This ha’ole girl is in the mood to talk about taro, and I will try and do justice to a most complicated, political food. There are some 2,000 varieties of taro around the world, and in Hawaii, it is a food plant that is wrapped in land struggle, colonialism, creationism and legends. After nearly a decade in these Islands, I still learn something new each day. Perhaps it is because I let myself learn or because I don’t dismiss others way of doing and being as irrelevant- this is a mistake I see many malahini or newcomers make. This is a place to learn about cultures, people and ways of being. One of the most important things I have learned about ancient Hawaiians is the depth to which the entire society considered the ‘aina or the land. In fact, there is no equivalent word in Hawaiian for “nature” as something that is separate from us as humans. There are words that are dichotomies, such as mauka or makai or (mountain/ocean), but from a view that we as humans are fundamentally connected to the Earth, plants, rocks, sky, waters there are no words that indicate a distinct separation.
And in fact, ancient Hawaiians believed if there were a pecking order, humans came after plants and the Earth, specifically after kalo, or taro.
To Hawaiians, growing kalo was not merely an activity
of food production but was strongly bound to their
culture and beliefs about creation. According to one
legend about creation, sexual union between the godbeings
Wakea (male) and Papa (female) first formed
the islands. Their union produced a child named Haloanaka,
who did not survive and was buried. From the
child’s body grew the first kalo plant. The next child,
named Haloa, became the first human to live in the
islands, and from him the Hawaiian people descended.
Thus, some believe that the kalo plant, arising from the
prior-born child, is superior to and more sacred than
man. The younger Haloa would respect and care for the
elder brother and in return would receive sustenance and
When I stop to consider how fundamentally different this viewpoint is from the Western Judeo-Christian creation legends, it no wonder that most of us have become so distant from our food supplies. And it also underpins nearly every single political struggle: Do Humans or Earth matter more? Can we really separate?
Besides being beautiful to look at, the taro plant is also completely edible. The root is a complex carbohydrate that is very nutritious, the stalk is a bit like celery in texture, and the large heart shaped leaf is good steamed, wrapped around almost anything (laulau is a local favorite) and also good in soup. Though you do want to cook this plant- it is not good raw. Even the ancient Hawaiians cooked it in the imu or underground stove before pounding it into poi. See more on that here.
A lo’i or wetland taro patch, is a lesson in process and patience. From my limited experience, it is hard work, as patches like the one above must be freed from weeds that will suck the nutrients out of the water/soil and also the roots balls of the kalo must be repacked so they do not dry out. It is best to do this work barefoot and enjoy the mud spa-like treatment you get for your feet. Study up on where historical lo’i were and you will also uncover the land rights and struggles of Hawaiian people.
In the end, the stuff is ono, or Good to eat! Though I forgot to take photos, I have made the recipe below and it was delicious. You can spice it up with more chili if you like, this is pretty mild.
Taro Leaf and Coconut Soup (vegan)
|2 tbsp. oil||1/4 tsp. ground cloves|
|2 onions, chopped||1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper|
|1 tsp. (3cloves) crushed garlic||1 tbsp. chopped fresh basil or parsley or coriander leaves|
|2 lbs.(4 cups) taro leaves, or spinach||4 cups chicken or vegetable stock or broth|
|salt to taste||1/4 tsp. crushed chili or chili sauce|
|2 cups coconut cream|
Clean and chop the taro leaves (pull the stalk out of the leaf and try to remove the central thick veins, then pinch off the tip of the leaf before chopping ) In a heavy saucepan cook onions and garlic in oil until soft. Add all remaining ingredients except for a cup of coconut cream, and cook for 30 minutes. Puree in batches in a food processor or blender until smooth. Reheat before serving. Add a swirl of the reserved coconut cream to each bowl of soup. (Chopped ham or small cooked shrimp can be added if desired.)
If you are interested in knowing more about kalo, the science or the significance of this plant in Hawaii, please start here, with a University of Hawaii publication that is a nice introduction. And your next trip to the islands you can wow your tour guide with all your amazing taro smarts.
*Photos in this post were taken at the Ka Papa Loʻi O Kānewai at the School of Hawaiian Knowledge, University of Hawaii at Manoa.