Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Gabi (Colocasiodeae )
Gabi or taro is something that I've always seen, but never really paid much attention to until last year or so. Being rice-centric, I've only ever considered it as something to eat in sinigang (which I just had last night) and Chinese food, or, on a lucky day, laing. We cultivate it as a food crop here, but not as a staple as in Polynesia and other places in Southeast Asia, where it is the most important food crop. In many places in Asia, it is cultivated in sunken fields, at the volumes that we grow rice. Here we have smaller-scale production, usually in areas of a farm or home where water is accumulating, or at the side of properties. I have also seen them in water-purifying systems outside kitchen waterways.
So it turns out that gabi or taro is actually a general term for a couple of kinds of edible plants from the family Araceae tribe of Colocasiodeae and, without science books and all, they are classified by people according to their cultivation.
One is the wet-cultivated one, the Colocasia esculenta variety, said to be native to India or Bangladesh. It is what we have always grown, currently as the great-grandchild of the one my dad had in his garden growing up in Fort Bonifacio. When they transferred homes, one of my uncles took some to plant. When we transferred to our lot, my dad took some to grow himself:
The wetland variety is in a soft heart shape and has waterproof and velvety leaves. The undersides are light in color and beautiful (see first photo of this post). As far as I know, this is the sort whose leaves we use in Filipino dishes, as I've never seen the upland leaves being dried at all. We use the tubers too, of course, and I'm convinced this is what we've been eating mostly, although I can't be sure if I've been eating the upland ones. Here is another one that I got from Quezon, which is a swampy place:
The upland or dry-cultivation variety has more angular basal lobes (the curved parts of the heart) of the Xanthosoma genus, supposedly a native of South and Central America. They generally grow bigger and have shiny leaves. You need to care for them less than the wet ones, apparently. Here is one that I got from Sagada recently, where the high elevation makes them ideal:
As a note, both varieites can grow out of their classified environments. We have been growing the swamp sort in a very dry environment for a long time, and the larger dryland ones can grow in swamps. I am not sure about the difference in taste of the tubers (this we will find out in maybe a year more), but some say the upland tubers have less sweetness.
Some are grown for cultural reasons. This variety, very wavy and stuff, and with a dark purple petiole or stem, is grown outside homes in the Visayas to ward away bad spirits. I took it from a Quezon City home of a possible migrant. Soon it will be driving away spirits here too (still letting it grow a bit).
Filipinos sometimes grow gabi for animal feed. These large dryland type above was taken from Cavite, where they were grown for feeding as fattening mash to pigs, boiling away at the back of the farmer's home.
And about cooking, you need to do this well, as there are oxalic acids in the leaf and root which can be extremely itchy. Filipino tips would be not to talk while cooking, not ever to stire laing while cooking, and so on. I guess this roughly translates as: pay attention to the food, do not stir it mindlessly while yakking, and don't stir the leaves before the portion touching the pan can cook adequately. For the wetland variety, drying out the leaves is said to help in removing the poison. Here is a good primer on preparing or selecting gabi with the poison and palatability in mind.
Over other staples, gabi is said to be better digestible at 98.8%, with little allergies caused. Lower dental maladies and diseases are present in Hawaiian babes born on taro and sweet potato eating populations than in rice and bread. Something to think about! It also might be good for vegetarians like me, as it contains more vitamin B-complex than whole milk. The cooked leaves are comparable (in nutrition) to spinach. Maybe eating gabi in place of rice for a few days a week can yield interesting results. I am going to pursue some poi making, to add to my list of fermented food.
It is fairly easy to get out of the ground and take home-- I usually take a corm (yes, that is what they call the root) with some leaf attached to it, and put it in water or some soil and nurture a bit-- then transplant. You can plant the corm alone, or even a portion of the peel with a bit of a bump coming out, but I'm not so patient. I have done that unintentionally, though.
Last note: When harvesting and peeling, be careful as your hands will get itchy! I didn't know this as I decided to cook some Cambodian spring rolls out of our gabi once, and my hands burned up. It was painful! I stuck my hands in some grated coconut and pressed the oils out, which provided an almost-immediate kind of relief. I later read that this is how they do it in Hawaii, and that they keep their spent coconut beside the kitchen for such episodes.