Taro, once a staple of the Hawaiian diet, and still an integral part of the culture, is surprisingly not native to Hawaii. Instead, it is thought to have originated in southern India, before migrating east to China and as far south as New Zealand. From there, Polynesians brought taro to these islands, planting it near rivers and streams.
The Hawaiian word for taro is kalo. According to Hawaiian mythology, Wakea (the sky father), and the beautiful goddess, Hoʻohokukalani (the heavenly one who made the stars), wished to have a child. Their first attempt, however, resulted in a still birth. The body of the stillborn child was buried near their home. From this buried child grew a taro plant; the plant was named Haloanaka (long stock trembling). The couple’s second attempt at a child resulted in a human boy which the gods named Haloa. From Haloa, the Hawaiian race of people descended. According to this legend, then, Hawaiians are literally related to taro, which explains the importance of taro in Hawaiian culture.
In early times, taro was grown using two distinct methods. The most common was a “wet” method which involved building a taro pond near a river. Once the land was marked off, the growers would plant the taro, then flood the land by diverting water from the river. The “dry” method was commonly used in higher elevations, primarily in recently de-forested lands. Just prior to the start of rainy season, farmers would dig holes about nine inches deep, then drop in taro cuttings. Once the taro took root, they would cover the holes with mud. Whether grown wet or dry, taro takes roughly 200 days to mature.
In its heyday, taro was grown on roughly 35,000 acres across the Hawaiian islands. Today, however, taro production covers less than than 350 acres. Residents and visitors of Hawaii consume about 6.5 million pounds of Hawaii-grown taro per year. As a result, the state needs to import an additional 2 million pounds a year to cover consumption. Local farmers are being encouraged to grow more taro to reduce imports of the popular staple.
Here on Maui, many small taro farms ceased operations when the sugar cane mills diverted water that otherwise went to growing the taro. In late 2016, large commercial sugar cane production on Maui ended, so it is hoped that some of this diverted water will again return to the smaller taro farms and production can resume.
Taro can be used in a variety ways. Here in Hawaii, you’ll find poi (mashed taro) at most restaurants serving “local” food. Because taro resembles potatoes in taste and texture, it often replaces typical potato-based dishes, such as taro fries, taro chips, and taro pancakes. It’s also found in bubble teas, certain veggie burgers, curry dishes, and desserts.
The history of taro goes back to the start of Hawaiian civilization, and it continues to be a popular food source amongst locals. Additionally, as the farm-to-table food movement continues to gain in popularity, it’s now being served in some of Hawaii’s most popular restaurants. Taro is an overnight success, thousands of years in the making.