More than just a vegetable, TARO today is an essential ingredient to any Polynesian meal. Brought in Polynesia from Asia by the first human inhabitants of the islands, TARO has become one of the major staples of the Polynesian triangle. Anyone visiting Polynesia should absolutely give it a try…
From traditional dishes to inspired modern cuisine, TARO is fundamental to Polynesian cuisine. Called “the king of the roots”, it is certain that TARO cultivation is among the most ancient practices in this culture.
A tuber of the Aracee family, the plant has a large root that can be colored from light purple to yellow; the long stems and leaves are a deep emerald green. The vegetable is starchy but poor in protein and is what could be called an island potato – but one with a tropical scent and softness. The leaves of certain species resemble spinach and are sometimes called “Polynesian spinach”.
In the Tahitian language the name TARO is given to the entire plant, its root, stem and leaves, but it is also used to refer only to the root. The stem on its own is called “fafa” and the leaves “pota”. These are useful distinctions since the TARO is such a versatile vegetable – we can eat it all.
About 500 years after Christ, the first Polynesians brought this useful vegetable with them along with other plants with plans of planting them on the land they hoped to find. These gifted navigators were also botanical experts.
From what is today French Polynesia, TARO spread out across the Polynesian triangle, in particular to New-Zealand, Samoa and Fiji, but also as far as Papua New Guinea.
The evidence of a high number of TARO plantations found through archaeological surveys in the Austral and Marquesas Islands shows that the culture has depended on this base starch for a very long time. In the Tuamotu and Gambier Islands where the soil is made up of almost entirely sand, TARO cultivation was extremely labor intensive and required digging deep pits and importing rich soils from bird nesting areas. At the beginning of the 20th century when cargo ships began to frequent these areas, TARO cultivation waned and islanders simply had it shipped to them from Tahiti.
Today the most important fruit and vegetable producing Islands in the country are the high Islands of the Marquesas and Austral Islands.
Today, Polynesian Islands produce 29 different species of TARO. The most popular is planted year round on most Polynesian Islands. There are also several types of wild species that are found mostly on the mountainsides of high Islands.
Each species has its own Tahitian name, which goes to show how important the vegetable is to the culture.
The hot and humid climate of Polynesia is perfect for TARO cultivation – which is perhaps another reason why the vegetable has always been such an important staple in the Islands. TARO is planted in either in swampy land or in dry areas with good irrigation systems, in holes approximately 30 centimeters deep. Once planted, the root reproduces on its own thanks to climbing stems that grow from above the ground and plant themselves several centimeters away from the mother plant. Once mature, each root can measure up to 20 centimeters in circumference and weigh up to five kilos!
Easy to cultivate, TARO is an essential economic resource in this country, 638 tons were produced in 2006. Most of the production is consumed locally and sold in supermarkets, local markets and at stands on the side of the road. While TARO is produced on a grand scale on large plantations in the Marquesas, Austral and Society Islands, many families also keep a TARO patch for their own needs. In their vegetable plantation TARO is harvested year round. This allows the families to feed themselves and then sell off the rest. In the Austral Islands, TARO is a particularly important resource. The humid climate is much cooler than the rest of the country and is even better for cultivation. In these Islands, TARO holds and even more important role in the lives of the Islanders than in the other archipelagos. The Tahitian food is not Tahitian without this essential root!
Most of the time the vegetable is bought in its entirety. Once it’s peeled and the stem and leaves have been trimmed off, the rose or yellow colored root part is boiled. Some types are boiled longer than others depending on how hard they are. Often a pinch of salt and sugar are added to the water for flavor.
TARO of course plays a part in feasts prepared in the traditional Tahitian earth oven. It is cut into slices then cooked to accompany all sorts of meat and fish dishes. “Popoi” is a very ancient method of preparing the root and involves mashing it and then letting it ferment – in this way it can last for months or even years. There is a story about a foreign sailor who was lost at sea near the Marquesas and was saved because of this recipe.
This legend is a local way to talk about the high nutritional value of TARO, which is a great source of pride for locals. Some Polynesians will tell you how great warriors always ate TARO before battles. The Marquesans are said to have been stronger than the Paumotu (inhabitants of the Tuamotu) because they had greater supplies of TARO. Today, outrigger canoe teams will eat TARO the night before a competition to build strength.
TARO has not been pushed out of the Polynesian diet by fast food. Instead, it is adapted. French fried TARO, with a slightly sweet taste is hugely popular.
In modern cuisine and with chefs the world over, TARO is beginning to find its way into “haute cuisine”. Mashed, in soups or in fritters, TARO is something new and different to most tastes outside of Polynesia.
From Tahiti to New Caledonia recipes are being created and everyone seems to have a special one: TARO slides with honey, grenadine TARO and more. At the Sunday table, TARO still has many tasty years ahead.