A couple weeks back Michael Adler, of Edible Plant Project, harvested some huge ube yams and wanted to have a potluck so people could try different yam recipes together, but he needed a space with no dander-producing pets. I offered to host the event since I have a big dining room table and no pets. I met Michael at the downtown farmers’ market that week to pick up my five pound hunk of yam (about a third of the larger yam he harvested) and stuck it in the fridge for a week. I have to wonder- how did humans figure out that these giant things were edible? They don’t look edible- they look fearsome, like hairy stones. African yams are poisonous when raw, too- only the Chinese yams (Dioscorea polystachea) are edible when raw, though they may also have irritating oxalic acid crystals in the sap. The first human to try eating a yam must have been very, very hungry.
I had already bookmarked five recipes and that night narrowed it down to one savory dish and one sweet dish: A regional Hakka Chinese dish called Suan Pan Zhi and Filipino Steamed Ube Cake. It was surprisingly difficult to find recipes that used whole raw yam- many people buy frozen grated ube yams at the grocery store or powdered ube yam packets now, especially Filipino immigrants. I never did find savory dishes, specifically using ube yams, it seems that the purple ube yam (Dioscorea alata, not the Okinawa sweet potato/Ipomoea batatas which looks very different) is almost exclusively used for sweet dishes, so I substituted my ube yam for the Chinese yam (Dioscorea polystachea) in the Suan Pan Zhi recipe.
Making the Yam Dumplings
I was taken with the Suan Pan Zhi recipe because the technique to make the dumplings is very similar to gnocchi. First I scrubbed the whole yam with a scrub brush until I couldn’t see or feel any more sand. I found out quickly that the yam sap irritated my skin, so instead I just cut the whole monster into chunks big enough to fit in my pots and boiled it until I could pierce it with a knife. Then I dumped the pieces into a colander and they promptly fell apart. I spent the better part of an hour sifting through purple yam chunks, removing pieces of skin and rootlets.
Then I measured out 800 grams of boiled yam in a large bowl and 200 grams of tapioca starch (the 4:1 ratio suggested in the original recipe) and started mashing with a potato masher. That lasted about five full minutes before I pulled out the food processor. In small batches the dough came together in 20 seconds.
There is no better way to describe the texture of this dough than purple play-do, and I mean the old style play-do, the kind that bounced. If you try this recipe please be warned that I very nearly killed my expensive Ninja making the last batch- go slowly and give your food processor plenty of time to cool down between batches. Then I sat down in front of the TV and made dumplings. The dumplings in this dish are shaped like the beads made for the abacus, and therefore are a symbol for good luck with money. The dough did start to dry out at the end, so I had to add a few drops of water.
Then I boiled the dumplings just until they floated. I drained them and tried a few… and was rather disappointed. The texture was good, starchy and a bit bouncy and not tough, but they had very little flavor.
I made the stir-fry and the steamed yam rice cakes the next evening as people were arriving for the potluck. The potluck was such a success! We had people bring yam oven fries, vegan ube yam rice pudding, and a spectacular Filipino-style ube cheesecake. I made the dumpling stir-fry and a steamed ube mochi-like cake, and threw together a batch of fried rice just in case. I got to meet some new people and try some new recipes and share them.
I changed the traditional recipe pretty significantly- I can’t eat dried shellfish. This was pretty darn good. I really enjoyed the starchy yam dumplings.
Yam Abacus Bead Stir-Fry
2-3 tbl oil
4 cloves of garlic, minced
Handful of scallions, chopped
bunch of cilantro, chopped
1 lb boneless pork, sliced thinly
1/2 lb yellow tofu, cut into matchsticks
1 packet of dried wood ear mushrooms, rehydrated with boiling water
1/2 lb fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced
2 tsp dark soy sauce
2 tsp honey
1/4-1/3 c water
Couple pinches of chile flakes
Full recipe of yam abacus beads
Heat the oil in a large wok. Stir-fry the shiitakes until they are nice and browned. Take the shiitakes out and cook the pork in batches until browned. Add the garlic, wood ear mushrooms, and shiitakes back to the wok and fry again until the garlic is sizzling. Add the soy sauce, honey, water, and chile flakes. When it starts to steam then add the yam dumplings, scallions, and cilantro. Toss everything together and cook until it’s all sizzling and boiling together, then put a lid on the wok and turn off the heat. Let it all steam cook together for a few minutes until the dumplings are heated through.