Kalo, the Hawaiian word for Taro, is not only a plant used in many dishes in Maui, it has deep roots in Hawaiian culture.
Kalo is one of over 24 “canoe plants,” which were carried to the Hawaiian islands by Polynesian voyagers hundreds of years ago. In addition to edible plants, helpful and ceremonial plants were brought as well. As a side note, these original Hawaiians were excellent farmers and stewards of the aina (land) and sea. But that is a story for another day.
We focus our canoe plant story on Kalo, as it has been cultivated as a revered staple of life since ancient times. Other staple crops include ulu (breadfruit), and uala (sweet potato). Navigating the open ocean in waa kaulua (double-hulled voyaging canoes), these first humans migrated in waves from the Marquesas Islands, Tahiti, and other island groups over centuries, carrying plants essential to their survival and the perpetuation of their culture.
According to Hawaii’s Bishop Museum, there are currently eight recognized species of Colocasia in the world, but only two are found in Hawai‘i: C. esculenta (L.) Schott and C. gigantea (Blume) Hook. The first, C. esculenta was initially introduced to the Hawaiian Islands by migrating Polynesians, but many horticultural varieties have been introduced by humans in recent times.
Kalo can be grown in small water filled ponds which are called lo’i. These shallow ponds are similar in some ways to rice paddies. In addition to wetland kalo, there are also quite a few dry land varieties.
The root of the taro plant is used in a variety of foods, including poi, which you might experience at an island luau or farm to table eatery. By steaming and mashing taro root, one can make pa‘i ‘ai. By adding water to pa‘i ‘ai, to the consistency of a pudding, you get poi. Many Western palates do not find poi very flavorful. However, when coconut milk and sugar are added to poi, it makes a wonderful dessert called kulolo.
The leaf of the taro plant is also used. Called a luau leaf, they can be steamed til tender, and incorporated into dishes like luau stew, to soak up flavor from meat and fish it is cooked with, much like collard greens. Luau leaves are also used to wrap lau lau, a favorite local dish made of pork and butterfish. These proteins are traditionally wrapped in lu’au leaves and ti leaves, then steamed and eaten with rice and poi.
As you can imagine, early voyagers had to be quite selective on what they carried. Tranporting kalo was a wise choice, as we now know taro root is an excellent source of dietary fiber and good carbohydrates, both of which improve the function of your digestive system and can contribute to healthy weight loss. Its high levels of vitamin C, vitamin B6, and vitamin E also help to maintain a healthy immune system and may eliminate free radicals. Kalo is an essential part of life for Hawaiian practioners, and perhaps what gives Hawaiian people great resiliency.
We hope you get to try a dish with kalo, or one of the other canoe crops of Hawaii, when you book your travel adventure to Maui.