I first had 反沙芋 at Putien, a Heng Hwa restaurant. As I was enjoying the soft, powdery yam sweetened with a crunchy coat of sugar, I thought there was something decidedly Teochew about the dish although I wasn't in a Teochew restaurant. A quick check on the Internet confirmed my suspicion. In fact, there was no mention at all that 反沙芋 might be a Heng Hwa dish as well.
The key to a good 反沙芋, or any yam dish for that matter, is yam that's really powdery and fragrant. Pick those that have lots of red veins inside, said my grandmother who was a genius at choosing yam. Besides veins, weight is also a good indicator. Light ones are good because they have less water and therefore more starch. Half the battle is won once a good yam is selected.
The other half of the battle is making the coat of recrystallized sugar, which requires a bit of skill. If the sugar is overheated, it would recrystallize without sticking to the yam. If it's underheated, the frosting would stick but it'd be soggy instead of flaky and crunchy. Getting it just right takes some practice.
If the battle is won, piping hot 反沙芋 is a darn good side dish, as it's served at Putien restaurant. Or a delectable dessert with some strong, Chinese black tea. 工夫茶 – gong fu tea – anyone?
|SUGARED YAM (反沙芋)|
(Recipe for 4 persons)300 g peeled yam (taro), rinsed and pat dry with paper towels
4 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp white sesame seeds, toasted and finely ground
1 tbsp spring onions thinly sliced
pinch of salt, optional
vegetable oil (or lard!) for deep-frying
The quality of the yam makes or breaks the dish. Good yam is light for its size and has lots of red veins inside. Discard a good inch or so from the top and bottom, and be generous when peeling. There's less starch just below the skin and around the head and bottom. Thai yam is, I think, better than yam from China.
If you like green bean paste that's salty and sweet, you'd like a pinch of salt in 反沙芋. Otherwise, leave it out. Traditionally, there's no salt in 反沙芋.
Cut yam into finger size pieces. Deep-fry in hot oil over medium heat till just cooked and surface is just slightly blond, about 5 minutes. Don't brown too much or yam would be leathery. Don't overcook or yam might fall apart when it's tossed with sugar. Drain fried yam on paper towels.
Once yam is cooked, heat sugar, and salt if using, with 1 tbsp water in a wok over low heat till sugar is melted. With a pair of chopsticks and the wok tilted to one side, stir vigorously till solution thickens slightly, 1-2 minutes. Do not heat till solution turns white/opaque or sugar would crystallize without sticking to the yam. When sugar is slightly thickened but still translucent, add deep fried yam, sesame powder and spring onions. Toss gently till evenly coated. Increase heat to high. Keep tossing gently till sugar recrystallizes fully and turns white. Ideally, icing should be flaky (unlike Kacang Putih's icing which is hard). Serve immediately.