Most visitors to Hawaii have one experience eating taro and it usually isn't pleasant. Poi, the pink, gummy pastelike dish that is made from boiled taro root, is standard fare at hotel luaus, and most tourists take an instant dislike to the fermented taste and slimy texture.
But if they have an opportunity to taste taro chips, made from another variety of tuber known as Chinese taro, their reaction may be altogether different.
Taro chips, which are sliced, fried and salted much the same way as potato chips, have a unique sweet-and-sour taste. They also are beautiful: thin, cream-colored chips with delicate purple veins running through them. With the current emphasis on artistically presented meals, mainland chefs undoubtedly would like to use taro chips for an unexpected jolt of color.
Availability is another matter. The adventuresome eater who has a chance to try the chips discovers a treat that eclipses the much-ballyhooed Maui potato chip. Taro chips are not nearly as greasy as the Maui chip and their subtle flavor invites savoring, rather than mindless munching.
Most of the taro chips on the island are produced in Honolulu by Granny Goose Foods, a large, California-based snack food company that has been making taro chips for about eight years. There are a handful of small entrepreneurs throughout the island who are even more recent converts to taro chips.
*The islands' original taro chip manufacturer and one that several native Hawaiians recommend as turning out the most flavorful chips is Nip's Potato Chips, in Honolulu. Taro chips were first sold by Nip family members in 1930, and their current production methods are essentially unchanged.
A farmer delivers several hundred pounds of taro, which resembles a sugar beet, to the back door of the Nips' tiny factory in the Ward warehouse area of Honolulu. The four family members -- James, 83; his wife, Yuk Lin Tom, 79; daughter Donna Chang, 40, and son Norman, 38 -- then wash all the taro by hand.
"If you clean by machine, there is water consistently over the taro and I think some of the taste gets washed out," said Yuk Lin Tom, who prefers to be called Y.L.T. "Several years ago, some university teachers came and told us to put chemicals in the water and soak the taro, but I said no, we'd rather do everything by hand."
After the taro is cleaned, the family peels its way to the bottom of the mountain of taro, sometimes peeling as much as 800 pounds of taro, using wooden-handled instruments that look like outsized versions of vegetable peelers. "If the skin is left on, it scratches the throat," notes Chang. "So we have to be careful and get it all off."
Norman does most of the slicing and frying, cutting the taro into thin rounds and dropping them into hot oil until the edges curl and turn a light brown.
Nip's taro chips can be found in some Honolulu supermarkets, such as the A-1 Superette, across from the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center, and in some drug and liquor stores. And, if visitors want to add another edible souvenir to their cache of macademia nuts, fresh pineapple and papaya from Hawaii, they can visit the small Nip's Potato Chips factory (806 Pohukaina Street, Honolulu, Hawaii 96813) and buy a case of taro chips to check with their airline baggage. However, it is best to call ahead (808-536-8549) as hours vary.
The chips come in 2-ounce bags, which sell for about 99 cents at retail. If the chips are to be taken out of Hawaii for consumption, the Nip's will sell them for 75 cents per bag. A case of 48 bags of chips is $36.
Another small company that produces hand-peeled taro chips is Artie's Maui Foods Inc., an 8-year-old firm in Kahului that started with tortillas, tortilla chips and salsa before adding taro chips about a year ago. The taro chips are distributed only on Maui and owner Artie Garcia says he has to fry chips daily now to keep up with the demand.
"They've started to take off so well, it's amazing." No preservatives are used on the chips, which gives them a shorter shelf life than other snack products, about four weeks, Garcia explains.
Taro chips cost more than potato chips because of the short shelf life, the amount of hand labor involved, and because the taro root itself is more expensive than potatoes, points out Granny Goose's David Huntoon, who until recently was the division sales manager in Hawaii and now works for the company in California.
Taro needs to be stored in a cooler, Huntoon said, and it is best to use it quickly. "We cook within 48 hours of receiving it from the farmer."
Huntoon said taro chips have been shipped to California for sale, but just as a limited experiment. Currently, the company is limited by the amount of taro it can purchase. One problem is that many of the same farmers in Hawaii who grow taro rotate their crop with ginger root. The recent strength of the ginger market has brought them a better return, thus limiting taro acreage, said Huntoon.
The company has tried growing white taro with no purple veins in American Samoa, and will keep working on increasing the supply, said Huntoon. "The market has grown every year we've been making taro chips. We'd like to sell them regularly to the mainland."
Right now, however, Hawaii is the only state with a steady supply. For nostalgic former tourists, or those who have never been to the islands, but want to taste taro chips, Granny Goose and Artie's Maui Foods will ship to individuals on the mainland.
Granny Goose adds a $10 airmail shipping charge to each order. Twenty-four packages of the two-ounce bags of chips are $16.01, plus the $10. Fifteen packages of the five-ounce bags are $22.38, plus the $10. Send to: Granny Goose Foods, 1150 Kikowaena Place, Honolulu, Hawaii 96819 (telephone is 808-839-5136 but the company prefers mail orders).
Artie's Maui Foods will send 12 packages of two-ounce bags of chips for $10.08, which includes the surface shipping charge. Send to: Artie's Maui Foods, 153 Alamaha Street, Unit A, Kahului, Maui, Hawaii 96732. Telephone: 808-871-1166.