The potato of the tropics or coco yam are alternate names for this root that is a staple of many people of the tropics. It was one of the earliest cultivated plants in Malaysia where it is believed to have originated in the wetlands. It can be found growing along wetland fringes of ditches, streams, canal, and lakes. It is an herbaceous perennial that produces large ‘elephant’ like leaves above ground and edible roots below ground.
In Deni Brown’s book, Aroids Plants of the Arum Family, he writes,
“The oldest cultivated crop in the world is an aroid: taro (Colocasia esculenta). It has been grown in parts of tropical and subtropical Asia for more than 10,000 years (Cable 1984). The ancient irrigation systems of terrace paddies seen today may well have been constructed originally for taro long before rice came on the scene, and rice may have first come to notice as a weed in the flooded taro patches (Plucknett 1976).”
Even though this plant is poisonous in all its parts, the leaves and roots are eaten daily in some parts of the world. Edoe (yet another name) contains calcium oxalate in all its parts, which contains needle-like crystals (called raphids) that produce the toxic response. The sap on the skin is a major irritant, and taken internally it will produce sensations of burning in the mouth and throat, swelling, and choking. Even with this response in mammals it can be rendered edible with proper cooking procedures!
To make Taro edible it must be cooked, in any fashion you would like. From roasting, boiling, or frying; you can slice, grate or mash them…as long as they are cooked you are safe! When cooked it has a mealy texture and a slightly sweet flavor. Many people compare them to the potato. Poi, a standard food in Hawaii, is made of Taro, and is a starchy paste like food that is fermented!
In Hawaii it has a history of use in local medicine. Only the uncooked corms are used in medicine. The scraped corm was used mixed into a formula to act as a purgative (causing vomiting). The leaves and sap can be applied to a cut to stop bleeding (styptic), and start the healing process.
In Hawaii the plant is considered sacred. It is considered to have the greatest life force of any food stuff. Taro grew from the body of the stillborn son of Wakea (sky father) and Papa (earth mother). This plant came with the earliest Hawaiian settlers in their canoes, and was considered a staple and the staff of life for centuries. The Hawaiians still refer to the plant as the “elder brother”.