Ask Peter: Taro
Can you tell me how to cook taro. My local stores stock a lot of it to cater for the Pacific Island community and it’s very affordable. I bought some and roasted it but it was rather unpleasant and scratchy to eat. My mash was no better, turned out fibrous and watery.
Taro - what a fascinating vegetable and one that, as you say is plentiful, but so few New Zealand homes cook with it. Many NZ’ers think of it as a Pacific crop, and yet so many nationalities eat it regularly, including such diverse people as the Lebanese, Turks, Venezuelans, Sri Lankans, Koreans and Hawaiians.
It’s native to Southern India and Southeast Asia which I recall came as a surprise when I found out. I remember eating it cooked in a curry-like dish in Bangladesh many years ago which seemed out of place at the time. Since then I’ve eaten it in Japan steamed and served with a dashi broth (made from kombu seaweed and bonito flakes).
In Chinese restaurants I’ve had the most delicious taro and venison dumplings where the taro “pastry’’ is flaky and light and absolutely divine. In a Lebanese cafe here in London I ate fried taro coated in sumac and raw garlic, doused with lemon juice and tahini paste. But I’ve also enjoyed it boiled in coconut milk served alongside barbecue fish in Fiji. I have to say I do quite like it pretty much any way at all.
The thing with taro is that it’s always much better when steamed or boiled in lots of liquid, rather than being deep-fried from raw in chunks which makes it incredibly dry and chewy.
If you’re going to deep-fry it, as those Lebanese did, then cut it into fingers or slices first, boil until almost fully cooked, then drain and rinse before patting dry and deep-frying.
Likewise, if you’re going to roast it, par-boil it first. Friends have said that a good pinch of baking soda added to the boiling water helps make it more tender.
Peel the skin off using a knife rather than a peeler as it can be quite tough, and as you cut it take note if it’s fibrous, because no amount of cooking will make it tender. Smaller taro will generally be more tender — in the UK we get a lot of eddoes (a cousin to what we think of as taro in NZ), which are like a hairy baby taro and these cook well in stews and soups, especially alongside green lentils and caramelized onions, with shredded silverbeet or kale stirred in for the last 15 minutes of cooking. Finish the dish with a good dollop of plain yoghurt and a squeeze of lemon juice.
If using taro in curries, treat it the same way you would pumpkin. Make the curry up to the adding liquid stage then add peeled and chunky diced taro and cook on medium heat until just done. For a Pacific feel, boil chunks in lightly salted water then drain when half-cooked and cover with coconut milk, grated ginger, chopped chillies and garlic and simmer until done, mixing some toasted coconut in at the end. Serve with a barbecue chicken or grilled fish cutlets and you’ll be wanting more.
One thing I’ve never cooked myself is the leaves. They contain a high proportion of a very prickly acid crystal called calcium oxalate which isn’t good if you suffer from kidney stones, and if not prepared correctly you will feel like you’ve eaten a thousand skinny pins. I was in Tonga a few years back and ate the delicious Samoan dish of palusami in which the leaves are cooked with coconut milk, white onions and salt. I do recall the cooks removed the stem and 2cm of the leaf on either side of it—where I guess the acid crystals reside. Everything was mixed up and sealed in foil bundles before being cooked for a good hour. Delicious and rustic we ate it with vanilla glazed suckling pig – as one does!
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you are stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.