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Poi, Howdy! Introducing the Taro

January 16, 2002|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

People always seem surprised to find that taro, the root vegetable from which the gluey Hawaiian porridge poi is made, isn't only Polynesian. In ancient times it was cultivated throughout the Old World from China, where it's called yu, to the Mediterranean, where the Greeks and Romans knew it as colocasia. In fact, taro is still a regular part of the diet in much of Asia and the Caribbean, though the potato has muscled in on its territory pretty heavily in the last 500 years.

It just seems hard to imagine why this unimpressive lump--think of a doughy, insipid, sweetish potato with flaky, bark-like skin and roots sticking out of it--could be so popular. Well, for one thing, it's quite at home in the tropics, while the potato isn't, but maybe the main reason is that it just had a head start on other vegetables. Some botanists think taro might have been the first vegetable ever intentionally cultivated, and that rice was originally just a weed that grew in taro patches.

Certainly it doesn't hurt that just about every part of the plant is edible, from the "roots" (technically they're corms or underground stems, like gladiolus bulbs) to the flowers. The leaves are actually more flavorful than the corms, but they have to be boiled twice to get rid of their bitterness. Sometimes cultivators grow taro plants in the dark in order to produce the delicacy of blanched taro leaves, in a sort of parallel to the European white asparagus and Belgian endive.

You might have seen a taro plant without realizing it, because some species of taro are grown as ornamentals. Each of their yard-long stalks bears a big, broad leaf that gives taro its popular or garden-variety name, elephant's ear.

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