|National Flower of Malaysia: Hibiscus|
I love Her, but She doesn’t love me. Albeit vaguely expressed, this is a dilemma I have for the place I call home.
On Aug 31, it is when my fellow compatriots and I would commemorate Her 53 years of independence. Among the Malaysians, the National Day is affectionately known as the “Merdeka Day.” (Or “Hari Kemerdekaan” in Bahasa Malaysia, which is our national language. “Kemerdekaan” is a noun derived from another noun “merdeka,” which means “independence.”)
I shall not go on snarling for fear that I might be barking at the wrong tree; hence, the possible censorship. What I do know of, though, is I have a loving family in the place I call home. They watch me grow up. They share the ups and downs of life with me even when I was miles away in the U.S. They redefine the word “home.” My homeland means much more than being a soil I grew up on. It is where I find love, warmth and support.
My Homeland and My Family
Perhaps, what I’ve experienced has molded me into someone who is of my mom’s opposite. Because we possess different beliefs and values, I can get into disagreement with her easily.
Before I left home for the States almost 4 years ago, my mom wouldn’t let me enter the kitchen. She distrusted my ability to be on my own for fear that I might burn down her kitchen! That was why I couldn’t even fry an egg properly before October 2006.
At times, my parents will still bring up anecdotes from the first days of their marriage. In my eyes, even though arguments are inevitable, my mom and dad are still the bestest best friends. It’s always fun to listen to their stories and watch how they tease each other. My dad always uses this particular episode to tease my mom: “以前是阿爸煮飯, 阿媽洗碗的! 我認識你老媽子的時候, 她是不會煮飯的!” (In Malaysian Chinese: “Daddy was the one who cooked while Mommy was the one who did the dishes! Your mom knew nothing about cooking when I first met her!”)
Though my mom still doesn’t admit that, I believe in the words of my dad. I think my mom was “forced” into taking up cooking shortly after giving births to me and my brothers. She only cooks to feed us. Cooking has neither been her real interest nor forte. Plus, she only picked up baking recently. She’s addicted to gardening and needlework instead.
I was a rebellious teen. I spent close to 2 years of my senior high school years living away from my parents, with my sixth great-aunt and –uncle (六叔婆與六叔公). My great-aunt is Hakka (客家人), while the rest of my dad’s family members are Cantonese (廣府人), including my sixth great-uncle whom I just mentioned.
A Food From My Heart
I’d be pampered with classic Hakka and Cantonese dishes. Once in a while, my great-aunt would fix Hakka taro abacus beads (客家算盤子), which are similar to gnocchi but made with taro (芋頭) and tapioca starch (薯粉) instead. These chewy morsels resemble abacus beads in appearance; hence, the name. They're first boiled and then stir-fried to be transformed into a mouthwatering dish. Of course then, knowing that we all love this dish, my mom was very eager to try her hands on making these abacus beads too.
My Teochew (潮州人) mom tells me that, “要消滅潮州人就要先消滅所有的芋頭!” (In Chinese: “One has to first kill all the taro plants in order to kill all the Teochew!”) There, I can apprehend how important the taro is for all Teochew.
|Taro: peeled and halved|
Before she was struck by stroke 6 years ago, my mom would prepare abacus beads every so often to curb our cravings. Now that she’s only left with half of what she physically had, she doesn’t have the motivation to put herself into the long and oftentimes tedious process of making the beads. Watching her every day, I can understand her frustration.
My mom is not the best cook. Nonetheless, she took the efforts to learn to prepare abacus beads for us – by referring to a recipe, not my great-aunt. I’ve got to say hers are very good! So, I resolved that I absolutely have to master this classic Hakka dish.
Hakka Abacus Beads, My Mom and I
Since my mom was hit by stroke, she’s lost many of her handwritten recipes collected over the years. It’d be such a hassle for her to climb up and down the stairs and to rummage through her stacks of cookbooks and notes – just to retrieve her recipe for me. So, I turned to the online community of fellow bakers and cooks for my abacus beads.
Honestly speaking, it wasn’t my maiden attempt at making the abacus beads. Before I learned how to survive in the kitchen, I’d help my mom out with kneading the dough and shaping the abacus beads. This mother-and-daughter team would chat away. I’d often tease her, too. She’d “retaliate” by saying: “哎呀! 妳這個女兒養不熟的!” (In Malaysian Chinese: “Argh! How can you still behave foolishly after years of upbringing!”) I’ve grown accustomed to her remarks. I know she still loves me no matter how mischievous I am. Haha!
|Making taro abacus beads in my mom's 22-year-old kitchen|
See, I’m not quite happy with this particular batch. The abacus beads were mushier than desired, which gave me nightmare as they were being stir-fried. I’ll knead in more tapioca starch to the dough in my future attempts. But my taste testers commented that, “Hey, I can actually taste the taro within!” Surprisingly, they loved the beads! My folks really gave me a hard time trying to conclude the situation. Anyway, I’m looking for abacus beads that are chewy in texture – and yet, firm enough to hold their shape. (“Pei-Lin, don’t be stingy on the tapioca starch!”)
With that said, the abacus beads will definitely lose more taro flavor with the incorporation of more tapioca starch. That’s why the ingredients used to stir fry the beads are just as crucial. That is, they have to be
shiitake mushrooms 香菇;
pickled daikon 菜脯 (left); dried small shrimps 蝦米 (right); dried squid 魷魚幹 (top);
pressed tofu (豆干);
… garlic; and scallions – or if not, Chinese chives (韭菜). Instead of salt, fish sauce (魚露) does wonders to this utterly flavorful dish too! Please refer to the recipe below if you’re interested to try Hakka abacus beads out! Some suggestions are also included therein: The beads can be Chinese Buddhist vegetarian-friendly too.
When it comes to Chinese cooking, there is really no fast and fixed rule. For me, it's usually executed based on eyeballing, memories and experience.
Carrying on With the Tradition
I’m dedicating this post to the Merdeka Open House 2010, as hosted by Babe_KL. This year, the theme is “Food From Our Hearts.” (Hey rokh, good job on suggesting the theme!) Exactly one year ago, I contributed Tambun biscuits (淡汶餅) to the annual virtual open house. How funny it is to remember that I submitted my first Merdeka Open House post a few hours before my 2-day flight back to Malaysia from the States!
I promised I’d be returning for the Merdeka Open House in the years to come. Glad that I’ve made it this year! Babe_KL, thank you for continuing this tradition since 2006! I’ll be back for next year’s. Want to join in the virtual feast? Hop over to Babe in the City – KL beginning Aug 31 for more yummy Malaysian dishes!
|Chinese vendor selling roasted chestnuts (栗子) at Petaling Street (茨廠街), in Kuala Lumpur|
|The Chinese and Malay reveling on the street during Lunar New Year (dated February 2010; taken in Malacca)|
I love Her, but She doesn’t love me. Again, this best sums up the feelings I have for the place I call home. No matter how divided or united we are on certain issues, no matter where we are in this world, I’d like to wish my fellow Malaysians
Selamat menyambut Hari Kemerdekaan Yang ke-53!
(In Bahasa Malaysia: Happy 53rd Independence Day!)
(In Bahasa Malaysia: Happy 53rd Independence Day!)
Hakka Taro Abacus Beads 客家算盤子
To make the taro abacus beads:
500 ~ 550 grams taro 芋頭
1 teaspoon salt -- or adjust the quantity as necessary
4 ~ 5 tablespoons neutral-flavored oil e.g. sunflower, canola or rice bran oil -- adjust the quantity as necessary
180 ~ 225 grams tapioca starch 薯粉 -- or adjust the quantity as necessary
* The more tapioca starch there is, the chewier and firmer the texture of the beads will be. *
Enough water -- optional
* Add water only when the dough appears to be somewhat dry to work with. *
- Peel the taro, then wash it. Slice the taro in half. Take each half, slice it into 1~1.5 centimeter-thick slices. Repeat with the remaining half.
* If you're allergic to the sap given out by the taro, do wear gloves to work with it. *
- Steam the taro slices over high heat till they're soft and cooked through. Remove them from the heat, then mash them up real well with the salt while they're still hot.
- Knead in (A) to the mashed taro really well till you get a dough that's firm and smooth enough. If the dough still appears somewhat dry, knead in enough water -- a little at a time -- till you get the desired consistency; if the dough appears somewhat wet/sticky, knead in more tapioca starch -- a little at a time -- till you get the desired consistency.
You may test the consistency of the dough by performing the following:
Pinch out a small portion of the dough, say, of the size of a walnut, and roll into a ball. Then with your thumb, gently press down the center of the ball of dough to make a deep dimple. If the ball cracks badly, it means the dough is still dry. Knead in more water to the dough then to remedy the situation.
- Divide the dough into three or four equal portions; cover those you're not working with with cling wrap to prevent them from drying out.
- Working with one portion of the dough at a time, roll the dough into a somewhat-thin log. Then, cut to divide it into equal bite-sized pieces. To shape the bite-sized pieces into abacus beads, the following is what's practiced in my household:
Gently roll each piece into a ball in between your palms
Then, gently flatten the ball slightly (till about 1.5-cm thick)
Now, gently press down the center of the ball with a chopstick to get a deep dimple -- DON'T poke through the ball!
- Bring a deep pot of water to a rolling boil. Then, cook these raw taro beads in the boiling water till they float atop. Let them boil for another 20 seconds before dishing them up with a slotted spoon.
Dish up the cooked taro beads with a slotted spoon and transfer them into a big bowl of cold water; immerse them in the cold water for a while to stop them from further cooking and to firm up their texture for a bit -- we want the springiness there. In spoken Cantonese, I call this step "過冷河," which literally means "to run through the cold stream."
Just before stir-frying (i.e. the next step), scoop out the taro dumplings with a slotted spoon to drain out the water. If the dumplings stick together, sprinkle some cold water over them in order to "pull them apart."
Cooked taro dumplings can be prepared up to 2 days in advance. But, do have them covered in cling wrap and kept refrigerated till you're ready to use them.
To stir-fry the taro abacus beads:
* Please adjust the quantity for all the ingredients below based on your liking, memories, and/or experience. This is the essence of Chinese cooking: no fast and fixed rule. *
Enough cooking oil -- for stir frying
3 large cloves of garlic -- minced
1 Tbsp minced fresh ginger root 薑
2~3 large dried shiitake mushrooms 香菇幹 -- soaked in water for a few hours till softened; drained and sliced thinly
2~3 large pieces of Jew's ear 黑木耳 -- soaked in water for a while till softened and looked "swollen"; drained and sliced thinly
About a small handful of pickled daikon 菜脯 -- soaked in water for 5 minutes and coarsely chopped
2 heaped Tbsp dried small shrimps 蝦米 -- or to taste; soaked in water for 5 minutes; drained and roughly chopped, if necessary
Some dried squid 魷魚幹 -- soaked in water for a bit till softened, then drained and cut up into smaller pieces if yours is a large chunk; please adjust the quantity to taste; however, this is an optional ingredient
* I just eyeballed how much dried squid I needed. *
|Jew's ear 黑木耳|
125 ~ 150 g ground pork
Some pressed tofu 豆干 -- washed, patted dry, and diced up; adjust the quantity to your liking
* I forgot to jot down how much I used. *
2 tsp dark soy sauce 老抽 -- optional
* I added this to "darken up" my abacus beads. A little will do. *
Taro abacus beads, which are prepared ahead based on the above recipe
* Unfortunately, I eyeballed the amount needed too. I just worked with how much I got from the abacus beads recipe above. *
2 ~ 3 tsp light soy sauce 生抽
1 Tbsp oyster sauce 蠔油
A pinch of ground white pepper
Dash of sesame oil 麻油
Salt or fish sauce (魚露) -- to taste
A handful of chopped scallions
A handful of chopped cilantro 芫茜
- In a large wok, heat up enough cooking oil till hot over high heat. Once the oil has become hot enough, sauté (B) till aromatic. Then, stir in (C) and continue to stir-fry till aromatic.
- Stir in the ground pork and stir-fry till it's cooked, i.e. it has separated and no longer looks pink. Then, add in the diced pressed tofu and stir-fry for 3~4 minutes to cook it briefly. Now, stir in the dark soy sauce.
- Add the taro abacus beads to the mixture in the wok, making sure that the dumplings aren't stuck together. Stir-fry briefly only to heat them up for a bit. Then, add in (D) and stir for a few minutes to incorporate everything together.
- Just before dishing up, stir in (E) to the mixture and toss briefly to ensure that the greens are scattered evenly throughout the mixture. DON'T have to cook the greens too much. Turn off the heat and dish up. Serve the dish hot or wait till it's reached room temperature. I love my Hakka taro abacus beads both ways.
You may make this dish (Chinese) Buddhist vegetarian-friendly, too, by --
- Omitting the ground pork, dried squid, dried small shrimps, garlic, scallions, Chinese chives and fish sauce;
- Incorporating ingredients such as diced carrots and diced green beans (四季豆), which I believe would make the whole dish less flavorful. (Well, Buddhist-vegetarian dishes are usually less intense in flavor due to some of the tenets held by many Buddhists in East Asia.) I'd first blanch these veggies in boiling water briefly just to have them almost cooked through before stir-frying them with the rest of the ingredients. Mix in the blanched veggies together with the dried tofu in step #2 for the stir-frying part;
- Replacing regular oyster sauce with vegan oyster sauce.