If you don’t like taro, I don’t know if we can be friends.
I used to be aghast when people asked me what taro was. It’s a root, like potato, you know? Then slowly I realized that I was the obnoxious one for not realizing that not everyone is Vietnamese. But when you grew up with something so abundant, don’t you get the feeling that everyone else must have grown up with it too? Next time someone says “What, you haven’t seen Star Trek?!”, I’m gonna ask “have you eaten taro?”. (Just my luck, they’d say yes and I’d have to go to Blockbusters. )
To be fair, Vietnam is not the only country that has taro in its kitchens, the roots are also in China, India, Korea, Japan, Cameroon, you name it. But to this Vietnamese taro-fan, it’s Vietnamese heart and soul. It’s not recognized everywhere, but its growth spreads everywhere. It adapts easily in both sweet and savory dishes. Its sweetness lies somewhere between the red sweet potato and the usual potato. It’s nutty like boiled peanuts in some parts, dense and moist like cassava in others.
It’s not pretty (are roots ever pretty?). It’s hairy, brown, with several nodes and spots. It can cause a slight itch if washed with bare hands. Most small taros are just a tad bigger than a chicken egg. The only thing I know how to do with them is to boil them, like eggs, for roughly 30 minutes (from cold water). Then I peel them while they’re still warm, dip them into sugar, and savor their nuttiness.
Actually, the taro here doesn’t taste that great. It’s too bland, too mushy, too dense, and it barely tastes like taro. Back home, Little Mom used to make taro soup (canh khoai môn): chunky slices of taro, chopped green onion, pork, dried shrimp (tôm khô), water,
salt and sugar to taste. There might have been a teaspoon or two of fish sauce and fish sauce to taste. It’s my favorite canh, and my grandfather’s too. But Little Mom doesn’t make it anymore because 1. she doesn’t like taro in its root form, and 2. she doesn’t like taro in the States.
She does like taro as a flavor in sweets, though. Once a week, we used to get a half-kilo tub of Wall’s taro ice cream, its soft lavender color was as sweet and alluring as its taste. How I long for the day when Häagen-Dazs churns out the magic purple so that I don’t have to settle with the ink-dyed Magnolia’s or wait at the mercy of Yogurt Land‘s customers. Apparently, taro frozen yogurt tops the worst-seller list in downtown Berkeley and only gets served when the other flavors are out. And I thought Berkeleyans were the adventurous type. FYI, taro pairs best with coconut.
When taro is added into plain things, like yogurt, it adds flavors. When it’s added into sweet things, like mooncake and pudding (chè), it moderates the sugar and adds texture. Bánh bía khoai môn (Suzhou mooncake with taro filling) is less sweet than its common mung bean counterpart (bánh bía đậu xanh). Chè khoai môn (taro in sticky rice pudding) is a harmonious mix of chunky and soft, of nutty and chewy, of plain, salty and sweet.
Through the internet grapevines, I’ve also heard of bánh da lợn khoai môn (taro pig-skin pie), bánh đúc khoai môn (taro rice jelly cake) with meat and dried shrimp, fried rice with taro, taro hushpuppies dipped into sweet and sour fish sauce. But if I ever get a real kitchen, the first thing I make with taro will be a bowl of soft, milky steamed taro cake (bánh khoai môn hấp), and I’ll get a cuppa taro bubble tea to complete my love.
Will they make taro milk one day?
More taro-ness: Taiwanese taro pastry