Sunday, July 5, 2009

Say Yum To Yam

The ubiquitous yam is a flavourful tuber to eat, but most non-cooks are put off by its appearance.

Its tough, outer skin suggests that you’ll have a difficult time getting at the flesh. However, no one can dispute that yam is indeed yummy. Wu tau koh (steamed yam cake) and yam croquettes (known in the dim sum menu as fried wu kok) are favourites at breakfast or tea.

Yam is also featured in a traditional Hakka pork dish called kau yook and in the mouth-watering bubur cha cha. There are also a host of other yam delights, namely yam ice-cream, yam gateaux, candied yams and deep-fried yam. Once you get the hang of it, hoary skin and all, yams are as easy to use as potatoes.

Mashed yam can be moulded into baskets to hold a simple stir-fry of chicken, cashew nuts and dried chillies.

Yam cubes can be thrown into stews, soups, pies and desserts. It is also delicious on its own when eaten boiled or baked, especially with pats of butter or shredded coconut with brown sugar.

Grandma and her yams

The person who can whip up the tastiest yam dishes I know is Leong Chew Ngan, my 89-year-old grandmother. Despite her age, she is still a first-class cook, her skills having been honed from her days as a busy mother of 10. She was the first woman to drive a car in Tambun, Perak during the 1950s when her late husband, Chen Yoke Chee, was the village chief.

She now lives in Mayfair Park, Ipoh, where she has been staying for more than 30 years. She spends her days playing mahjong with friends and minding the affairs of the house where she lives with her eldest son. “With 10 children to feed, there was no choice but to learn how to cook. There were no such things as McDonald’s or Pizza Hut in those days,” said Grandma.

“Even if we ate out, it was an expensive affair. When the Japanese printed their ‘banana currency’, inflation made it very hard to buy food and provisions. So, we ate a lot of tapioca and yams. We would just dig them up from the ground and take them home,” confessed grandma, who has been cooking for her family for 50 years.

She learned through trial and error and even copied recipes from the many housekeepers who worked for her, and as a result, has learned to make the perfect wu tau koh and kau yook. Of course she does not dig her yams from the ground anymore. Here she gives some pointers on how to pick the best yam.

Choosing yam

“Don’t choose a yam which is too big. A nice-sized one should weigh around one kati (600g) or even half a kati, depending on what you want to use it for.

“The trunk must be plump and nicely rounded and the skin must be free of blemishes and holes. Blemishes or bruising are signs that the yam is no longer good, and holes might be a sign of worm infestation.”

She said it is important to avoid yam with dry skin because the flesh would mostly be dry too. “Yams should be stored in cool, dry places but they must never be refrigerated. They can be stored for two weeks without losing their nutritional value,” grandma added.

Yams are from the Dioscoreaceae family whose leaves are usually heart-shaped while sweet potatoes hail from the Convovulaceae family, of which the kangkung is also part.

As there are more than 150 edible yam species, it is important to ascertain the type of yam for the following recipes. The yam you’ll want would be in the form of a whole tuber, not those small bulbs or those sold in chopped up chunks.

The size would be about 10 inches (25cm) long from the tip of the stem to the base, and five inches in width from the middle of the trunk. The shape of our yam would look like a fat, mini torpedo-tapered at the ends.

The skin would be brown and rough. The thick, purple stem on top should resemble the surface of a banana tree trunk. The flesh would be white with small specks of purple.

Wu Tau Koh recipe

To make the wu tau koh, it is best to use shredded yam instead of cubed ones. My grandmother begins the process by removing the skin of the yam with a big, sharp-bladed vegetable peeler.

Then cut the yam in half. Slide the halves across a vegetable shredder in smooth, singular movements to produce neat, unbroken strands of yam. These strands of yam will “hold” the structure of the wu tau koh and give it texture.

Next, chop four tahils (150g) of dried prawns and half kati (300g) of waxed pork into a mince.

“It is best not to chop the dried prawns and waxed pork too finely if you want to add a bit of ‘bite’ to the yam cake. It is nice to chew on bits of prawns and meat when eating wu tau koh so that you don’t feel like you’re only eating flour and nothing else,” she said.

Stir fry all that shredded yam, minced meat and dried prawns in a fair amount of oil and one tablespoon of minced garlic. Toss the ingredients in a big wok for 15 minutes or until the heavenly smell of a fragrant stir-fry has wafted around the entire kitchen.

Meanwhile, as the stir-frying is under way, mix three rice bowls of rice flour with six rice bowls of water. Flavour this mixture with two teaspoons of five-spice powder and 1½ teaspoon of salt.

“Please don’t be alarmed by the amount of salt. You have to remember that I did not add salt when I stir-fried the yam. The rice flour and the shredded yam will absorb a lot of flavour,” grandma reminded.

Then pour the shredded yam, rice flour and water into a flat round metal tray measuring 45cm in diameter and 6cm deep. Use your splayed fingers to mix the shredded yam so that they do not clump.

Then put the baking tray in a big wok filled with water and steam for one hour over a large fire. A charcoal stove is preferable because it imparts a certain flavour to the wu tau koh.

The portions for this recipe serve 10.

Kau Yook recipe

Another way to enjoy yam is to steam it with streaky pork. This is a traditional Hakka dish called kau yook. The best pork cuts are the ones with alternating layers of fat and lean meat.

“If you choose a cut which is all lean meat, you will end up with rubbery meat. You must also have enough fat from the meat to moisten the yam and to give the yam and the pork a melt-in-your-mouth feeling” explained grandma when I balked at the amount of bad cholesterol in this dish.

To make kau yook, you need a half kati (300g) of yam, peeled and sliced into thin rectangles.

Lightly fry the yam rectangles with garlic and two teaspoons of five-spice powder, then set aside.

Next, we come to the business of dealing with a kati slab of streaky pork. It is preferable that the cut has a certain thickness to it so that it can withstand a fair amount of cooking processes.

Boil the pork till medium rare. Lift out, drain and marinate with generous sploshes of thick black soya sauce. Allow the sauce to colour the meat into a dark brownish shade.

After that, deep fry till the skin of the meat is crispy. Once done, lift up and dunk in a basin of cold water. Cut the meat into rectangles the same size as the yam. Marinate these pieces with sugar and five pieces of preserved red beancurd, a pungent-smelling condiment called fu yi.

Allow 45 minutes for marinating. Now the rectangles of meat and yam are ready to be arranged in a bowl in the fashion of one slice of yam followed by one slice of meat.

Once the bowl is full, steam it over a charcoal fire for two hours. This recipe can serve six.

Wu Ha recipe

If you still have some yam left over from the above recipes, grandma recommended shredding these up for a good deep-fry. This is a quick recipe called wu ha, where the shredded yam is mixed into a batter of wheat flour and corn flour.

Flavour the batter with five-spice powder and sprigs of coriander leaves. The batter should just coat the yam strands instead of drowning them in a watery mix.

Then, lift the coated yam strands onto a spoon, arrange in a circle and dunk into hot oil and fry till golden brown.

Put the deep-fried yam on kitchen towels to drain the excess oil before keeping in tin lined with grease-proof paper.

These taste as good as fish crackers when dipped in chilli sauce.

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