Taro, Gift of the Ancient Gods

by Veronica S. Schweitzer

Wakea, Father Heaven, could no longer resist his desire for his youngest daughter. Careful to not arouse the jealousy of his wife, Mother Earth, he arranged nights of kapu, in which men and women should sleep apart from each other. Those were the beginnings of the many kapus between men and women.

The first child from his union with the Daughter of Earth was born prematurely, and shaped as a bulb. Wakea named this fruit of his loins Haloa, and buried the strange body at the eastern corner of his house. Their second-born was a healthy boy, the ancestor of the Hawaiian people, and also named Haloa. Haloa, first-born man, was to respect and to look after his older brother for ever more. In return, the elder Haloa, the root of life, would always sustain and nourish him and his descendants.

So it's said in one of the ancient Hawaiian legends about the origins of taro, a root superior and older than people. In Hawaii, taro truly is the staff of life. According to the kapu, only men are allowed to grow it.

This starchy root has been cultivated worldwide for over 2000 years. The earliest recordings of this versatile plant date from 23 BC, when Greek and Roman writers first located it in Ancient Egypt. Yet only in Hawaii are the traditions of taro cultivation so tied in to cultural and even religious beliefs and practices.

Still today, in remote valleys, such as Waipio on the Big Island of Hawaii, taro is a way of life. It is the heart beat of the land and its people. Knowledge of its cultivation and its qualities has been passed down from generation to generation. Taro farmers often spend the day in knee high water, planting new keikis, harvesting mature corms, and weeding the abundant tropical growth around the invaluable food source.

The early Hawaiians allegedly ate up to 15 pounds of poi daily. A mashed and strained taro product, poi is so well digestible, that the Polynesian language does not even have a word for the indigestion so common in the western diet.

Botanically, taro (Colocasia Esculenta) belongs to the family of Araceae, which includes the better known philodendron, dieffenbacchia and anthurium. The true taro lover compares the hundreds of ever changing varieties with the same appreciation and poetic language as a fine wine connoisseur distinguishes her wines.

Today, taro in Hawaii is mostly used for poi, table taro, taro chips, and luau (green taro tops). It is surprisingly underused. The National Academy of Science selected taro as one of the underutilized food crops of the world. It could happily start gaining space next to staple foods such as rice and wheat. Some are predicting it just may become the new trend food of the '90's.

"E' ai a ma' ona." Enjoy!

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