for due to the presence of oxalic acid crystals, which can irritate sensitive skin. If you don’t have disposable gloves, coat your hands with cooking oil before peeling -- and remember not to touch your eyes! Once the corms are peeled, cut or slice them (3, above) as needed for your intended use, and either use immediately or place in a bowl of cold water to prevent discoloration. Smaller eddoe are often cooked with the skin on and then peeled, which eliminates the need for gloves.

Please be advised: If those oxalic acid compounds can irritate the skin on your hands, imagine what they can do to your throat: Don’t eat taro raw, it needs to be cooked first. (That goes for the leaves and leaf-stems too.)

More: For a raw treat that's pleasant, not painful, try these Snack Balls with Apricots, Dates, and Cashews.

Taro

Taro flesh color can vary from creamy white or speckled (3, far above) to pale pink and purple. Whatever color you start with, though, know that depending on the preparation, you’ll likely end up with a less appetizing shade of grayish-purple sludge once it's cooked.

When you think of taro, you’ll likely first think of poi -- the dish is popular in Hawaii and the Philippines, but it's very polarizing. In Vegetable Love, Barbara Kafka writes: "With the best will in the world, I cannot honestly give a recipe for poi, since I hate it." Poi opinions aside, taro is just as versatile as a potato and perhaps even more so. Once cooked, its sweet, nutty flavor is welcome in a wide variety of dishes, both sugary and savory. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Shred taro and make fritters or crispy taro pancakes
  • Deep-fry taro to make chips or fries.
  • Taro can be mashed or puréed, but heed Elizabeth Schneider's warning: "Do not plan to simply boil and purée or mash it as you would potatoes: Taro is gluey without additional baking or frying to dry, aerate, or crisp the mixture." 
  • Cut taro into chunks and cook it in stews and soups. In Roots, Diane Morgan shares a recipe for Soba Noodles in Mushroom Broth with Taro and Kabocha Squash.
  • Taro can be turned into a paste that is then used in baked goods like pastries and breads.
  • It can even be used in desserts, like ice cream, cheesecake, and pie -- try that with a regular potato!

Tell us: How do you like to eat taro?

Photos by Mark Weinberg

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14 Comments

marigael October 3, 2017
I bake mine like a baked potato. I like the crispy skin so scrub all of the hairy stuff off and stick it in the oven until soft when I squeeze it. Absolutely delicious with a bit of butter and a sprinkle of salt. I eat skin and all. It is remarkably sweet but then so are potatoes when one is not used to eating potatoes. The flesh is a grayish color which does not bother me. It is not fluffy like a baked potato, rather it does lean towards that glue like texture so I tend not to mash it. Rather, I break it up with the side of my fork add the butter to the crevices and then pop one of those chunks into my mouth and it is a joy to eat.
 
Gil P. November 5, 2016
I use the Taro root to make what we call in Puerto Rico "Pasteles" and to prepare it so it does not turn into goo we squeeze as much of the starch of it after grinding it. We achieve this with use of cheese cloth. Then we apply the desired condiment and mix it with some either chicken or beef broth and in order to add color we add some oil which has been prepared with "Achiote". We then spread a large spoon amount onto a plantain leave and add in the center prepared meats, a chick pea, an olive, and a small strip of red pimento. Then it is rapped and tied. To kook it we boil it in water for for ~ 40 minutes. And it becomes a whole meal. Check in youtube content of "how to make taro (yuca) pasteles. and give it a try. BTW, the starch you remove from it can be use to starch your blue jeans or other applications.<br />
 
LE B. January 28, 2016
My gateway to taro was through DimSum here in Boston. Deepfried taro 'footballs' with pork filling; and shredded taro coating on shrimp cakes. yummola! As a 52er, I've entered a few Taro recipes- some refreshing summer Smoothies and Taro, Shrimp and Bacon Fritters . I love the slightly sweet but nutty very unusual/unique flavor of taro. I have learned that I like the large variety with purple flecks in the flesh, and not the small ones.
 
Gary Y. March 1, 2015
Poi of course, like the Hawaiians eat it.
 
[email protected] March 1, 2015
Does taro have to be boiled before fried/baked?
 
Author Comment
Lindsay-Jean H. March 2, 2015
Nope, it doesn't.
 
KellyinToronto March 1, 2015
I ove taro!! My mom makes a great stew with taro, coconut milk and spareribs with ginger and green onions. it's really good if you throw some Lap Chung in there too1
 
Betty March 1, 2015
Love taro!!
 
Amanda C. March 1, 2015
My grandma makes baked taro fritters with diced up Chinese sausage and scallions. My dad puts taro cubes in chicken curry. I enjoy eating this clear and sweet hot soup with taro, butternut squash, and hazelnuts.
 
Rachel C. March 1, 2015
A few years ago at a restaurant called Monkeypod in Maui, Hawaii, I had taro root hummus that was SO good! We told them they should start selling it at Trader Joe's and start a national obsession.
 
Author Comment
Lindsay-Jean H. March 2, 2015
I think it has a much better shot at national obsession status than peanut butter hummus does!
 
HalfPint February 28, 2015
Shaved ice with condensed milk, chunks of cooked taro, adzuki beans and cream is the most incredible dessert.
 
Author Comment
Lindsay-Jean H. March 2, 2015
That does sounds incredible!
 
Joy H. February 28, 2015
Thanks for linking to my blog! Another way I enjoy taro is in taro bubble tea and swirled into Hokkaido milk bread! http://the-cooking-of-joy.blogspot.com/2014/09/hokkaido-milk-bread-three-ways.html