Even during the coldest time of the year, gardener Suky Sung Lee enjoys her taro, the “potato of the tropics.” She doesn’t eat the tennis-ball-size tubers, but rather the strips of the fibrous stems, which she peeled and dried in the sun last summer to make torandae, dried taro strips. She also uses them for yukgaejang, a spicy beef and vegetable soup.
She could harvest her taro roots as well, but those are already available in ethnic markets. Dried taro strips for soup are much harder to find. In the summer she also harvests the outside leaves every few weeks, being careful not to deplete any one plant too much, thereby starving the root.
“If you want to get good roots, you also cut the flowers before they bloom,” said Lee, who gardens at Ocean View Farms, the community garden in Mar Vista. “I take out all the flowers so the nutrition doesn’t go to the flowers for seeds.”
Taro (Colocasia esculenta) is also known as “elephant ears” for the shape and size of the leaves, but the Korean name, “egg from the earth,” is perhaps more to the point. Thought to be one of the earliest cultivated crops, taro originated 10,000 years ago in what is now India and Malaysia, but it has spread worldwide. Although it performs best in tropical locations with high rainfall, such as Hawaii (where it is the basis for poi), it’s also grown in the hills of Nepal. In Japan, taro was once more commonly eaten than rice.
The corm, or root, is a tuber that grows like a potato. And like a potato, it can be baked, boiled, steamed or fried. The leaves and stems are also edible but must be cooked first. Raw taro is loaded with needle-shaped calcium oxalate crystals, potentially poisonous and a cause of kidney stones. Gardeners should use gloves to avoid skin irritation.
Depending on the variety, taro can be grown in wetlands or in dry plots, but the soil must drain well, be kept moist and mulched with rich compost. Lee says the smaller round cultivars grown in soil rather than in water are tastier.
And even though the plant is dormant in winter, it may still be planted now. You can find starter corms in the produce section of Asian and Latino grocery stores. For already started plants, check out the Jungle nursery in West L.A. It has dry and wet varieties.
The Global Garden, our series looking at multicultural L.A. through the lens of its landscapes, appears here on Tuesdays. We welcome story suggestions at email@example.com.