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Molokai Health Talk Taro: Hawaiian Soul Food

Taro: Hawaiian Soul Food

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Taro, the Hawaiian soul food, is grown throughout Hawai`i in two ways--on dry land or in shallow, watery terraces and patches called lo`i that Stilts and other native Hawaiian birds frequent.

Taro begins life as a corm, or underground stem. The parent corm produces glossy green heart-shaped leaves and anywhere from two to 15 suckers, or shoots called oha.

The oha is one method by which taro propagates or reproduces. The Hawaiian word for family isohana, which means many shoots. Taro is deeply entwined with family and just as intimately linked with Hawaiian language, mythology, land, society and even table manners.


Hawaiians call it kalo is the number one staple of the Hawaiian diet and loaded with nutrients. Don't miss out on a buying a bag of crunchy deep fried taro chips at the local market. Try it in biscuits, bread, muffins or pancakes. Cook the leaves and eat them like spinach. Get taro baked, boiled, steamed or mashed into paste-like poi;but you might have to wait in line for the latter, because local people know when bags of fresh purple poi arrive in the store and everyone has a favorite brand. For some, poi is an acquired taste; for others, i's a way of life, with many known and proven health benefits.

Taro lovers harvest and peel the corms the underground tuber ;then cook them and eat them like potatoes. They mash the well cooked corm with water to make poi. Taro is an excellent source of carbohydrates, and because it is an alkali-producing food, it helps to balance the pH factor in the body. Taro leaves, called lu`au—they give the Hawaiian feast its name--taste similar to spinach and are rich in calcium, iron, phosphorus, thiamine, riboflavin and vitamins A, B and C.

In the last decade, a study engaging native Hawaiians on a heritage diet featured taro as a key menu item. Participants experienced significant weight loss and improved health, with much of the credit for the results going to taro.

Easily digestible, taro is the perfect food for babies and the elderly. A manufacturer of powdered taro ships it internationally to hospitals seeking supplements for babies with food allergies.

One of about 30 or so species of plants that ancient Polynesians brought with them to these islands in their voyaging canoes, the precious taro is deeply entwined in the culture. An ancient Hawaiian chant, the Kumulipo, details the creation of the universe. It tells of Wakea, the sky god, forming a union with his daughter. Together, they had two sons. The first son, Haloa-naka it means long, trembling stem--was born malformed, apparently lifeless. Buried outside the home, Haloa-naka grew to become the taro plant. The second born son was perfectly formed. Wakea named him Haloa, which means long stem. Haloa became the first man and the ancestor of all Hawaiian people.
To this day, Hawaiians love, respect and malama, or care for, the taro plant, revering it as an elder brother. Hawaiian people malama the taro plant, and in return, the taro will malama us back by providing food.

Protocol is extremely important in Hawaiian society. In ancient times--and in some families today--when dining together around a poi bowl, family members take turns dipping one or two fingers into the poi bowl to scoop up poi, sustaining themselves through their older brother. Hawaiian culture teaches respect for the kupuna, or family elders, and because Haloa-naka is present in the open poi bowl, traditionally there is no displaying of anger or quarreling during mealtime. A cover for the poi bowl stands nearby in the event there might be an unintentional breach of protocol.

To experience and appreciate taro in its many forms, and honor the `ohana of taro farmers and other people who malama `aina, or take care of the land, check out taro festivals held at various times throughout the islands. Just remember, no fighting over the open poi bowl!!

To learn more about food and culture and other things unique to Hawaii, click on Hawaii Health Guide's "Hawaiian Experience " Heading and and explore the categories and listings found there, contact the following organizations and visit the following locations:

Big Island
Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden
65 varieties of dryland taro
Captain Cook, Big Island
808 323-3318

Hui Kalo Moku O Keawe (contact for many small gardens)
Hilo, Big Island (808) 965-8394

Waipi`o Valley
Arrange tours with private companies

CTAHR Kauai Agricultural Research Center
Kapa`a, Kauai (808) 822-4984

Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge Complex Overloo
Beyond Princeville on way to Hanalei
Overlooks acres of taro

Limahuli Garden

Walk through acres of historic taro terraces
808 826-1053

Poi-making on Thursday mornings
808 639-1815

Ke`anae Arboretum
Halfway to Hana
.8 mile past mile marker 16

Ke`anae Tropical Garden
Ke`anae, Maui (808) 248-7605

Ke`anae Village
Historic site with taro

Ke`anae Peninsula Overlook
Mile marker 17
Overlooks acres of taro

Kahanu Garden, Hana

Dryland taro
(808) 248-8912

CTAHR Maui Agricultural Research Center
Kula, Maui (808) 878-1213

Beatrice H. Krauss Hawaiian Ethnobotanical Garden
Lyon Arboretum
Honolulu, Manoa Valley
808 988-0456

Kanewai Cultural Garden
University of Hawaii, Manoa
Honolulu, Manoa Valley
(808) 956-6825

Take a virtual tour of taro terraces
Located on O`ahu in the ahupua`a of Kahana


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