Dubbed as the potato’s hairy and “unfortunate-looking” cousin, taro is actually a culinary favorite in many cultures around world. In Hawaii, it’s transformed into “poi,” a traditional dish of mashed taro roots and water, and served to guests or fed to babies.1 Taro chips (baked not fried), on the other hand, is becoming a popular healthy alternative to MSG-loaded processed potato chips, and can be found in many health stores today.
Despite its odd and unappetizing appearance, there’s actually more to taro than meets the eye. Here’s everything you need to know about taro.
The Potato of the Tropics: What Is Taro?
Large and herbaceous, taro (Colocasia esculenta) is a perennial from the Araceae (aroid) family that can be identified by its frilly, heart-shaped leaves that grow at the end of long and stout petioles, resembling an elephant’s ear. The taro plant can grow anywhere between 5 to 6 feet tall.2 It also goes by other names, such as dasheen, Chinese potato, cocoyam, curcas and dalo.3
Taro is native to India and Southeast Asia, and has earned the moniker “the potato of the tropics.”4 It grows best in warm humid climates, thriving in marshy locations with wet soils. It’s an extremely hardy plant, which contributes to its popularity in these regions. In fact, taro is one of the few crops that can grow in flooded regions.5
The starchy, underground-growing corm, known as the taro root, is a staple food in these areas, as well as in China, Hawaii, Africa and the Caribbean.6 The taro root is usually the size of a turnip but oblong-shaped, with a brown and fibrous (sometimes hairy) skin. The surface has circular rings that indicate where it has been attached to the scaly leaves.7
When cut, the flesh of the taro root in most varieties is usually white or cream-colored, although there are varieties that even have purple flecks.8 Swamp taro, giant taro and arrow leaf elephant’s ear are some of the most common varieties of this plant.9
Although it’s prepared in the same way as potatoes, taro root, which softens once cooked, has a more delicious and nuttier flavor than the former, similar to that of water chestnuts.10 Its flavor is so well-liked that taro has been incorporated in countless dishes – from main entrees to desserts.
Although the root is the most popularly used part of the plant, take note that the large leaves are edible, too. But keep this in mind: both the root and leaves should always be cooked, as they are both toxic when raw, and should never be consumed in this manner.11
Taro Benefits: Both the Root and Leaves Can Do Wonders for Your Health
Taro root’s benefits come from its rich source of nutrients, which include magnesium, iron, fiber, potassium, manganese, zinc, copper and phosphorus. It contains good amounts of antioxidants, as well as vitamins A, B6, C and E.
Perhaps the most standout quality of this root crop is its high fiber content, which is said to be three times higher than that of a white potato. 12 This is essential to your digestive health, as fiber helps add bulk to your stools, allowing them to easily pass through your digestive system. Getting enough fiber also helps prevent constipation, bloating, cramping and indigestion.13
Don’t forget the taro leaves – they can provide a variety of nutrients, too. These greens are a wonderful source of fiber, protein, vitamins A, C and B6, thiamin, copper, calcium, folate and more.14
Due to its outstanding nutrient profile, it’s no surprise that taro – both through its root and leaves – offers health-promoting benefits, such as:15,16
- Reduces risk of diabetes – The dietary fiber in taro can help regulate insulin and glucose levels in your body, and prevent your blood sugar from spiking.
- Improves vision health – Antioxidants cryptoxanthin and beta-carotene in taro help keep free radicals at bay, reducing your risk of macular degeneration and cataracts.
- Helps keep skin healthy – Vitamins A and E are vital to skin health. Adding taro to your diet may help reduce blemishes and wrinkles and give your complexion a healthy glow.
- Bolsters your immunity – The high vitamin C levels in taro helps stimulate your immune system to produce more white blood cells, which can defend your body from pathogenic organisms.
- Heart health – Aside from its dietary fiber, the potassium in taro is essential for maintaining your cardiovascular function. It helps control your heartbeat, relieve stress on the arteries and keep blood pressure in check.
Taro’s Practical Uses: Its Versatility Goes Beyond Cooking
While the culinary uses for this root crop are virtually endless, did you know that the taro plant has uses outside of the kitchen as well? Here are some examples:17
- The corm peelings and leaves of taro are sometimes fed to pigs. Boiled taro corms are also given as food to weanling pigs to give them energy.
- The petioles and leaves of the plant can be used to make dyes for kappa (bark cloth).
- In Africa, the leaf stalk of taro has been used for plaiting.
- The corms and cormels are used by the paper industry and for manufacturing of medicinal tablets.
- The plant is used in garden and lawn landscaping for aesthetic purposes.
How to Cook Taro Root and Leaves: Keep These Tips in Mind
Remember that when buying taro, make sure to look for fresh and firm roots that feel heavy for their size. Avoid corms with cracks, soft spots or sprouts at the scale. Make sure to store them in a cool, dark and well-ventilated area.
The roots do not require refrigerating, but the greens will – place them in the crisper section, just as you would do to other leafy greens. Before cooking the root, simply wash it, trim the ends and peel away the tough skin using a paring knife. Remove the sticky sap by submerging it in cold water.18
As mentioned, taro is usually prepared in the same way as potatoes or sweet potatoes. You can boil, steam, roast, mash or fry it. It can be added to soups, curries and stews, or enjoyed on its own. There are also recipes available for taro cake and other taro-based desserts.
Taro tea, also known as “taro bubble tea” because it comes with tapioca pearls, is another popular snack today – Although you will need to watch out for this, as most recipes are loaded with sugar or high-fructose corn syrup.
Never attempt to eat uncooked taro roots and leaves. This plant contains needle-like calcium oxalate crystals, which can lead to extreme irritation in your throat and mouth, resulting in a burning and stinging sensation.19 If consumed without cooking it thoroughly, it may also result in gout and kidney stones.20
Try This Yummy and Healthy Taro Recipe: Baked Taro Chips
Whether sweet, salty or savory, there’s a bounty of taro root recipes that you can choose from, so don’t worry – you will not run out of ideas to use this root crop. One of the most popular ways to enjoy it is to transform it into chips. Here’s an example adapted from PopSugar Fitness:21
Taro Healthy Recipes:
Baked Taro Chips
- Pre-heat oven to 400° F.
- Wash, peel, and slice taro root into quarter-inch thick slices.
- Brush coconut oil on each side of taro slices.
- Place each chip (separately arranged) on a non-stick 1- to 2-inch deep cookie sheet.
- Lightly sprinkle salt on taro chips. Bake for 10 minutes on each side or until golden crisp.
Taro Nutrition Facts
Serving Size: 100 grams
|Calories from Fat
*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.