Monday, August 14, 2017

The Sacred, Life sustaining Hawaiian plant ancestor: Taro or Kalo.

Taro or Colocasia is the most widely cultivated species of plants in the Araceae family and is widely consumed as vegetable in many parts of the globe.  All parts of the plant like leaves, corms and petioles are used as food.

Taro, whose scientific name is Colocasia esculenta (or antiquorum) is cultivated both in the uplands as high as 4,000 feet, and in marshy land irrigated by streams. The plant is a hearty succulent perennial herb, with clusters of long heart or arrowhead-shaped leaves that point earthward. Taro grows on erect stems that may be green, red (lehua), black or variegated. The new leaf and stem push out of the innermost stalk, unrolling as they emerge. The stems are usually several feet high. Tiny new plants appear around the base of the root corm. The pua, inflorescence, is an open yellow-white tube, enclosing a spike covered with flowers.

Taro in Hawaiian Culture

Taro, called “kalo” in Hawaiian, is central to the Native Hawaiian creation story. It not only considered sacred but the native Hawaiian’s believe it to be their ancestor. It is the staple of the native Hawaiian diet and at the core of the Hawaiian culture. 

As the Hawaiian legend goes, Kumulipo, Papa (Earth Mother) and Wakea (Sky Father) gave birth to Ho’ohokukalani, who became the most beautiful woman of time. When she grew to adulthood, she became pregnant and gave birth to a child who was named Haloa-naka (ha = breath, loa = long, ka = quivering). Haloa-naka, stillborn, was placed in the Earth. From the ground in which Haloa-naka was buried grew, with a long stem and leaf that quivers in the wind. Kalo fed the second-born son, also named Haloa. It is from the second son that Hawaiians trace their lineage.

Various names for parts of the taro plant indicate its interwoven history with the Hawaiian people: the place where the stem meets the leaf is called the piko, or navel. The stem is the ha, the breath, and the cluster of shoots (or keiki, meaning children) that surround the mother plant are called an ohana, or family.

A Hawaiian Mural depicting the Taro as ancestor 

A painting showing Taro Farming
A sculpture with a boy sitting on Giant Taro Leaf,

It is believed that when the first Polynesians arrived in Hawaii in the 7th century from Tahiti or Marquesas, they brought taro plant along with banana and breadfruit in their canoes. 

In the Pacific, taro has been grown as far south as New Zealand and was spread across the ocean, being carried by Polynesian, Micronesian and Melanesian wayfarers. Taro also grows in tropical Africa, the West Indies, the Pacific nations and in countries bordering the Indian Ocean in South Asia.

The vein of life 

The taro leaves

Taro leaves 
Wetland Taro farming in Kauai

Wetland Taro farming in Kauai

Wetland Taro farming in Kauai

Wetland Taro farming in Kauai

Jerry Konanui standing in a field of kalo variety Maui Lehua. Photo credit Dr. Scot Nelson

Taro leaves at Lyon Arboretum 

Taro leaves at Lyon Arboretum 

Taro leaves at Lyon Arboretum 

Ornamental Taro 
                           Photo of Joseph Strong’s painting ‘Man With A Yoke Carrying Taro: Honolulu Museum of Art/Wikimedia Commons
In Hawai`i, where cultivation has been the most intense, in the early days there were more than 300 varieties of taro. Approximately 87 of these varieties are still recognized today, with slight differences in height, stalk color, leaf or flower color, size, and root type. Some of the local varieties are Mo`i, Lehua, Ha`akea and Chinese.

Taro can be grown as wetland or dry land taro. Ancients inhabitants of Hawaii were dependent on wetland taro. The lo`i or pond fields were built by enclosing a plot of land with stones and filling it with freshwater. Along the banks of the lo`i were planted banana, sugarcane, ti and paper mulberry (for kapa cloth, also known as tapa).

Wetland Taro 
Dry land Taro

The bigger root is wetland taro, smaller are dry land taro

Dryland taro was grown in the lower forests where the soil was rich and the rainfall sufficient.
In both these type of farming, the planting material called “ huli”, consists of a 1/2 inch thick slice of the top of the kalo (corm, from which derives the plant's name) attached to 6 to 10 inches of the leaf-stem. These protrude above the water or dryland where planted.

The bottom of the corm/root is saved for cooking and eating.All parts of these sturdy plant are eaten. The leaves are cooked as vegetable just like any other green leafy vegetable. The tubers are eaten baked, boiled or steamed, or cooked and mashed with water to make poi. Poi was long a staple of the native Hawaiian diet and held spiritual significance for the island's aboriginals.

The tradition of poi pounding is called as ku'I, using a special board and pestle. The taro roots are steamed or boiled and then pounded using little water, till the desired consistency is reached.  
It is eaten fresh, called as ‘sweet poi’ or is left to ferment and develop a sour taste called as ‘sour poi’. it can be stored indefinitely without fear of spoilage. Some people call poi the "soul food" of Hawai`i.
The stiffest poi is called locally "one finger" and the most liquid "three finger". "Two finger" poi is considered the best by some. Poi is often fed to babies as their first whole and natural healthy food, as well as to the elderly, for its ease of digestion and high vitamin content.

Poi Board and Pestle

Poi for sale 

Poi for sale 

Poi Granola

Taro and sweet potato chips, Hawaiian chip company 

Lu`au is the name of the edible taro leaf, from the word lau, leaf. Taro leaves are extensively used in the authentic Hawaiian dish known as laulau, which consists of wrapping chicken, pork or salted butterfish in the leaves and then steaming in a makeshift underground oven.

The root of Taro plant is also used in making chips and are commercially available throughout the islands.

The poi and taro plant also have medicinal value are used in stomach ailments. Poi is also used as a poultice on infected area or on cuts, burns and insect sting.

Every year East Maui Taro Festival is celebrated in the month of April on Island of Maui. The event focuses on kalo/taro as a staple food of the Hawaiian diet, as well as being the symbolic “Elder Brother” of Native Hawaiians. All types of Taro are on sale and a Queen’s challenge competition is held for taro farmers in both varieties- wetland or dryland.

The 26th Annual East Maui Taro Festival will be held on Saturday, April 21, 2018

Here are some of the photographs from East Maui Taro Festival.

Taro leaves stalk for sale 
Dark Taro for sale at the festival.
Making of Poi 
The Poi,
 In India Colocasia is known by common name Arbi and a variety of dishes are prepared from leaves and roots across all cuisines. It goes by the name of “Patra” or Alu Wadi. The root is also cooked and used to make many different dishes.
courtesy: Neha's hobby Kitchen. 

In present-day Hawaii, although taro no longer is the main staple food, it is still consumed in quantity, and in a variety of ways. Taro is still considered sacred and revered in Hawaiian Culture. 
The people believe that their existence depends on on Haloa, our elder brother, the Kalo.