For two food-lovers and passionate cooks, Shanshan and I rarely cook together. Sure, we almost always trade gifts of food – “Emma, I’m putting an eight-treasure rice cake in your freezer. Don’t forget to make lotus root paste to drizzle over it!” “Shanshan, here’s a batch of homemade matzah!” – but between producing our new cooking series and scheming about other big dreams, we often forget to turn on the stovetop.
When I drop Shanshan off at home, our usual goodbye is “We must get together to cook!” And then I usually hint that I am just tickled to learn Chinese cooking; my head is filled with Shanshan’s stories and traditions, but I have only faint memories of cooking alongside my Aunt Luwei (who is from Beijing). At last, the moment had arrived…
First, we dipped into the Asian market where Shanshan haggled over bags of produce with the owner. I hopped up and down squealing “I wish I could speak Chinese!” As a Spanish and Italian speaker who often fares well in bilingual contexts, I was utterly dependent on interpreting the situation from Shanshan’s wild gestures at the putrefying bean sprouts on the bottom of the bag. We left with a napa cabbage the size of my torso, and several other fresh vegetables. Shanshan had already raided her own cabinets at home for the rest of our ingredients.
When we plopped the bags down on the kitchen counter, I announced: “I’m ready for a glass of vino!” to which Shanshan insisted “No, no, not yet! I’ve prepared an appetizer. It’s a Summer drink in China.” So instead, we tucked our spoons into a sweet and starchy mug of mung beans and lilly. How beautiful and extraordinary. Americans aren’t well acquainted with food in our drinks, other than fruit-based smoothies. (Though in Latin America many drinks are grain-based and viscous).
Shanshan planned an unbelievable menu, which she proceeded to churn out in the next hour and a half while she put me, Bobby and my friends Tess, Elizabeth and Shoshi to work on the dessert. When the feast was ready, we groaned with pleasure over the exquisite combination of Chinese vegetables, spices, herbs, oils and daring garnishes like “dried pork flakes” and a century-old egg (or as Shanshan called it, a pine-needle egg). The rice provided a trusty bed for absorbing every last drop.
Disclaimer: In Shanshan’s words, “Chinese people don’t measure.” So I’ve proposed the maximum amount you will need per ingredient. Chinese cooking also requires some preparation before you actually get down to cooking, so plan ahead! It’s well worth it. Also, don’t let the length of my preparation dissuade you: I am just doing an extra-good job of holding your hand since we had Shanshan holding ours. Though this recipe was new and intriguing, it was easy breezy in the end!
*In Chinese cooking, azuki beans are typically used as a sweetener (mashed into a paste or whole depending no the dish; for this dish they are preserved whole). Shanshan added honey to our recipe to ensure it would be sweet, as we Americans expect dessert to be! You substitute any bean that has a sandy texture when chewed, like pinto beans.
- 1 cup azuki beans
- 1 teaspoon organic cane sugar
- 1.5 cups yam or sweet potato, peeled and cubed
- 1.5 cups taro root, peeled and cubed
- 3 cups tapioca or potato starch
- 2 cups water
- 1/2 cup organic cane sugar
- 1 (12-ounce can) whole coconut milk
- honey for drizzling
- If you are not using a pressure cooker, soak the beans in water overnight. If you don't have much time, you can soak them for a couple hours in boiling water. Last resort: used canned beans.
- Submerge the beans in a small-to-medium pot and bring the water to a boil. Stir in 1 teaspoon of sugar until it dissolves. Reduce the water to a gentle simmer, and cover with a lid, leaving a slight crack so water doesn't spill over.
- Let the beans cook for about 45 minutes, until the skins crack open when you blow on them. This signals that they are done. Drain the beans and set aside.
- While the beans are cooking, steam the yam and taro root until fork tender (mashable consistency). To steam: place the roots in a steam basket inside a pot with 1 inch of water. Cook over medium heat. Tip: We want to keep the taro and yam separate - make dividers by forming aluminum foil into a bowl-shape and placing each root in a makeshift bowl and then into your steaming basket or pot. This way you can steam them at the same time while keeping the roots separate. When the roots are done, remove them from the pots and let them cool in a colander or another container. Mash the yam and taro in separate bowls.
- While all of these ingredients are bubbling on the stovetop, bring a kettle of water to boil.
- Pour 1 cup of starch into a bowl. Slowly add a bit of boiling water until the dough just starts to come together but looks rough and has white floury specks. Add the mashed yam to the bowl, slowly incorporating it with the starch. When all of the yam has been added and thoroughly mixed, begin adding a tablespoon of starch at a time and mixing the dough (you should only need an extra 1/2 cup or so). Alternate the starch with a smattering of sugar depending on how sweet you want the dough to be. The dough should begin forming a ball and developing a smoother consistency. When the dough becomes to hard to stir, use your hands to knead the dough into a ball.
- Repeat the same process with 1 cup of starch, the mashed taro and remaining 1/2 cup starch and sugar.
- Tear off half the dough and roll it into a 1.5-inch thick log. Cut the log into 1-inch pieces, that shockingly resemble gnocchi!
- Bring another pot of water to boil. While stirring the water, drop in the mini cakes in small batches (10-15 pieces). Let them cook for about 7 minutes, or until they float to the top. Remove them from the water with a slotted spoon and rinse them with cold water under the faucet. Let them dry in the colander or on a cutting board.
- Now, the mouthwatering finale. Combine a scoop of beans and a scoop of mini cakes in a bowl. Pour a generous serving of coconut milk over the beans and mini cakes, and drizzle with honey. Are you ready? DEVOUR!
Either starch will achieve the same consistency for your mini cakes, however, tapioca starch is preferable since the cakes will end up transparent - the desired appearance. You will often find these starches in the baking section of your grocery store, or in the natural foods and/or gluten-free section. It's outrageously expensive; like $4.00-$5.00 a bag. At your nearest Asian market, however, it's a mere $1.99 for a sack of the stuff!