As we drive the stunningly panoramic road ringing the dramatic beaches of Kaua‘i’s north shore, I have one memory from our last trip here 8 years ago that I silently pray I can find again. No, it’s not the silken sand, snorkeling spots for fanciful fish, or hiking paths through lush green forests. It’s a memorable, locally made, taro mochi cake that I bought from a roadside truck. The sweet, spongy, gluten-free dessert made from rice flour and coconut milk, flecked with purple bits of taro satisfied with exotic homeyness.
Rounding the bend in Hanalei, across from the giddy line of tourists waiting for day-glo colored balls of Wishing Well Shave Ice, I glimpse the modest green truck I remember, with the sign “Hanalei Taro and Juice Company.”
As I gratefully purchase my little taro mochi cake, I notice that the company offers tours of their family taro farm, where six generations are keeping tradition alive, with the motto “the new flavors of old Hawai‘i.”
Not knowing much about taro, other than it is an important crop for native Hawaiians and a key ingredient in poi, I sign up for the 3-hour tour. Lyndsey Haraguchi Nakayama, 5th generation member of the Haraguchi family, charms me immediately when she explains the reason she leads weekly tours of her family’s farm, “Most people taste poi and go ‘bleh’ and think that’s all there is to taro. But there is so much more: we make taro fruit smoothies, taro hummus, taro burgers and taro mochi cakes.”
As 20 of us set off in a van one morning to tour the farm, Lyndsey shares some of the challenges of farming on a tropical island, including hurricanes and flash floods which occasionally wipe out large swaths of the hand-planted, wetland taro plants that take 14 months to mature, as well as various plant blights and hungry bands of wild boars that can decimate an acre of the 55 acre farm in a matter of hours.
When we stop in front of an expanse of huge, waving heart-shaped leaves, Lyndsey describes the most heartbreaking aspect of raising these pesticide-free plants: an infestation of apple snails, originally introduced to Hawai‘i in the 1980’s as an aquarium pet, these 3-inch to fist-sized creatures eventually got loose in the waterways and discovered their favorite meal, taro, which they now threaten to destroy. The snails also prevent Lyndsey and her family from farming the old-fashioned way—barefoot—since their sharp shells hide in the mud and can easily cut workers’ feet as they move through the wet fields to tend the taro.
In her knee-high, mud-caked boots, Lyndsey hands out long-handled strainers to her now willing helpers, with which we scrape off some of the bright pink snail egg sacs that are easily visible clinging to the green stems. Just then, we see Lyndsey’s 89-year old grandfather driving by in a tractor. Although officially retired, he still is a strong presence on this land that was the last Hawaiian farm to grow rice in the 1960’s and switched to taro in the 1970’s.
We get back in the van and drive past nesting areas for five native water birds in this official wildlife refuge and then tour the historic rice mill. Next we are treated to samples of freshly pounded cooked purple taro (pa‘i‘ai) mixed with raw coconut shreds — it has a light, nutty, potato-y taste. By contrast, Lyndsey explains that most mainlanders probably get their first taste of taro at luaus in the form of poi — a half-water, half-taro paste-like mixture. Since the best quality poi is saved for island residents, however, mainlanders’ first taste of this traditional dish is often their last.
Taro has been a nutritious and revered food in the Hawaiian islands for more than a thousand years. Easily digestible and a good source of fiber, it contains Vitamin C, E and B6, calcium, potassium and iron.
Hawaiian folklore considers taro to be “the elder brother” of all Hawaiians and since it is disrespectful to fight in front of an elder, when a bowl of poi is opened, all argument must stop.
As one of the world’s earliest cultivated plants, taro is featured in the cuisines of more than two-dozen countries from Brazil to India and China. Every part of the plant is enjoyed: leaves are stir-fried, cooked in soups, or steamed; stems sautéed, boiled or ground; and the tuber roots steamed, fried, mashed, and made into everything from appetizers to desserts.
When we get back to the stand, the tour ends with a box lunch. Lyndsey says that while 90% of their crop is used for poi, they save the rest to make into her mom’s taro recipes; except that now her husband Brad does all the cooking.
I choose a classic chicken laulau wrapped in steamed, savory taro leaves. Served with lomilomi salmon, rice and a small square of my favorite taro mochi.
Lyndsey asked me to emphasize: if you are on Kauai and want to visit the farm, here is the link for tour reservations. Please don’t go into the valley to visit the farm on your own; it’s hard on both the farmers and the endangered birds.
Looking for East Bay taro tastes?
A bag of taro chips or taro dumplings at Chinese dim sum.