08 March 2012

Gypsy Kitchens: Cooking Kolokasi

Cyprus has snow. Even now, in March, people are skiing in the high Troodos. Installed in the small mountain hamlet of Silikou, our breath has been white in the evenings and we have our drinks by a blazing hearth. The cold and altitude have brought our thoughts back to hearty winter-roots and warm food. So, on a rainy day in our stone cottage, we decided to cook up a Kolokasi stew, a filling and simple Cypriot specialty. One thing that worried us: Kolokasi is poisonous.
Kolokasi is a bit of a mystery food. Better known in English as taro (or dasheen), it's extremely rare in Europe - most Taro is cultivated in southeast Asia and Malaysia, where it originated. The course roots were once popular in the Roman empire, after being introduced by way of Egypt, but as Rome declined, so too did Kolokasi. Now, it's only grown in significant quantities in two places on the European continent: the geek island of Ikaria and in Cyprus.
The first time we saw Kolokasi for sale, we actually thought they were some kind of huge mushroom.
High levels of calcium oxalate in taro give the root its toxicity, and make it inedible when raw. There are a few ways to minimize the poisonous effects - soaking the roots in cold water for 24 hours, for example. But nobody would want to eat kolokasi raw anyway, and the best way to get rid of the poison is to thoroughly cook it - just like rhubarb. Some people suggest cooking it with baking soda, but we made a mistake and added baking powder. Not that it mattered. We're still alive.
We bought our kolokasi from a man who sold them on the roadside. He had two varieties - one larger type and these small ones. It wasn't clear what the difference between them was. He was also keen on selling us potatoes instead, maybe because they're not poisonous. Declining the potatoes, we picked up a few carrots and onions.
The cooking process wasn't too difficult, just the basic peel, chop and boil technique. The skin was tough and covered with small hairs. Slime formed on the white flesh as it was cut - a kind of milky, white, slippery stuff that got all over the cutting board and our hands. It's supposedly possible to minimize this sliminess by breaking the kolokasi apart with your hands, but you'd have to be incredibly strong. The roots are denser than potatoes, and hard to get a grip on. Plus, the peel is too unappetizing to leave on.
Though it's been common on the Cyprus roadsides, supermarkets and vegetable stands, we hadn't knowingly eaten any taro on the island. So this isn't really a recipe, it's more of an experiment - the goal was to see if we could cook the kolokasi, eat it and survive. We added garlic and tomato paste to our liquid, but otherwise kept it simple - we were curious about how this stuff tasted, and didn't want to muddy up the flavor.
It took about an hour and a half of cooking to make the cubes fork-tender. Interestingly, the crisp edges of the cut kolokasi dissolved as we boiled it, and the whole stew turned into an orange, chunky mash, which isn't so bad on a cold night in the mountains.
A more traditional Cypriot recipe involves making a kind of soup with pork and celery, which makes sense. It would be a great thickening agent in place of more traditional stew roots, adding starch to the broth while remaining somewhat whole.
So, how did it taste? Pretty bland. The flavor is somewhere between that of potato, yucca and plantain. It wasn't much different than any other root vegetable slurry - except for the nervousness about getting sick. For a few hours after eating, we paid careful attention to our stomachs, watching for some sign (who knows what) of low grade kolokasi poisoning. It wasn't until the next morning, really, that we were completely convinced that we'd made it through okay. Maybe baking powder helps too.

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