Suan pan zhi, or yam abacus seeds, was always a bit of a mystery to me growing up. I'd only ever see it and eat it in 1 place -- at Ah Pak (my Dad's paternal cousin and the current patriarch of the Soh clan) and his wife Pak Meh's house. And only ever on the first day of Chinese New Year. Some years we'd get a tasting bowl of it while visiting, some years it wouldn't even be there (I think those years we got to Ah Pak's too late).
All I knew was that suan pan zhi was a very old school Hakka delicacy, and it was bloody tasty with a lot of bite. So as part of my project to chase down my culinary inheritance, I entreated Pak Meh through my parents to teach me how to make this dish while I was in Singapore for Chinese New Year this year.
And not a moment too soon! Turns out Pak Meh had decided to "retire" from this dish from this year onwards. She's decided that her kids can make it next year or not eat it at all. Yikes!
And no wonder. Making the beads is hard work, requiring you to really put your back and arms into it. Throughout the session Pak Meh was critiqueing my technique -- I'll need to practise!
Researching suan pan zhi on my own later, I learned that the Hakkas eat this dish on festive occasions. The Hakkas (which liternally means guest people) were named such because they were a migratory group. Their cuisine tends to be made from very hearty ingredients that will keep (think salt and oil). Hence the use of the hardy yam here. Also, Hakkas have a stereotype of being good with money, so the yam gnocci taking on the image of the seeds of the abacus counting board allude to that.
More delightfully, an article on So Shiok! revealed that suan pan zhi is specifically from the Hakkas in Dabu in China's Guangdong province. This is where my paternal grandfather and great grandfather are from, and Dad and Ah Pak had already agreed to take me on my first pilgrimmage to Dabu this coming May. I can't wait to dig further into this story... and more of this dish!
For the Abacus Seeds:
500g yam or taro, peeled and cut into even-sized slices
200g tapioca flour
The ratio of yam to tapioca flour is highly variable. Pak Meh once used a yam : flour ratio of 4:1, which she said produced an amazingly intense fragrance and flavour, but a very short shelf life, even when kept in the freezer afterwards. Commercial ventures tend to use a 1:1 ratio, which helps the beads keep longer but produce a much starchier, chewier and less fragrant bead. Here we start with a ratio of about 2.5:1. Experiment to see what gets you your favourite balance of flavour and bite.
For the Frying:
30g dried cuttlefish, cut into thin strips
1 large cake of taukwa or hard tofu (preferably yellow rather than white for more attractive colour). Sliced then diced
200g dried shitake mushrooms, soaked overnight and diced
30g large cloud-ear mushrooms (sometimes also called Jews ears), soaked overnight and diced
30g dried shrimps or haybee, soaked for 20 minutes, drained then pounded
200g minced shoulder of pork
3 to 5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 cup spring onion stalks and coriander, finely chopped
5 cups vegetable oil
Salt, white pepper and fish sauce to taste
For the Garnishing:
A few stalks of coriander cut into finger-length sections
1 large red chili, sliced on the diagonal and deseeded
Making the Yam Abacus Seeds
- Sprinkle some salt over yam and steam for 15 minutes until soft and cooked (Check to see if a chopstick will poke through the yam)
- Put yam in a large pot, add the tapioca flour, and mash and mix while still hot to form a dough. This is quite a bit of work! You can start off with a potato masher, but eventually you'll need to put the back of your palms into it and really lay it in, pocketing bits of air into the dough as you go
- Make small balls, and use your finger to make a slight depression in the centre of each ball to make it look like an abacus seed. Try to make the "beads" evenly sized so that they can be evenly cooked
Boiling the Yam Abacus Seeds
- Boil a large pot of water and add the yam seeds one small batch at a time, stirring well to prevent them from sticking together. Boil for about 15 minutes, until the batch floats on the boiling water
- Remove the seeds from the boiling water with a strainer and coat with 2 to 3 tablespoons of oil to prevent sticking. Set aside in a sieve over a an empty pot to let excess water drip away (right)
Frying the Yam Abacus Beads
- Heat about 6 tablespoons of vegetable oil in wok on high heat
- Add the chopped garlic and stir-fry until fragrant
- Add the tawkua, pounded haybee and mushrooms and stir-fry for 2 to 3 minutes until fragrant
- Add the pork, cuttlefish and cloud year mushrooms
- Add 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon ground white pepper and 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- Stir-fry for ~5 minutes
- Add the yam seeds and stir-fry for 2 minutes
- Add the chopped spring onions and coriander and stir through for another minute
- Taste, and add salt, pepper and fish sauce and stir through if necessary
- Serve up in a casserole dish and garnish with the chili slices and coriander stalks
- Serve as a standalone dish or as part of a meal with rice
Parting Shot: Abacus Seeds Spreading and Taking Root
For those who would like to try this dish but are not yet ready to commit to making it at home, I found these leads online that suggest that you can try it at Mei Zhen in Singapore and Nam Chuan in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (I haven't eaten at these establishments myself). If you've tried suan pan zhi elsewhere, I'd love to hear from you!