Gardening: Give the tasty taro a good go

By Meg Liptrot

Meg Liptrot reports on a Pacific staple's exciting potential.

Teina Tangimetua, at the Sustainable Living Centre garden, is well versed in growing and cooking taro.
Teina Tangimetua, at the Sustainable Living Centre garden, is well versed in growing and cooking taro.

Walking past the taro patch every day on the way to the environment centre office, I'd never noticed that the familiar baby elephant ear-shaped leaves were more than a couple of obvious varieties - green or black.

Teina and I often walk around the community garden, looking at what the other gardeners have done, how big the competition pumpkins are, or looking out for ripe fruit to pick before the birds get it.

This time, we hovered around the taro patch. I wondered about the best time to harvest taro, as we had never made use of them and the corms looked mature. I saw the familiar green taro, plus some more ornamental black taro off to the side.

Teina said, "We don't cook those leaves, they're too hard. We use these ones, they're soft."

Then it dawned on me: there were two green-leaf varieties in the same plot. Teina pointed out that those with "hard" leaves are a Samoan variety, and the "soft"-leaved ones are those grown in the Cook Islands.

Here I was, thinking some were a bit water-starved and small, compared to the others which seemed to be doing better.

That started off wonderful stories about life in the Cooks, about how taro corms and leaves are used and cooked and tales of a special variety from her island that grows in water and is no longer imported here.

Teina grew up in Rarotonga, but her family came from the island of Mangaia. She says her island was the last to garden by Matariki, the lunar calendar. Her nan cooked taro corms for the workers at their citrus orchard in an umu or in large 20-litre cabin bread tins on the fire.

Teina also classes corms as "hard" or "soft". Some, which take ages to cook, are "hard". These are from Rarotonga, Niue and Samoa. Soft-eating taro are from the warmer islands, Fiji and Tonga.

The taro from Mangaia are different from Rarotongan taro. They grow in water and the roots are purple. They take ages to cook and, when ready, are grey-blue. Teina says the best and least-messy way to cook taro is to bake them in foil. You can smell when they're ready. Often the leaves are cooked in coconut milk with onions.

Taro are excellent low-GI food and are nutrient-dense. It is recommended to boil taro corms and leaves to reduce their calcium oxalate content, which can contribute to kidney stones. Before cooking, some people remove the central thick rib of the leaf and surrounding 2cm to reduce the compound.

A study done on the oxalate content of boiled versus baked taro leaves reveals the baked leaves have similar high oxalate content to the raw leaf, but the boiled leaves lose 36 per cent of their oxalates. A pinch of baking soda is also said to help.

When harvesting taro, the top of the corm can be cut and replanted or, in the case of Rarotongan and Japanese taro, the side corms (cormels) can be plucked off and replanted.

Origins and potential

Taro is a food staple in many parts of the world but is thought to have originated in Eastern India and Bangladesh, then spread east to Asia and the Pacific, and west to Egypt, Africa and the Mediterranean.

Ethnobotanist Peter Matthews has also researched the genetic origins of pockets of wild taro in New Zealand. In the Pacific, taro are cultivated using wetland or dryland methods.

In New Zealand, dryland cultivation was the observed practice by Maori in the 19th century. During this time, William Colenso named 10 varieties in Northland and another nine from the Hawkes Bay and East Coast.

One hundred years later, Matthews identified three genetic variants of taro growing wild. The most common is the "Maori RR" variant, which is likely to be a historical introduction of Chinese origin.

Between 2005 and 2008, New Zealand's Kahoa Tauleva Trust researched the productive potential of the leaves of seven taro varieties grown in tunnel houses in Pukekohe. They trialled "Maori RR", which has a purplish stem, a Tongan variety, "Ni Tonga", an Australian variety and four Japanese cultivars.

The trust worked with Dr Bill Bussell from the School of Natural Sciences at Unitec. They found "Maori RR" produced more kilogrammes of leaf per square metre than the others. The Trust recommends harvesting leaves under two weeks of age to ensure tenderness when cooking.

Bussell previously trialled two Pacific Island cultivars, "Niue" pink taro and "Ni Tonga" white taro for producing quality corms in Auckland's climate. The crops were planted around October, with corms ready to harvest in June.

Crop and Food Research also imported nine Japanese taro cultivars for trial over a period in the 1990s.

In my last year of study at Unitec, in 2000, Bussell was trialling the Japanese cultivars on the grounds, comparing their harvested weight and dry matter content.

The small side cormels, which Japanese taro produce, are well suited to Asian-style recipes, for which they are used in soups and stews. Taro are tasty and look great in the garden, are pest- and disease-free compared with their potato counterparts, and are super-easy to grow.

They love rich soil, mulch and plenty of water, but are also drought-hardy. Although the leaves are burnt by frost, the corms will survive to grow lush leaves again in spring. Great reasons to give them a go - if you haven't already - in the garden and on your plate.

- Herald on Sunday

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