There's something about root vegetables that grips me. How these magical things grow underground and turn luscious and beautiful. Ever thought of beets, carrots, sweet potatoes, radishes, parsnips, turnips, fennels, onions, garlic and more of their kind and wondered how they get so colorful while growing in the dark? I wonder how we take such miracles of nature for granted, the way muted earthy-toned root vegetables are often ignored except potatoes. One such vegetable is taro, the root of the Colocassia plant.
On having these thoughts, I usually write to let my emotions find home in words, and sometimes I seek books or the internet hoping to find something — a blurb, an essay or an account — resonating with my feelings. During one such venture of finding thoughts on taro, I came across Sumana Roy's article in The Hindu. She describes what I feel perfectly:
There is something inherently foreign about eating what grows underground. And the humble taro root — kochu in Bengali — comes wrapped in mystery and cultural connotations
Like all vegetables, taro has many names in India. I knew it as saru in Odia in my childhood, and later learned it as arbi in Hindi. Like its many names, taro is cooked in many ways across India. In Odisha, it's readily added to mixed vegetable preparations like santula, doused with lentils and other vegetables in dalma, or celebrated on its own as saru besara, where taro is cooked with mustard paste. In neighbouring Bengal, where it's called kochu, it's popularly made into a dry gravy with mustard and poppy seed paste, kochur loti and also made into chutney on the sil-bata. In both Odisha and Bengal, it's also eaten as stir fried or deep fried bhaja. The Sindhis call it kachalu and make into tasty fries, tuk, and serve it with sai bhaji or Sindhi kadhi. Taro is also cooked and eaten in all states of south India, and its other forms like ghandyali in Himachal Pradesh and gaderi in Uttarakhand are an integral part of everyday food. It's leaves are edible too, and cooked so many ways across India, but today I am talking about the root alone.
Other than India, many Asian countries also have a tradition of growing and consuming taro. European, African and American countries also cook and eat taro in different ways. Taro is one of the earliest root crops to be cultivated, spreading from South-East Asia to China, Japan and the Pacific islands, and then travelling to Arabia and the Mediterranean region.
Reaching Africa only about 2000 years ago, it's cultivated the most there now.
Farmers prefer to grow it to fill the gap between seasonal crops, thus handling situations when food is in short supply. Although a water intensive crop, it spreads profusely in suitable conditions and yields well.
Despite this, and its incredible taste and health benefits, taro remains overlooked. It's one of the most popular root vegetables grown all over the world, and yet not a favourite like the potato.
I think its low reputation has much to do with the itchiness it causes — due to the presence of calcium oxalate crystals — and the effort required to let its sliminess go away before cooking or tweaking things in the pan to ditch the goop it creates. None of this ever kept me away from taro though. It could be because taro or saru as we call it was always part of our food while growing up. I watched my mother work with this vegetable that almost resembles a small gnawing mammal. Some may find it disgusting that I say so but Sumana calls it rat-looking in the article and I find it rather funny.
Coming back to how mother cleaned it to get rid of the itchiness. Although advised to rub oil on her hands before peeling the taro, she would simply peel it with her bare hands, and then slide the pieces into a bowl of water, sprinkle some salt and leave it aside. Fifteen to twenty minutes later, she returned to the bowl, and washed the taro pieces under running water, rubbing and cleaning them between the tips of her fingers. "Here, feel it", she would give me a piece, and I'd lay it on a muslin or a tattered bit of an old saree. There was no itching whatsoever and just like that the taro was ready to be cooked.
When I started cooking, I followed what my mother did, and never has taro itched my hands, mouth or throat. As I feel each piece of taro on my finger tips, washing its mucous away, I almost find myself in a conversation with the underestimated roots. It's almost like they tell me when they're ready to be tossed onto the paper towel and wiped of any leftover gumminess. I wash the taro leaves the same way too - dip them in bowl of water, rub salt, and wash them under running water, wiping the droplets with my hands.
There are many ways of making taro, and honestly, I love all. I like it more than potato. Yes, I do. And, if you make this easy taro stir fry, you will also fall in love with taro if you haven't till now.
I absolutely adore my mother's Odia style saru bhaja where she makes roundels of the root, coats them a light batter of rice flower and fries with cumin and chili. That's for another day! This recipe is the simplest kind of recipe to cook taro in typical north-Indian flavours, and has a typical Punjabi influence because I learned it from Auntie A. It's mildly spicy and optimally tangy and smells beautiful because of the carom seeds.
There are fewer dishes that come close to the joy of stir fried taro with some dal and rice!
Always choose the smaller variety of taro. They're easy to handle and taste better.
To get rid of the sliminess and itching caused from taro, always peel taro root first and cut them up into the shapes you want. Next, soak them in salt water for about 20 minutes and then wash them by lightly rubbing them between your fingers.
Put them on a paper towel, and dab them dry.
You can rub your hands with oil as precaution.
Keep the taro pieces slightly thick for a good texture. This will also prevent them from turning gloopy and soggy. You can also sprinkle a little chickpea flour or rice flower on the pieces towards the end. This helps to absorb the sliminess.
400-500 gm arbi or taro root (smaller variety), cut into thick roundels or wedges
1 small onion, chopped into chunks (optional)
1-2 green chilies, halved and slit
3-4 tbsp mustard oil (or any other oil of your choice)
1 tsp carom seeds (ajwain)
1/2 tsp asafoetida (heeng)
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp red chili powder
1 tsp coriander
2 tsp dry mango powder (amchur) or juice of 1 lime
1 tsp salt, or to taste
1/4 tsp chaat masala
Fresh cilantro to garnish
Peel, cut and wash taro root and soak in salt water for at least 20 minutes. Drain and dry the roundels in a kitchen towel.
In a wok or pan, heat oil. If you're using mustard oil, let it smoke. Add carom seeds and asafoetida. Let them get fragrant, and add the taro root roundels. Toss well to coat the vegetable with the carom seeds. Cover and cook on low heat for 10 minutes.
Open the cover, stir again and then add the onion and chilies. Mix well and then add salt. Cover again and cook on low heat for the next 5-7 minutes.
Open and check for doneness and then add turmeric, red chili powder, coriander powder and dry mango powder. Stir to combine. Keep cooking on medium heat till the spices are cooked and coat the taro root roundels nicely.
Switch off the heat and sprinkle the chaat masala. Add the cilantro on top before serving.