TARO: A Labor of Love

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Taro is more than a food source in Hawaii – it’s a beloved older brother. Farmers in Hawaii still grow the staple plant in the same way it’s been done for centuries.

 

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Keoki Fukumitsu stands in front of the Koolau Mountains on his farm in Kaneohe.

WAKEA the sky father, had no sons. He and his wife, Papahanaumoku, the Earth mother, had been blessed with the births of Maui and Hawaii Island, but their only human child was a daughter, Ho‘ohokukalani.

As Ho‘ohokukalani grew, so did her beauty. Soon Wakea was rapt with desire. Their union produced Wakea’s first human son, Haloanaka, but alas, the child was stillborn. They buried the child, and in that place, the first kalo (taro) plant grew.

Later, Ho‘ohokukalani and Wakea came together again, and a healthy, human boy was born. This son was Haloa, and he was the first of the Hawaiian ali‘i (chiefs). As Haloa grew, he tended the kalo plant to care for his older brother. Thus kalo is not only the staple of Hawaiian cuisine, it is also the older brother to its people.

The story of taro is dramatic. It shows the importance of the staple plant to early Hawaiian settlers. Taro is not just a plant to be cultivated, it’s a beloved yet departed older brother who needs tending by the Hawaiian people. It makes sense that this plant has been considered a family member, because its growth and processing is a labor of love.

After taking roughly a year to tend and grow, typical taro roots are ready for picking. Ancient Hawaiians used the root, or “corm,” to make the starch staple called poi. This traditional dish is made by pounding cooked corm, and adding water as necessary, until it reaches the desired, viscous consistency.

Poi may be an acquired taste to newcomers, but it is still a fundamental part of Hawaiian cuisine. It can act as a side to lomilomi salmon, or be blended into a modern acai bowl. Fresh poi has a relatively neutral flavor, which makes it easy to add to many meals.

leaf-postTaro isn’t only grown for the corm. Today, as in ancient Hawaii, the taro leaves are used to wrap meats which are then baked to make laulau. Modern restaurants may not bake laulau in an underground imu (oven) as Ancient Hawaiians did, but you’ll still see pork, chicken or fish laulau on many lunch menus.

Taro usage has grown well beyond pounding poi or using the leaves for wrapping food. As a gluten-free starch, taro is also popular as a flour replacement, and is even used to make ice cream and other desserts.

Although taro use has evolved from historic Hawaiian tradition, in many ways, the art of growing taro is much the same as it has been for centuries. One part-Hawaiian farmer, Keoki Fukumitsu, also known as the “Kaloman,” grows taro on his family’s land in Kaneohe. The land has been in Fukumitsu’s family for more than 200 years, since before the reign of Kamehameha.

“I am an individual with ancient upbringing and life-style,” Fukumitsu states. “There’s just a few of us left.” It’s easy to see the truth in his statement when walking between some of the 30 separate lo‘i on his property. Lo‘i are the traditional wetland patches used to grow taro. Canals and streams that flow down from the mountains are harnessed to create marshes that feed the lo‘i. Fukumitsu grows anywhere from a half-dozen to a dozen different taro varietals at any given time in his lo‘i. There are around 87 recognized varietals of taro currently in Hawaii, although there were 300 distinct strains in early Hawaii.

Polynesians are thought to have brought taro plants with them in their canoes as they traversed the Pacific before finally settling in Hawaii. Space was precious in these vessels, which shows again how cherished the plant was. It’s significance then was based on its nutrients. Now it’s valued not only for its flavor and nutrition, but also for its cultural and historic importance as the older brother to the Hawaiian people.

For Fukumitsu, the traditional form of taro farming is worth preserving. His farm serves not only to grow taro; he also opens it up so that participants can come and work the taro patches.

“I’ve had 20,000 participants on this farm,” Fukumitsu says with pride.

While there, participants get hands-on experience in what farming taro was like when the first Hawaiian settlers began forming lo‘i. Many of the participants are young men who want to get in touch with their heritage, according to Fukumitsu, but visitors are also welcome.

Cultural experiences aside, Fukumitsu still runs a working farm. It requires constant tending to produce a crop. Most of his products are sold to restaurants or food trucks. He also harvests the taro leaves for luaus and sometimes also sells to grocers.

Although Fukumitsu the Kaloman is well loved, his farm is not without enemies. In the late 1980s, taro farmers like Fukumitsu started noticing apple snails in their lo‘i, a type of freshwater snail that can actually reach the size of an apple. This invasive species feeds on the corm and young taro stalks, and has impacted many farmers like Fukumitsu. A quick walk through the lo‘i reveals many of the snails that Fukumitsu refers to as “escargot.” These snails have to be picked by hand to maintain the crop. It’s a nuisance, but one with merit if it allows farmers like Fukumitsu to continue their trade.

“Our livelihood and our lifestyle is all saturated around the taro,” says Fukumitsu. “Taro is like Mana: It’s a God-given thing.”

It’s rare to find a plant that is so deeply rooted in the cultural, spiritual and historical identity of a place in the way that taro is loved and revered in Hawaii.

Now, taro is ubiquitous on the Islands. It’s found everywhere from high-end culinary masterpieces in Waikiki to roadside food trucks selling plate lunches. Taro is the definition of a staple food in this lush land.

The love of taro goes back to its birth as the older brother who is cared for. By tending this older brother, the Hawaiian people were provided with sustenance for generations to come.

Fukumitsu plans to keep working his land and opening it up to volunteers with a renewed vigor.

“Some people take a long time to get the picture,” he says. “But when they get it, they’re unstoppable. I’m one of them.”

Interested in trying taro during your stay in Waikiki? Here are just a few options that are available at some of our favorite restaurants.

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Creamy Crushed Taro and Brandy (side dish)

Bali Steak & Seafood
Red Curry Seafood Medley (includes taro)

Goofy Café and Dine
Taro Muffin and Kai-Taro Gratin (side dish)

Tiki’s Grill & Bar
Taro Buns and Taro Mash (buns on some burger options, mash is a side dish)

Tropics Bar & Grill
Maui Veggie Burger (taro patty)

Uncle Bo’s
Taro Buns (buns available on some burger options)

While not all restaurants in Waikiki keep taro items on their regular menu, many, such as Roy’s, will have seasonal dishes or specials where taro is center stage.