Maui Taro burgers make it to the mainland - will the mainstream be next?
by Antonia Demas, Ph.D.


Taro, one of the world's staple crops, has nourished populations in the Pacific, Caribbean, Africa and Asia for centuries. In the United States, taro first came from Africa as food for slaves. A starchy tuber high in complex carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins and minerals, while low in fat, taro has played a prominent and esteemed role in many traditional diets. Just don't eat it raw - the entire plant contains chemicals that can be intensely itchy to the skin and mouth if the plant is not cooked prior to consumption. And don't rub your eyes if you happen to get some of the raw juice on your hands. How did this unusual plant become so popular as a food source in diverse parts of the world?

Though there is dispute, archaeologists believe taro is indigenous to New Guinea and was first cultivated five to ten thousand years ago. Taro was one of the 23 plants that the Polynesians brought with them to Hawaii when they first settled the islands and it has a special place in Hawaiian culture to this day. Known as kalo in Hawaiian, many varieties have been cultivated with an almost religious reverence over the years. Indeed, taro plays a prominent role in some of the creation stories. There are many ancient cultural beliefs and rituals about its importance in Pacific cultures.

Because taro must be grown by hand and is labor intensive, but nevertheless has been cultivated since ancient times, its spiritual, as well as nutritional value is highly significant. Currently, taro is grown in over 60 countries. There are over 300 varieties of taro, varying in color from white to purple, either of the wet land or dry land type. Wet land taro is grown in flooded fields capturing the water from mountain and spring sources, similar to rice cultivation. Taro is reproduced by separating the "babies" or Keiki, from the mother plant.

A member of the Philodendron family, taro is a relative of Diffenbachia which can be dangerous to humans when eaten. The noxious ingredient in taro is calcium oxalate which causes an itchy, needles and pins sensation when eaten raw. The oxalate crystals stick to the mouth and this fact may prevent many insects and other animals from eating it. The good news is that cooking renders the oxalates harmless and the abundant nutrients in taro can then be enjoyed and promote human nutrition.. The skin and leaves of the taro plant can be eaten if cooked. The flowers are considered a delicacy. Taro is high in potassium, and the leaves, called luau, are an excellent source of calcium, iron and vitamin A and C.

In Hawaii, taro is eaten in many recipes. One of the most popular traditional ways Hawaiians eat taro is to steam it in the underground oven or imu and then pound it into poi with a specially carved stone on a carved board made for the purpose. Special poi making machines have brought technology to the poi making process. Hawaiians love poi but many non-Hawaiians consider it to be an acquired taste. To promote greater acceptance of this traditional Hawaiian food, and support traditional agricultural practices in Hawaii, an entrepreneur from Maui, Robert Mitnick, developed a delicious vegan recipe for taro burgers.

The Original Maui Taro Burger.

In early 1997, Mitnick began experimenting with recipes for taro burgers. His dream was to create a product that was delicious, nutritious, would support local farmers and provide income for his family. Over 85% of foods eaten in Hawaii are imported. This seems ironic in a warm climate with rich, volcanic soil. But much Hawaiian land was devoted to sugar and pineapple plantations over the years. Mitnick's goal was to support local agriculture and develop a family run business. Many visitors to Hawaii know about the beautiful beaches, but how much do they learn about the traditional agriculture while taking in the sun as they eat primarily imported food?

At the same time Mitnick developed his first recipe for taro burgers, I arrived in Maui to conduct a food education program sponsored by PCRM. By coincidence, John Cadman, food service director, and I were discussing the food based curricular units I would be teaching when Mitnick arrived with his samples of taro burgers. Mitnick had identified the school lunch program as a potential market for his product. Cadman and I agreed that I would develop a special unit on taro burgers and we would pilot them in the his school to determine if the kids would eat them. Robert introduced us to local taro farmer Gladys Kaona and her grown children, who came to the school to discuss taro cultivation and assisted the students in planting taro on the school grounds. I next developed and introduced a sensory-based educational unit about taro burgers to the students. They cooked, tasted, and evaluated them in the classroom with their peers. We next served taro burgers as a choice in the lunch program. The students loved them!

The school lunch program cannot be underestimated as a vehicle for promoting student health or student disease. Over 53 million children eat in schools every day. With the current crisis in diet-related diseases ravaging children's health, the school meals program needs to be utilized more effectively to overturn this disturbing trend. Replacing double-bacon cheeseburgers with taro burgers will potentially have enormous positive impact on our children's health.

The recipe that Mitnick has developed for his taro burger is completely vegan. As he proudly states, there is no ingredient that you cannot pronounce in his recipe and they are meat and wheat free. Mitnick's burgers are made from Taro Root, Taro Leaves ( luau), Brown Rice, Carrots, Corn, Onions, Sunflower Seeds, Oats, Tomatoes, Canola Oil, Garlic, Sea Salt, Natural Herbs & Spices. 83% of the ingredients are fresh and local, in stark contrast to 85% of Hawaiian foods being imported. Only the brown rice and spices are imported from the mainland. And they are extremely delicious. The Honolulu Star Bulletin conducted a survey where the Maui taro burger was compared to two other popular veggie burgers and it received the highest rating for taste from the judges. I can attest that they are truly delicious.

Currently, I am working with 6 language immersion schools on 3 of the islands in collaboration with Kekai Irwin, curriculum specialist, on a grant from the Hawaii Health Department. Since one of our primary goals is to teach the students about healthy traditional foods from their ancestors and around the world, we hope to feature taro burgers in the lunch program as a mainstay. Hawaii leads the US in diet-related diseases. The diet imported from the mainland has wrecked havoc on the Native People. Replacing spam with vegan taro burgers is a positive step to reverse this tragic situation. A school garden that includes taro cultivation has been developed at the Kamakou school in Kailua on Oahu, led by parent and organic farmer, Mark Paikuli-Stride. The garden is integrated with the food-based curriculum and student learning and enthusiasm is evident. A goal is to teach students about cultural traditions that promoted healthy agricultural practices and human nutrition.

The Maui Taro Burgers are currently being offered through Whole Foods Market, Southwest Region, at their Boulder CO. store. Let's hope that Maui Taro Burger's mainland debut is successful and that taro burgers become a regular item on school menus in all fifty states.

For more information about Maui Taro, contact Robert Mitnick, Hawaii Taro Co.
Address: 375 West Kuiaha Road, #63
PO Box 416
Haiku, Maui, Hawaii 96708
Email: Email:
Web page:

Antonia Demas can be reached at