Next Generation Of Taro Farmers
Jean and Miguel Legaspi, along with their granddaughter Chelsea Cox, farm taro on nine acres in Hanalei. ML Farms sells taro to the Honolulu Poi Company, which sells under the name Taro Brand.
Jean’s family began farming rice in Hanalei Valley in the 1940s, and started growing taro in the late ’50s. The Legaspis are planning to retire soon, and Chelsea will take over the family farm. Chelsea is looking for new outlets for bulk orders of taro corms and leaves.
“The Taro Brand company is cutting back,” says Chelsea, “and we need to compensate by offering all of the plant. Today, people are making all kinds of interesting things with taro leaves. It’s treated like spinach and can be used in dips.”
Taro leaves are used for traditional dishes such as laulau and lu`au, a stew-like dish made with coconut milk. In Hawaiian, lau means leaf and laulau means a wrapped package. When cooked, leaves are tender-firm and dry in texture. The flavor is vegetal, almost like green tea, with an earthy, iron finish.
What’s growing: Maui Lehua, Palau, Kaua’i Lehua and what Miguel calls No. 6, a hybrid that produces large corms.
Season: When taro is harvested, the entire plant is pulled. The corm, a slightly sweet starchy tuber, is used for poi and can be treated like a potato. The huli is part of the stem about 12-18 inches long attached to a 2-3 inch section of the corm. Hulis are the “seeds” that get replanted. It takes one year to go from huli to harvest. Taro leaves are available year round.
What to look for: Leaves should be firm and free of brown spots.
Storage: Wrapped in a plastic bag and stored in the refrigerator, they will keep for up to a week.
Tip: Taro leaves, like the corms, contain oxalic acid crystals and must be cooked thoroughly before eating. Miguel recommends one hour, “until it breaks and gets soft.”
Chelsea says eating under-cooked taro feels like you swallowed a puffball that pricks your mouth and throat; you can still breathe, it just feels itchy. Raw taro will itch harder and longer than partially or mostly cooked taro. “It’s happened to me about a dozen times,” Chelsea says. “The first time it happened, I was little and I thought I was going to die, but it goes away after a while.”
Preparation: The leaves can be rolled tightly, tied in a knot, and simmered in coconut, red chili, tamarind, coriander and garlic. Alu wadi, a traditional Maharashtrian dish, is made with spiced chickpea paste spread on alu (taro) leaves. Four leaves are spread and stacked and rolled into logs before being steamed and cut into spirals.
Health benefits: Taro leaves offer a substantial amount of vitamin A and C, and they are a better source of protein than the corms. One cup of steamed leaves contains 35 calories, 0 grams of saturated fat, 6 grams of carbohydrates, and 4 grams of protein; 123 percent of the recommended daily value of vita-min A, 12 percent calcium, and 86 percent vitamin C. The leaves also have a low glycemic load and are anti-inflammatory. Chronic inflammation can also lead to diseases such as hay fever, periodontitis, atherosclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and cancer.
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Laulau, made with pork, Hawaiian sea salt and salted butterfish, is wrapped in taro and ti leaves before it’s steamed. Typically, a chunk of pork fat is included to add moisture, and is not meant to be eaten. Traditionally, the packets were tucked inside an imu (underground oven) along with whole pigs, breadfruit and sweet potatoes. This is the Legaspi family recipe. A cube of salted butterfish is added to laulau for flavor, and Chelsea recommends getting it at the Big Save in Kapa`a. If you’ve never had homemade laulau, do yourself a favor and make this recipe! Serves 12.
* 60 taro leaves, cleaned
* 24 ti leaves, with 6 inches of stem still attached
* 3 pounds pork butt, trimmed of fat and cut into 3-inch cubes
* 1/2 pound salted butterfish, soaked for one hour and diced into 1-inch cubes
* trimmed pork fat
* 2 tablespoons Hawaiian sea salt
Clean ti leaves and split 12 stems in half, just to the base of the leaf. You’ll use these split stems to tie the bundle, and the leaves will enfold the laulau.
Sprinkle salt over pork and massage through.
Stack five taro leaves in your hand, tucking the stem under each leaf. Sprinkle seal salt between the layers of each leaf. Place a cube of pork in the center along with a cube of butterfish and pork fat. Fold over sides and wrap like you would a present, using the outside stem to secure. This is your laulau.
Grab one ti leaf with a split stem and one without. Place them in an “X” pattern on the table, and put the laulau in the center. Bring all four sides of the ti leaves up so laulau is completely enclosed, keeping the un-split stems on the inside. Wrap the split stems around the top to secure, tie, and tuck the ends inside without puncturing the package. Trim stem tops so they fit neatly into a steamer.
Put water in your steamer. The laulau will be bulky, so if you have a large steamer, place them in a single layer, and then cover with a lid. Bring water to a boil, reduce to a simmer and steam for five hours.
Make sure you have enough water throughout the cooking process. If you have a small steamer and have to stack the bundles, cook for eight hours. They are done when the leaves “break” into a dark green paste-like coating around tender meat.
For ease, laulau may be wrapped in tinfoil instead of ti leaves. If using a pressure cooker, reduce cooking time to 1.5 hours.
Marta Lane is a Kaua’i-based food writer. For more information, visit TastingKauai.com.