Amy Van and Chris Tan have been so kind as to allow Gastronommy to publish some of the recipes from their book, Chinese Heritage Cooking, for you to try out at home. The fourth recipe to be presented will be the classic Abacus Beads. (For previous recipes, see Steamed Radish Cake, Sweet and Sour Pork, and Chinese Steamed Whole Fish.)
Also known as suan pan zi in Chinese, these dimpled doppelgängers for the clacking beads in a Chinese abacus are an emblematic Hakka specialty. Originally prepared at Chinese New Year for both family meals and offerings, but now enjoyed all year round, these abacus beads have a unique fudgy-soft-chewy texture from the combination of mashed taro and tapioca starch. When buying taro, make sure it is very fresh and firm as old or poor-quality taro may make the beads mealy or fragile in texture. Mature taro that is already quite starchy will need less added starch—perhaps half the mashed taro's weight in tapioca starch, instead of two-thirds.
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Pork 150 g (51/3 oz)
Shaoxing rice wine 1 Tbsp
Dried shiitake mushrooms 8
Dried cuttlefish 80 g (24/5 oz)
Dried prawns (shrimps) 2 Tbsp
Cooking oil 2 Tbsp
Shallots 2, peeled and finely chopped
Garlic 3 cloves, peeled and finely chopped
Taro 500 g (1 lb 11/2 oz)
Tapioca starch as needed
Salt 1/2 tsp
Sugar 3/4 tsp
Ground white pepper 1/2 tsp
Cooking oil for kneading
Light stock (page 33) or water
150 ml (5 fl oz)
Light soy sauce 11/2 Tbsp
Fish sauce 1 Tbsp
Sugar 1 tsp
Sesame oil 1/2 tsp
Chopped spring onion (scallion)
Chopped coriander leaves (cilantro)
1. Prepare abacus beads. Wash taro and peel skin. Slice taro across into 3-cm (1-in) thick rounds. Place rounds on a steamer tray in a single layer and steam over high heat for 15–20 minutes until tender throughout.
2. Transfer steamed taro to a large mixing bowl and while still hot, mash with a wooden pestle, potato masher or a heavy balloon whisk until taro is smooth.
3. Weigh taro mash. You should have between 300 g (11 oz) and 400 g (141/3 oz) mash. Measure out tapioca starch that is two-thirds the weight of the taro mash and add to taro mash with salt, sugar and pepper.
4. With a large wooden spoon or spatula, work everything together to make a firm dough the consistency of plasticine. If it seems too dry, add a little water as needed. When it has cooled to warm, turn it out onto an oiled surface and knead it with oiled hands to help it smoothen out.
5. Pinch off 2 balls of dough the size of small plums and flatten them into patties. Drop them into a pot of boiling water and cook for about 2 minutes or until patties are translucent. Scoop them out of the water and straight away, while they are hot, knead them back into the main dough until they have dispersed. The dough will feel smoother.
6. Divide dough into balls the size of large grapes. Roll them between oiled hands to make them even. (If dough cracks, knead boiling water into dough 1 Tbsp at a time until it is smooth enough not to crack.) Flatten each ball slightly and dent its centre with the tip of a chopstick.
7. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to the boil. Slip in abacus beads. They will sink. When they float to the surface of the water, leave them to cook for another 20 seconds, then lift them out with a slotted spoon and transfer to a bowl of cool water. Cook all the beads likewise, in batches to avoid crowding the pot.
8. Combine all sauce ingredients in a bowl and set aside.
9. Slice pork into thin shreds about 4-cm (11/2-in) long. Mix with rice wine and set aside.
10. Soak dried mushrooms in warm water for 30 minutes, then rinse, pat dry and slice very thinly with a sharp knife. Soak dried cuttlefish in lukewarm water for 20 minutes or until pliable, then cut in half lengthwise, removing bony central strip, then cut flesh into 3-cm (1-in) long slivers with kitchen scissors. Soak dried prawns in lukewarm water for 15 minutes, then drain, pat dry and coarsely chop.
11. Heat oil in a wok over medium-high heat. Add shallots and garlic and stir-fry for 1 minute until softened and fragrant. Add cuttlefish and dried prawns and fry for 1 minute. Add pork and its wine marinade and dried mushrooms and stir-fry for 2 minutes more.
12. Add sauce mixture to wok. Turn heat to high and bring sauce to a boil. Drain abacus beads and add them to wok. Fry until all the liquid in the wok has been reduced to a thick glaze coating all the ingredients. The beads should be moist and not dry.
13. Dish out and garnish with chopped spring onion and coriander. Serve immediately.
• Do not let the cooked abacus beads stand for too long in the cool water. For the best texture and flavour, stir-fry them as soon as possible after they have been boiled. If this is not possible, drain the beads once they have all been cooked, toss with a few drops of oil to prevent them sticking together, and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator until needed.