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Taro (Bpeuak) – Smooth & Creamy

by Kasma Loha-unchit

Try these two Recipes with Taro: Taro Cubes in Coconut Milk & Stewed Taro with Green Onions.

(Click image to see larger version.)

TaroThough spring has arrived and the days are warm and sunny, some evenings are still rather cool, making me long for warming comfort foods. One satisfying and easy-to-make dish brings back fond memories of childhood to warm my heart as well. All my brothers and I loved the creamy consistency and rich taste of stewed taro, so Mother would always make a huge bowlful of it to make sure there was enough to go around.

Taro is a dense and starchy tuber, growing beneath a moisture-loving plant with tall, thick, and fleshy stems, each topped by a very large, lovely triangular leaf. Besides being a source of carbohydrates, it is rich in thiamine, vitamins B-1 and C, potassium, and iron.

Archaeological records reveal that this wild, tropical plant, all parts of which are edible, has been a staple food in Asia for many millennia. There is evidence that it was first cultivated in India nine thousand years ago, long before the cultivation of rice. From there, it spread to China, where it has been grown for seven thousand years in the Yangtze River valley, and to Southeast Asia, Africa, South America (long before the Spanish discovered the New World), and the South Pacific islands today are the largest consumers of the starchy tuber.

There are a few different varieties of taro, the large tuber ranging in shape from fat oval and almost round to oblong. The thick, rough, and ringed skin can be dark, muddy brown or lighter shades and is sometimes hairy. The flesh ranges from pure white and cream to purplish gray, often speckled with pretty purplish red or brown markings.

The main tuber of the taro plant is large and fat, but along the stringy roots that spread out deeper into the soil may be found small, baby-sized ones. Asian markets carry both the small and large tubers. The small ones can simply be boiled whole in salted water, then peeled and snacked on like a yam. The large tubers, however, should be peeled and cut into smaller chunks before cooking. Because the starch of taro is dense and dry, moist-heat cooking methods, such as boiling and steaming, are much preferred to dry-heat cooking methods, such as baking and roasting.

For a richer and creamier consistency, I prefer the medium to large tubers that have a dark muddy look and especially ones with clear, reddish veining on white flesh. To make sure, I sometimes scrape a small section of skin with my thumbnail to check. Select a taro that is firm, without any soft spots and traces of mold. A freshly dug tuber will have the stem end somewhat pinkish or whitish green, but it is infrequent for taro to come that fresh in Bay Area markets.

If you won't be cooking it right away, store in a well-ventilated area (place in a hanging basket if you have one) and do not refrigerate as this will prolong the cooking time. Adding salt early during cooking, too, will make the starch more difficult to break down into the smooth, creamy consistency desired.

A word of caution: Never taste taro while it is still raw, as the sap in the flesh contains calcium oxalate that irritates mucous linings in the throat. This compound, fortunately, is quickly transformed by cooking. If you have very sensitive skin, wear gloves, or make sure your hands are dry when peeling and cutting taro. Afterwards, warm your hands over a burner for a minute or so, rubbing them together to remove any remnants of starch before washing.

Taro can also be used to add texture and flavor to other savory dishes, such as soups and curries. Taro easily absorbs the flavors of the sauces in which it is cooked and serves as a natural thickening agent to enrich those dishes. Cut into small cubes and steam together with rice for a tasty taro-flavored rice.

Taro makes great crispy chips, fries, and fritters. Another big hit in my family while I was growing up were the wonderful crispy-crunchy taro fritters Mom frequently made. She sprinkled coarsely grated taro with a little salt, then added just enough tapioca starch to hold the shreds together when dropped in small, loose lumps into hot oil to fry to golden perfection. For a spicy flavor, add a small amount of grated ginger to the taro mixture before frying, or dip the fried crispy fritters in bottled Sriracha hot chilli sauce and enjoy!

In Southeast Asia, taro is also used as a starch base for a wide range of desserts and sweet treats. It makes a rich, smooth, and creamy custard with eggs, coconut milk, and palm sugar. For an easy dessert, simmer half-inch cubes of taro in coconut milk sweetened with sugar and flavor-enhanced with a small amount of salt. (Taro Cubes in Coconut Milk.) This makes another quick comfort food to warm those cool spring evenings.

Try these two Recipes with Taro: Taro Cubes in Coconut Milk & Stewed Taro with Green Onions.

You might enjoy learning how to Cook Thai food from Kasma in a Thai cooking class.

Copyright © 1998 Kasma Loha-unchit. All rights reserved.

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