Yam paste with gingko nuts

As much as I like my cakes and pastries, there are times when I just crave for something as simple as yam paste (known as ‘or nee’ in Teochew), or any one of those sweet paste desserts that the Chinese are so famous for (think almond, black sesame, red bean, walnut paste, etc). When a craving hits me, I make no attempts to disguise or surpress it. Instead, I find ways to satisfy it. Thankfully, yam paste is a common occurence here. Almost every hawker centre has a Chinese dessert stall and yam paste is a regular item. However, being the curious person I am, I can’t help but think about what goes into the yam paste I eat outside.

You see, I’ve heard alot about how the dessert can be quite unhealthy, given that some add lard or copious amounts of oil to attain that smooth, slide-down-your-throat texture. Yes, what you don’t know won’t hurt you, that I know. But what I couldn’t understand was the need for oil in yam paste. I’ve never made it and no one has taught me how to make it. My parents don’t know how to make it and the many times that I’ve eaten it have been at Chinese wedding dinners.

Yam paste remains a mystery but that was not going to be the case for long. Determined to tackle this challenge of finding out why, I jumped into the unknown and tried to make this dessert for the very first time.

Everyone who’s made it says it’s pretty easy. That I will agree. I used a recipe from a local magazine and the ingredient list looked pretty easy to me. The method was straightforward. All I had to do was to follow through and I would end up with a decent bowl of yam paste.

Or that was what I thought.

All right, when I attempted the recipe, I was a little ambitious. Ever so determined to come up with a healthier version, I made amendments to the recipe. I halved the sugar, I used more of the healthy stuff and less of the supposedly unhealthy stuff (read: oil). Instead of vegetable oil as the recipe had originally instructed, I used olive oil. I halved the oil too.

After correcting the measurements, I felt good, really good. I couldn’t wait to feast on my new and improved yam paste, knowing that I won’t be downing an oil slick.

But I was wrong. There is a very good reason why oil is added to yam paste and cooked again in a wok. Yam paste is starchy tuber that results in a thick and gloppy mash if it’s served without any oil. The texture of the yam paste changes drastically the moment you cook it with oil – it becomes a smooth and more presentable mixture.

Bottomline is, you cannot have an oil-less yam paste if you want it to taste and feel really good. Yesterday was a good lesson.

You know what they say – the best lessons are learnt through the silly mistakes you make because of your own ignorance. Trial and error is the only way if you have no teacher to guide you. So what did I do? I steamed the yam paste (using only half of the oil the recipe called for) and went to check on it about 20 minutes later. It was my first time cooking it so I did not know what to look out for. After tasting a spoonful, I realised that it was still too gloppy. The yam paste didn’t have the texture that I was aiming for – there was no light and smooth consistency. Honestly, I was disappointed. I wanted to blame it on the recipe. But then I remembered the oil. Perhaps that would do that trick.

Working fast, I grabbed the remaining portion of oil, stirred it into the paste and steamed it for a while longer. The end result? Just lovely:

The texture had improved dramatically. My yam paste now tasted like proper yam paste. I thought that the olive oil was a great substitute too. The yam paste did not reek of olives and neither did it affect the overall taste. I thought it tasted good. I was pretty pleased with it.

The yam paste had just the right amount of sweetness (halving the sugar was a great idea. I used raw sugar too) and the pumpkin topping and water chestnut sauce added some colour to the usual lilac-tinted yam paste.

While writing up this post, I did a search on other versions of this Teochew dessert and found that some require fried shallots and coconut milk. Coconut milk, I can understand. But shallots? I suppose it’ll lend a certain aroma to the paste (or so I heard). That’s interesting. Well I will stick to my healthy version for now. I am also pleased to say that my family loved it. Proof: This morning, I woke up with the intention of having a bowl to myself but discovered that my dearest sister had finished it. Of course, all I did was smile. I can always make more, next time.

Yam paste with gingko nuts – Teochew Or Nee (a healthy version)
adapted from Chef Tong Yu Chou’s recipe featured in February 2009 issue of Kitchen Culture’s Food & Travel magazine

1kg yam, skinned and cubed
50g sugar
1/3 cup olive oil
1/2 cup or 60 cooked gingko nuts (or how ever much you want)

1. Steam the yam for approximately one hour. Once cooked and soft, mash to a smooth paste. Add the sugar and mix well.
2. Heat oil in a wok (non-stick or traditional. Once the oil is hot, add the yam paste and cook over low heat until the paste does not stick to the sides of the pan.
3. Transfer the cooked yam paste into a bowl. Place the cooked gingko nuts on top of the paste. Steam for 30 minutes.
4. To assemble, scoop the cooked yam paste into individual serving bowls and add the chesenut sauce and diced pumpkin

For the pumpkin topping
50g pumpkin, diced
1/3 cup water
1 tsp sugar

Place all three ingredients in a pot and bring to a boil, until the pumpkin softens. Remove from the heat, strain and set aside.

For the sauce
4 pcs water chestnuts, peeled and chopped
3 tbsp water
1 tbsp sugar
some cornstarch

Combine all ingredients in a pot, mix well and bring to a boil. Add cornstarch to thicken, then remove from the heat.

Posted on 22nd Feb 2009 in gingko nuts, or nee, Teochew, yam paste  |  11 comments

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