If you've ever visited a bubble milk tea shop, there's a good chance that you've sampled taro (Colocasia esculenta), a popular flavor among boba fans.
But this sweet root vegetable has a long history outside the world of trendy beverages. Most people know it by its Polynesian name "taro," but depending on the region you live in, you might also refer to it as "dasheen," cocoyam," "eddo" or "kalo."
"Taro is a nutrient-dense starchy vegetable that is versatile in the kitchen," says Cordialis Msora-Kasago, media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and founder of The African Pot Nutrition, in an email interview.
The taro plant has large bushy leaves, but when most people refer to taro, they're talking about the starchy root tuber of the plant. Taro typically appears rough, hairy and brown on the outside, but retains a pale or lavender color on the inside. It often takes on a vibrant violet or blue hue when cooked, making for some visually stunning meals.
Taro has a mildly sweet, even nutty taste when cooked. But it's dangerous to consume raw taro. Raw taro contains a compound known as calcium oxalate, which can cause throat swelling and even kidney stones.
The History of Taro
The plant likely originated in Southeast Asia or India, and was cultivated all over the world from there.
Taro first headed east to China, then Polynesian sailors brought the plant west to ancient Egypt, the Pacific Islands and ancient Greece before the slave trade eventually brought the root vegetable to the Caribbean. Some reports indicate that taro may have been eaten as far back as 5000 B.C.E., and many people consider taro to be the oldest cultivated crop in the world.
Once upon a time, taro was a staple food in Hawaii, though the locals referred to it as kalo. Polynesian migrants to the islands of Hawaii planted taro alongside streams and in marshy areas, and the plant became central to Polynesian culture.
"Across the world, taro is enjoyed in a wide variety of ways," says Msora-Kasago. In the 21st century, taro is a staple food in many parts of Asia and Polynesia, but it's also commonly consumed in Nigeria and other countries in Africa in stews, puddings and breads.
Although taro is no longer a staple food on the islands, Hawaii is still the supreme producer of taro in the U.S. due to its ideal growing conditions, producing everything from taro chips to rice on taro rice farms.
Taro or Potatoes?
"When peeled and cooked, [taro] can sometimes be confused for potatoes," says Msora-Kasago. But taro is a completely different kind of edible tuber than the potato, which has its origins in a less tropical climate.
Taro also bears a strong resemblance to the purple root vegetable ube (also known as purple yam) that's popular in the Philippines, though ube is typically sweeter than taro. Another root vegetable similar to taro is malanga (yautia), which is native to low-lying areas of South America.
Health Benefits of Taro
The word is spreading and more people are catching on to the many health benefits of taro. For one thing, it's an excellent source of potassium and fiber. Fiber plays a role in weight management, blood sugar regulation and the prevention of heart disease, according to Msora-Kasago.
"It is also rich in polyphenols such as quercetin, which studies suggest may reduce inflammation and play a role in destroying cancer cells, regulating blood sugar and preventing heart disease," she adds. "While it contains almost the same amount of blood pressure controlling potassium as potatoes, one cup of cooked taro has double the amount of fiber than the same serving size of potatoes."
Yet, taro isn't just the trendy health root of the moment, but a true superfood among the root vegetables, containing many essential minerals.
"In addition, taro is an excellent source of manganese, vitamin B6, vitamin E and copper," says Msora-Kasago
How to Cook Taro
Typically, most cooks either bake or boil taro by chopping the root into chunky pieces or cooking it whole. In either case, you'll want to peel and remove the hairy exterior before eating.
Many countries and regions have their own special way of preparing taro, which has roots in long-standing cultural practices. For example, although taro is no longer a staple food on the islands, modern Hawaiians still prepare the ancient, sacred pudding dish of poi, which consists of mashed, fermented taro that has been pounded to a paste.
"In many parts of Africa, [taro] is roasted, fried, boiled or boiled and pounded to form a thick paste which is served hot alongside a stew or light soup," says Msora-Kasago.