Much of the world's population eats taro in one way or another, so there's nothing inherently Asian about this week's ingredient. But here in the U.S., more likely than not, we find taro in an Asian preparation because we don't always have wide access to African cookery or those of the Oceanic and South American cultures that also use the root.
There are many varieties of taro, the root of a perennial plant with large, elephantine leaves. Some are small, round, and hairy, like rodents, others are larger and elongated, like daikon. Inside, the flesh ranges pure white to ivory with streaks of pale purple.
You may be thinking that with the abundance of potatoes, sweet potatoes, and squash available during the fall and winter, you're already happy with your repertoire of starches. Why add taro to that list, given that its furry brown surface is actually an irritant to our skin? And its raw flesh is mildly toxic? What's more, like okra, taro flesh is slimy when boiled. Admittedly, taro is not the friendliest of edible roots, but it's well worth the effort.
Let me convince you why.
The texture of taro is unlike any other root vegetable or squash. Steamed or simmered, taro is soft and almost custard-like, yet still firm and dry at the same time. Its complex flavor makes potatoes, in comparison, not as interesting to eat. Though taro is often said to have no distinctive flavor, the larger varieties possess a slightly fishy, meaty taste that's unique in the root family. Smaller varieties of taro, though not as memorable in flavor, have a pleasant sweetness. Whatever the variety, the root has a soft and flaky texture like that of a roasted Japanese or Korean sweet potato, only with slightly less moisture.
As a guideline, treat taro as you would a potato or sweet potato: simmered, stewed, fried, or mashed. To side-step the irritants in its skin, wear gloves or use a towel when cutting away the outer layer. To get around the sliminess, parboil cubes of taro first, then rinse before adding them to your recipe.
If you frequent Cantonese restaurants, taro shows up in various preparations: mashed and deep-fried as dumpling-like balls, steamed and pressed into savory pan-fried cakes, and steamed in whole cubes with meat and fish. A common steamed dish combines taro with succulent bits of pork rib, marinated in a funky-tasting blend of fermented black beans, spicy jalapeno peppers, and a bit of soy sauce or fish sauce. The combination of taro and pork is one of my favorites at dim sum, so much so that I find myself wishing for more bits of taro in the bowl.
The recipe couldn't be easier to prepare in advance. Cubes of pork rib marinate overnight with mashed black beans and salt. The next day, combine the parboiled pieces of taro with the marinated ribs and steam over high heat for forty minutes. Towards the end of cooking, drizzle on soy sauce or fish sauce to your liking and garnish liberally with sliced jalapeno.
While the idea of steamed meat doesn't whet my appetite, these bits of pork—succulent yet still bouncy due to the gentle heat—are something special. Best of all, the cubes of taro absorb the residual fat from the pork ribs, bringing out the meaty taste of the root even more.