Taro: The Story of A Starchy Potato
By Agnes Chu, KF9, Samoa
They say that one of the best ways to learn about a culture is through its food. If that is true, then Samoa should be investigated through taro. Taro is king in Samoa and in Polynesia. It is to Samoans what the potato is to the Irish, what rice is to Asians, what pork is to Puerto Ricans; it is loved, revered, and consumed en mass. The Samoan word for taro (talo) is remarkably similar to the Samoan word for money (tala). You may have noticed that most of SPBD’s businesses listed on Kiva are in the agriculture sector and almost every one of those grows taro. One woman laughed when I asked her about competition, “Every one may grow taro but every one eats taro! Good thing!”
What is unique about taro as a staple is that, unlike rice or potatoes, there really is no variation on it in the Samoan diet. There is no creamed taro, no mashed taro and gravy, no taro fries (odd considering the love of fried food in Samoa). It is served usually in two ways: boiled or baked in an umu (earth oven). But most Samoans will say that their favourite food is taro—a plain, boiled taro. This causes confusion among palagi (foreigners or “from heaven”, literally translated) who try taro for the first time. To the unaccustomed tongue, it is ultra-starchy, thick, and seemingly tasteless. You stare at the light purple block in dismay and think I just ate a chunk, which will probably take forever to digest, and now I have to eat the whole brick. Ironically, this quality is also what Samoans love about taro. Jack, a staff member at SPBD, says “You can eat a taro and feel full. It is a meal.”
I struggled to understand the attractiveness of the taro, but it kinda grows on you. It’s good dipped in coconut cream. Perhaps it’s the kind of thing you have to grow up eating to enjoy. A friend from Puerto Rico compared taro (and I reacted with my jaw hanging) to food for kings, from heaven. My mom who grew up in China asked, “Isn’t it delicious? So much better than a potato.” I suppose. But then she reminded me of the Chinese taro cake served in dim sum, which I absolutely love. And I do love taro drinks. Taro has a subtle flavor which is amazing when it’s combined with other foods. I wikipediaed taro and was surprised to find that it’s cooked around the world, in India, Brazil, Japan, Turkey, West Africa, basically any place with a tropical climate (needs lots of water and lots of sun). Taro can be cooked into a curry, fried into chips, filled into spring rolls, or used for medicinal purposes.
The plain-served taro is representative of traditional Samoan diet and perhaps way of life. Samoan foods are usually served au naturel, no spices save salt, and not really prepared or cooked with other ingredients. Coco is consumed essentially raw and not processed into chocolate. Pork is consumed as simply a cut of meat. And why wouldn’t you when the pigs are fresh and the ensuing meat is tender? There are a few key items served for most meals which are: taro, coconut cream, plantains, SPAM, tinned fish, and mutton flaps/chicken thighs or legs. Samoa is known for its homogeneity.
Ironically, it is the taro which diversified Samoa’s economy…a bit. Before the taro blight in 1994 that destroyed taro plants, Samoa’s sole exports were taro and coconut cream. Forced to consider alternatives, Samoa now exports copra (dried coconut meat), fish, nonu, and a range of coconut products outside the cream. But unfortunately, the export business never really recovered and most of the taro grown is eaten locally.
To view more pictures of taro being grown in a plantation, please visit here.
*Note: Ah, what began as a quick two-paragraph explanation on taro turned into a whole essay on it. Sorry for that. And also, apologies if I’ve offended anybody with my frank opinion of taro. I’m still trying to love it! Not as a side dish cooked together with things, but in its natural state, boiled. Please please feel free to post if you have any disagreements or comments about taro. I’m open to suggestions! Meanwhile, here is an excellent recipe for coconut taro tapioca soup, which is a classic Chinese dessert. It is remarkably similar to a Samoan dish, but that recipe involves intricate stuff such as scraping the gel from a niu (baby) coconut. Oh, the luxuries of fresh ingredients in Samoa.
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Agnes Chu served as a Kiva Fellow with South Pacific Business Development (SPBD) in Samoa. To view fundraising loans from SPBD on Kiva, click here. You can receive updates on SPBD by joining SPBD’s lending team on Kiva. Only 8 more people to reach the 50 member mark!