Taro

or, In search of the perfect Rukau.

I tasted an extraordinary dish, Rukau, ten years ago on a trip to Rarotonga and since then I’ve been on a mission to find, replicate, and understand it. It is, in some ways, the simplest of dishes whose main ingredients consist of taro leaves (Rukau) and coconut cream or milk. But it is also a dish that is painful if the leaves are not prepared properly. It comes in many different flavour profiles, although every one I have come across does contain coconut cream or milk.

On this visit to Rarotonga I came across it three times, ate it twice and made it once. So this blog is my story of the continuing quest for the sublime Rukau.

First a word on the main ingredient, the taro leaf. There are two types of taro grown on Rarotonga. The first is the broad leaf taro (see picture above & below). It comes from the family Araceae and belongs to the genus Colocasia. Their roots are used as a carbohydrate staple, are purplish in colour and make the most delicious taro crisps. The young leaves may be cooked and in Samoa are made into a dish with coconut cream called palusami, which sounds very like the Cook Islands taro leaf dish, Rukau.

The second type of taro leaf (pictured below), grows more as a tall leggy shrub. It is the young and the unmarked older leaves which are the ones picked and used to make Rukau. This type of Araceae is an Amorphophallus campanulatus whose tubers are seldom used.

My first view of the dish on this trip came at the Nite Market at Muri. Perhaps 15-20 stalls provide food and drink which can be eaten at the trestle tables provided or can be taken home to eat as you sit overlooking the beach as the sun goes down.  Dishes of curry, noodles and rice predominate alongside stalls selling uto (the heart of a sprouting coconut), poke (jellied pumpkin or banana soaked in sweetened coconut cream – and eaten as a dessert or served with other savoury salad dishes) and a local chestnut bread cooked in an umu (earth oven). Almost all of the savoury dishes contain meat – chicken, lamb, pork – and disappointingly the only two dishes containing Rukau were the puaka toro miti, a fatty meat dish served with Rukau. The other was Neck Chops with Rukau, Rice and Maniota (the root of the tapioca or arrowroot) all for $10. So I did not get to taste this time.

My next sight was at the restaurant where we went to celebrate our 50th anniversary, the Tamarind House Restaurant. We had been there ten years before and, thankfully, not much had changed. We even sat at the same table, were welcomed by the same wait staff, and looked out at the same reef and beautiful sparkling lagoon. This time we chatted to the owners Robbie and Sue. This time three whales swam past, turned, returned and turned again.  This time I could have taro leaves, but not Rukau, if I ordered the roasted vegetable lasagne. So I did. I lost that unique experience of silky smooth vegetable with coconut, but the lasagne did deliver the green of the taro as the sun went down. Next time I’ll try the Eggplant Stack which does have Rukau.

Third time proved very lucky because I got to make Rukau. We had opted to attend a Taste of Local Food Rarotonga cooking class. This class is run by an engaging and energetic woman, Ainne, who, originally a Cook Islander, had returned three years ago, with her husband, to live there full time. Like many returnees, Ainne and her husband run portfolios lives bringing new skills to the island and creating new types of income streams. Taste of Local Food Rarotonga takes you out to the market to buy what you will prepare, cook and eventually serve and eat for lunch.

So, off we went to market – well a stall by the beach was our first stop. We bought young coconut and pumpkin poke. The second stop was at the only fish selling shop on the island, but when we got there the shelves were bare. All of the overnight catch had been bought up, mainly by local restaurants, and so there was no fish for the sashimi Ainne wanted to make for the pescatarians for lunch. Then we dropped in to Punanga Nui market, the market in the main town of Avarua. During the week there are a few food stalls selling fruit, vegetable, coconut products … and poke. But it really comes alive at the weekend and is not at all touristy but full of local produce, local people and local entertainments. We bought fresh maniota root, taro root, paw paw, tomatoes, cucumber and yard long beans. Next, we were off to the supermarket for ginger and turmeric before our last stop to pick up a bottle of freshly made coconut cream and some fresh bread.

The taro leaves were picked from the garden of Ainne’s house along with starfruit which Ainne gifted to us.

We had about an hour to get lunch ready and in that time an orange and onion salad, a pawpaw salad, a tomato, cucumber salad, boiled maniota, taro chips and, of course, Rukau were all prepared and produced by Rob, myself with Ainne helping and directing us.

The correct preparation of the taro leaves is important because otherwise the oxalic acid will leave your throat scratchy and itchy and very uncomfortable. So the young leaves are rinsed, shaken, and for each, the tip, all of the stalk and one cm of leaf around the stalk is removed. After cutting into ribbons the leaves are boiled for at least 25 – 45 minutes, although I have been told by one local chef that they should be boiled in three sets of clean water, draining and discarding the water between each process.

Ainne had me fry red onion, grated ginger and turmeric, then add the drained cooked leaves before adding the fresh coconut cream. Some salt and pepper and it was ready in time for Ainne’s husband, her nephew, his wife and daughter to join us to eat.

Was it itchy, had the leaves been cooked long enough? Personally, I thought everyone was too polite to say otherwise, but I know I did feel a little tickle. Fortunately, nothing as bad as Molly experienced in Hawaii – read here and beware!

The search continues mainly because it is fun, but at least I can access taro leaves in Auckland (Otara market) and I don’t have to go to Rarotonga each time I want to try or cook Rukau.

Here are a couple of recipes: