"I have the simplest tastes. I am simply satisfied with the best." - Oscar Wilde

"I came, I saw, I ate." - Au Gourmand

Saturday, November 13, 2010

台南芋粿 (Tainan style taro cake) - November 13, 2010

Shaved Ice Stand Selling
Taro Balls
I was asked recently the following question:  "What is a typical Taiwanese food?"  I opened my mouth to reply and stopped.  Mistaking my puzzlement for not understanding the question, the questioner went further:  "Like for Thai food, people love pad Thai."  That is true, disregarding for now whether pad Thai indeed symbolizes Thai food.  For Japanese, there is sushi; for Chinese, the dumplings; the French the foie gras; the Italian the pasta or pizza.  Similarly then, what will be the Taiwanese food that comes to mind?  Pondering this question, my nostrils were instantly overwhelmed by the smells of food stands in the night markets selling fried chicken cubes with basil, stewed and smoked meat and dried tofu, oyster and intestine noodle soup, cured geese, stewed pig's foot, oyster omelet, blood rice cakes in peanuts, while my mind was seeing flashes of myriad vendors with hypnotizing arrays of cut fruits, shaved ice, fruit juices, steamed rice cakes made in front of your eyes, crepes rolled with peanut power, cilantro and taro ice cream, and my favorite - small balls made of various starch such as taro flour, tapioca flour, rice flour or sweet potato flour, immersed in a light syrup, to be added as toppings for shaved ice or eaten as is.  How do I possibly pick one?  The difficulty arises because Taiwanese food is not americanized so that there is a stereotypical food that the public associates with Taiwanese cuisine.  In other words, there is no domesticated Taiwanese food available as General Tsao's Chicken (Who is this General, by the way? No Chinese seems to have learned about him in schools).    

While I cannot tell you which of the innumerable food items will symbolize Taiwanese food - I also need to save myself from being the butt of flying objections, what I can tell you is that Taiwan may have the highest taro consumption per capita.  For a small island, Taiwanese seem to have figured out a way to pack in as much taro into their diet as possible.  From the North to the South, there are:  sweet taro balls; steamed sticky and savory taro cup cake with minced meat and fried shallot; square-cut steam taro rice cake; fried spiced taro; steamed crescent taro cakes; taro bread; taro buns; sweet stewed taro; taro milk tea with tapioca pearls; and the list continues to extend into the horizon.  Taiwan is a heaven for the taro-addicts.  
Tainan Style Taro Cake
台南芋粿, pronounced Tainan Yu Guo, is a shredded taro cake from the province of Tainan - literally, the South of Taiwan. Don't think that Taiwan is a small country; it is an island bursting and bustling with complex diversity and vibrant regional flavors.  Although Tainan is only 90 minutes away by the High Speed Rail (and that is because the train makes a stop at every little place) from Taipei, the cuisine is completely different.  For instance, the Southerners have sweeter taste buds than the Northerners in terms of how they season their dishes.  You will not be able to find this simple but delicious Tainan Yu Guo in the capital, Taipei, unless, of course, it is homemade. 

Taro dishes can be divided into three categories:  (1) the sticky and chewy; (2) the starchy and velvety; and (3) others.  The first category can be sweet or salty and the texture is due to the fact that mashed taro is combined with sweet sticky rice flour to produce the delightful resilience of rice cakes, while the second category contains stewed taro where the taro is cooked until the edges start to round off.  The first two categories determine the fate of most taros in Taiwan.  However, this Tainan Yu Guo belongs to the third category:  The cake itself is sticky due to the presence of sweet potato flour, and yet, it enjoys the chunkiness from the layers of shredded taro.

This taro cake can be easily reproduced at home as long as you know how to use your hands to mix the ingredients.  (Ah yes, there is the small matter of getting the right ingredients in Chinatown.)  When it is freshly out of a bamboo steamer, a wave of aroma - the pungent scallion, sweet pork, savory soy sauce and the wonderfully earthy taro - will envelope you.  Trying to calm you impatient hands from dropping the scallions, you should cut a wedge of the cake and dab some Sriracha on a plate.  I presume by now your admirable patience has been stretched to micron-level thinness, and yet I urge you to control yourself and cut off a bite-size with trembling chopsticks then dip it into the Sriracha.  Finally, it goes into your hungry, cavernous mouth. 

Ingredients (Approximation)
  • 1/2 taro - Shredded (芋頭)
  • 1 cup of sweet potato flour  (地瓜粉)
  • 1 teaspoon of five-spice powder (五香粉)
  • 3 tablespoons of soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons of sugar
  • 3 tablespoons of Water
  • 1 cup of minced meat (pork) sauce with fried scallions  (肉燥) 
  • 1/2 cup of chopped scallion
  1. You mix the first six ingredients then stuff the mixture into a pan.
  2. Top with the meat then sprinkle the scallions. 
  3. Steam for 25 minutes. (Please leave it alone; staring at it will not speed up the process, and God forbid, do not open it.)
  4. Cut and serve with a dash of Sriracha sauce. 

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