I was trying to find the English word for the culinary technique that Samoans call fa’alifu. I thought it might be ‘braising’ or ‘stewing’, but those methods aren’t quite right. Maybe English needs to adopt another Samoan word and then the rest of the world can adopt the delicious practice of simmering cooked tubers in fragrant coconut cream.
The tuber called taro (talo or kalo in Samoan) is the main staple of the traditional Samoan diet. One of our favourite ways to prepare taro is to, essentially, boil it twice – first in water, then in coconut cream flavoured with salt and onions. We call this method fa’alifu, and this dish is fa’alifu talo, or in more casual Samoan speak: fa’alifu kalo. Fa’alifu kalo is pretty simple to make, as long as you’re familiar with taro… and coconut cream. It also helps to know how ‘cooked’ you like your taro to be.
Let me show you.
Step 1: Choose a good taro
In Auckland, we have access to several varieties of taro (depending on the season and shipments from the islands), but my family prefers the big, sturdy looking taro with the pinkish ends.
Quick story about this pink taro:
Pink taro once grew very well all over Samoa. We called it ‘kalo Giue’, or Niuean taro…not sure why. Maybe it originally came from Niue?
And then an agricultural blight hit Samoa in the 90s and killed off all our kalo Giue. To this day, something in Samoa’s soil means this kind of taro just can’t grow in Samoa anymore.
Thankfully, smart people saved kalo Giue by sending it to be cultivated in Fiji where it is thriving.
Fiji now exports this taro to Samoa, Australia and New Zealand, etc…except now, Samoans know it as ‘kalo Fiti’, or Fijian taro.
Other varieties of taro that I’ve seen around include the long one with the white flesh, the more compact one with the thick, very brown skin and the one that’s slightly purple.
I know right? I’m a taro connoisseur with all my scientific taro names. (Google is our friend.)
Anyway, whichever taro you choose, make sure it’s nice and dense – it feels weighty for its size – and that it looks ‘fresh’. Avoid taro with too many soft or dry spots around its main body, but it’s okay for the ends to be a little dry.
Step 2: Peel, clean and cut the taro
After you’ve brought your well-chosen taro home, it’s time to prepare it for the pot.
Start by cutting off the top quarter or so end piece of the taro. This is the stem part that once connected the taro to its leaves – you should see that its texture is different from the proper taro root. We don’t need that stem part. We only want to cook the root.
Next, slice off any dry or soft blemishes you might notice on the taro, in the same way we might cut off the eyes or rotten bits of a potato. Hopefully your taro is so healthy and fresh we don’t have much of this tidying up to do.
Slice off the bottom half inch or so of the taro – this part is mostly thick skin that was connected to the roots – and now we can peel the rest of it.
Quick chat about how Samoans peel taro:
Back in the day we scraped the taro skin off using coconut shell ‘cups’ with sharpened rims. Sometimes we also used the sharp edges of a clam shell. Regardless of the material, this food-preparation scraping tool was called an ‘asi.
Fast forward to my childhood days, and Samoans were using tin cans as our ‘asi. After we ate the contents of, say, a tin of mackerel, we’d cut the empty can in half and the resulting rim was usually sharp enough to scrape the thick skin off taro.
I know that lots of us still like to use the tin-can ‘asi today, but slicing the taro skin off with a sharp knife works pretty well, too.
Some might argue that slicing the skin off with a knife removes too much of the taro, but I think it’s tidier.
Up to yoooouuuu.
After your taro is nice and peeled, give it a good rinse under running water to get rid of any skin debris and also some of the sticky slimy-ness that can still coat a peeled taro.
Next cut the taro into chunky pieces – we like them big. Like, one piece of taro should be a little bigger than your fist…I’m not sure why, but I think it’s because this size is the perfect portion for one Samoan person’s dinner plate.
Step 3: Boil the taro in salted water
Chuck your taro pieces into a pot, fill the pot with water until the taro is well covered (the water should be around an inch higher than the taro), throw in a couple teaspoons of salt and bring to boil.
Now… just how much boiling you do will depend on how you like your fa’alifu kalo.
A lot of people like their cooked taro to be fairly firm – so that it’s tender enough for a knife to go through it, but the taro pieces keep their shape and stay a bit shiny after the water is drained.
In our house, however, we like our cooked taro to be a little more pala, which (in this context) means that the taro is a bit more mushy. For us, when it’s ready, the taro should still be solid, but fork-tender, and with less of a shine on it’s outside.
The reason we like our taro a more pala is that it just soaks up more of the delicious coconut cream sauce coming up in the next step.
Step 4: Prepare the Coconut Cream Sauce
While your taro is boiling, prepare your coconut cream sauce.
If you have access to fresh coconuts straight from the tree, amuia lava oe ia (lucky you!). In Samoa, you’ll know to husk and open a popo (a mature coconut), scrape the coconut meat out then use a tauaga (made from dried fibers of the laufao plant) to wrap and squeeeeeze that creamy coconut milk from its shreds.
The rest of us might have to make do with canned coconut cream.
In New Zealand, we like Solo’s Choice or Fia Fia Coconut Cream. Kara is okay, too, but tends to be much thicker than we need it to be for some of our dishes. Oh, another coconut cream can that’s surprisingly not bad is the Countdown store brand, Essentials.
Anyway, mix up a good amount of coconut cream with salt and sliced onions to taste… and by my tastes, that’s a lot of onions (please see my note below about measurements).
Step 5: Drain the taro then Simmer
Okay, when your taro has reached the boiled consistency that you like, go ahead and drain, or strain the water out. Make sure you get all the water out of there – you don’t want any of it diluting the coconut cream. Carefully return the hot taro to the pot (or leave the taro in there if you’ve just drained out the water).
Pour the flavoured coconut cream over the taro. You should have enough cream to generously coat every piece of taro and to come up to around a quarter of the volume of taro. Does that make sense? Let me draw a picture:
Do some maneuvering of the pot to coat the taro, then place the pot back on the burner and heat it up to a simmer.
If you’ve opted for a boiled taro that’s more pala (a little more mushy), just be aware that you’ll have more bits of taro at the bottom of the pot that can burn. Keep an eye on that.
Let the taro simmer for around 10 minutes, to make sure the coconut cream is cooked and the onions have softened. Stop by occasionally to carefully move the taro around in the pot (so it doesn’t stick) and spoon more coconut cream from the bottom of the pot over the taro.
Step 6: Enjoy your fa’alifu kalo
And that’s pretty much it! When your fa’alifu is ready – the taro is nice and tender, the coconut cream sauce is cooked and clinging to the taro, your kitchen smells fragrantly coconut-y – let the pot cool for a few minutes, then plate up your fa’alifu kalo.
Fa’alifu kalo goes with any main, meaty dish – povi masima (salted beef), roast pork, fried chicken, or my absolute favourite: tinned mackerel or herring (elegi) stir fried with eggplant or pumpkin.
Oh yum. I feel like it’s lunch time.
See you in the kitchen.
A Word on Measuring: E fua i le va’ai
You may have noticed that I didn’t include any actual measurements in this recipe. I guess this isn’t really a ‘recipe’, then… I just wanted to explain the method for creating our yummy fa’alifu kalo dish.
My aunties always say,
‘E fua i le va’ai’
…which means, ‘it’s measured by looking’.
When you know how many people you’ll need to feed, you buy enough taro to cut enough pieces for them, then you use a big enough pot and enough water and enough coconut cream (and onions and salt) for that amount of taro and for how you like things to taste.
It’s pretty simple, but will take some practice.
More practice, more expertise and more taro to eat… win-win-win.
Confession: This ol’ hamo geek girl is in her forties and only recently learned how to make fa’alifu kalo… properly.
I’m grateful to my mother for not picking a fight while she was teaching me how to make her favourite mea’ai a’ago (and who actually did most of the fa’alifu work you see in these photos).
I’m also grateful for this resource:
Samoan Material Culture by Te Rangi Hiroa
…which I had to refer to cause I forgot the name of the coconut meat squeezer fibers thing (tauaga).