Scrumptious Flavors Take Root
As the staple of the traditional Hawaiian diet, kalo, or taro, is synonymous with the Islands, and loved not only for its rich texture, nourishment, versatility and hint of sweet and sour flavors, but also for its deeply rooted cultural significance.
In addition to scooping up poi alongside your favorite Hawaiian foods or enjoying the root vegetable woven into modern local fare — leading Hawaii chef Ed Kenney comes to mind, for instance, as he’s been known to use old-school ingredients like paiai (pounded kalo) in his recipes — taro’s reach extends beyond the Pacific.
Historically, it has been an important food source in Africa and Southern India, and today we find it across the board in a melange of culinary uses: desserts, bubble drinks, even ice cream, not to mention as the starch of choice in an endless array of savory specialties.
When turning to our trusty Ono, You Know restaurants, I found no shortage of taro-rooted dishes — no pun intended — so let’s get a taste of the diverse ways in which one can scarf down this perfect purple plant.
COOKIN’ IT CHINESE-STYLE
Many of us love to see taro show up on the dim sum carts and sprawling menus of Oahu’s favorite Chinese eateries. One of those places is House of Wong Restaurant, where, as the name suggests, Cantonese cuisine makes itself at home.
The dining spot only has been open on Kapahulu Avenue for a little over a year, but when you taste its menu items, you’d think the chefs have been cooking them for years. Well, that’s because they have, actually, seeing as House of Wong’s crew used to run a Chinese restaurant in Waikiki for more than 20 years before relocating to their current location.
You can taste their experience in the ever-satisfying Kau Yuk with Taro ($18.95), aka Pot Roast Pork with Taro. This house favorite offers pork belly and fiber-rich taro, both of which are nice and tender yet lightly crisped on the edges — the desired result of the frying and steaming cooking processes. The seasonings are particularly noteworthy, as the whole dish is covered in thick gravy emanating five-spice, salt and pepper, and a touch of sugar for balance.
“This is very traditional and very popular with local people and also the tourists from China, because it is a very typical Chinese dish,” describes co-owner Michael Wang.
While at House of Wong, be sure to throw in an order of Honey-glazed Spare Ribs, another signature dish that has gained a loyal following.
House of Wong Restaurant
477 Kapahulu Ave., Honolulu
When steamed, baked or boiled, taro’s sweetness comes out, so it’s no wonder that countries like Thailand love to mix it with coconut milk and create delectable desserts. At Noi Thai Cuisine in Royal Hawaiian Center, general manager Ying Rosawan says that rather than using the ingredient the customary way, the upscale Thai restaurant wanted to do something a little different with taro — especially since it’s so popular here in Hawaii.
Enter Crispy Taro Roll ($13), a sharable pupu that is stunning both in presentation and flavor. Made up of fried spring rolls stuffed with minced prawns and locally sourced taro, the dish is crowned with a vibrantly flavored plum sauce for dipping. The softness of the taro balances well with the nice crunch of the wrapping, making for a well-balanced bite.
“We use crispy taro on our Royal Hawaiian Dream dish as well,” adds Rosawan. “It is grilled Mahi Mahi on a bed of fresh spinach topped with crispy taro and sun dried tomato — all topped with a cotton candy cloud. The dish comes with a zesty lime dressing.”
Aside from all things taro, Rosawan shares that Thai Beef Noodle Soup is now available for lunch, while the recently added Fried Banana A La Mode has become a top-selling dessert. And if you fancy a classic cocktail, head to the bar and try the eatery’s award-winning Hennessy Smokey Old Fashioned.
Noi Thai Cuisine
Royal Hawaiian Center, Building C, Level 3
2301 Kalakaua Ave., Waikiki