Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Taro vs. Elephant Ear (Telling Them Apart)

Will the real taro leaf please stand up?

Both leaves are invitingly heart-shaped, veined, soft to touch, and large. Rain drops after a passing shower collect easily on both leaves, but only one leaf is edible. The taro plant has been cultivated in Hawaii for centuries, and is a staple of local cuisine. 

The green taro leaf is used in making lau lau, a local dish featuring pork and butter fish, or sometimes sweet potato.  The taro leaf is also called lu'au leaf and is a main ingredient in chicken lu'au, a flavorful stew.  The taro leaf has a rich flavor, like spinach, but with a greener flavor. The taro tuber is also edible, after being cooked for a very long time to break down the naturally occurring oxalic acid. The leaf also needs to be cooked well, and cannot be eaten raw.

The elephant ear plant (also known as 'ape)looks beautiful but is not really edible, although certain locals claim the very young tubers are edible. No matter how long the elephant ear leaves are cooked, the leaves are like needles on the tongue. 

How do I know this? Well, true story, I once gathered a bunch of elephant ear leaves and boiled them in water, thinking they were taro leaves. DH and I saw down to dinner, and our tongues became immediately prickly. I called the poison control center, and the local guy on the end of the line said we wouldn't die, but we had picked elephant ear leaves by accident, and it happened quite often, because this wasn't the first call they'd had.

What about the elephant ear tubers? 
Didn't I say some people think the immature tubers are edible? Yes and no. I did try boiling the tubers for 45 minutes, following the directions of our neighbor. 

The first bite...delicious... 
The second bite... yummy. 
The third bite... Oh, my tongue started to tingle, like it had touched little cactus needles. 

I talked with my neighbor and he said some people are sensitive to the baby tubers and advised me NOT to eat any more. 

As it turns out, both plants are in the same plant family and they do look very similar, with similar growing habits. Elephant ears grow more easily and vigorously than taro though, so if you have a bunch of heart-shaped leaves around your yard, and you didn't plant them, and they are doing well despite lack of care, they are probably not taro.

If you haven't figured it out yet, the picture on the upper left is an elephant ear, and on the  upper right is a taro leaf.

Key differences:

  • Taro leaves have more rounded curves at the top of the heart shape. Elephant ears have more pointy angles at the top of the heart. 
  • Taro leaves look a little more ruffly. Elephant ears look more linear. 
  • The center of the veins in the elephant ear start along the top edge of the leaf (this is where all the veins meet), whereas the veins in the taro leaf meet together about an inch from the top. (Update 4/16/14: There is a variety of taro I just learned about called the "Piko" which looks notched to the center. It's not that common.)
  • Taro leaves are a little softer to the touch. 
Photo on left is Elephant Ear - it's more linear and angular. The "piko" where the veins meet is at the edge of the leaf, at the notch. The photo on the right is taro or kalo - the leaf edge is curvy and soft, almost ruffled. The "piko" where the veins meet is about 1 - 2" from the notch of the leaf. FYI, piko also means belly button in Hawaiian.

Not taro!  A leaf from the elephant ear plant. 
It is a little tricky, because this particular leaf has a more curvy or ruffled or wavy edge, but overall the leaf veins are more linear and there is a deep V notch at the top where the veins meet at the "piko." Also notice how angular the heart shape is when you look at the top of the leaf. Instead of a smooth curve for the top of the heart, it's triangular.

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  1. You're welcome! I learned the hard way!

  2. May I link to this article from my blog? I have Taro plants that I grow and sell and this would be great information to share.

  3. Yes, you are welcome to do this! Sorry to take so long to get back to you! I've been buried deep in a project for work! I'll stop by and visit your blog too!

  4. Please make sure you don't have them labeled wrong

  5. If you have labels in your yard! The Elephant Ear where I live grows wild, like a weed, so if you move to a new place and the garden hasn't been tended, there's a good chance it's Elephant Ear which is more rugged than taro. There is one kind of taro leaf I've seen since then which looks like the piko (navel, belly button) of the taro is more similar to Elephant Ear, but it still has a more gentle/wavy leaf edge.

  6. This is NOT accurate. Xanthosoma sagittifolium is a staple food in certain parts of Brazil. You felt the prickly sensation on your tongue because you did not cook it enough. When you cook the leaves longer, those crystals lose their effect, and it's perfectly OK to eat.


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