Know its origin, significance, recipe, secrets to a tasty dish, cooking method, benefits and taste.
The “Hakka Abacus Seeds” Dish is a delicious and healthy yam (taro) dish. It is a traditional dish of the Hakka tribe in Dapu County, Guangdong province, celebrated and cheered by those who have sampled it.
It can be traced back to the Song Dynasty in ancient China made by rubbing taro and flour into the shape of abacus seeds. The abacus is smooth with a chewy texture and is fried with minced meat, shiitake mushrooms, carrots, and other favorite vegetables. The abacus can be used as a staple food or a delicious snack.
Why is it called the Hakka Abacus Seeds dish?
The abacus is a simple instrument used during the earlier days in China. It consists of a frame that has rows of beads that are slid during calculations.
This dish has a physical resemblance to the abacus seeds of this device, hence its name. The Hakka tribe is a subgroup of the Han Chinese that originated from the Northern part of China but through a series of migrations settled in Southern China as well as various parts of the world.
According to records, Dapu county had little arable land. To survive, the men of the house would travel out to seek work. The wives would prepare Abacus seeds for their husbands, which symbolize good luck and the rolling of money back home. Later, it became an auspicious and indispensable dish to be served during festive occasions like Lunar New Year and Weddings.
My late father, who was a Mandarin teacher in Singapore, hailed from Dapu county to settle in Singapore in the 1930s as a young adult. As a child in the late 50s, I used to watch with curiosity as he clicked away at the abacus to calculate his bills. I had played with the abacus, intrigued by its noise but had not known about its use.
The abacus device was used to count money in the old days. It came to symbolize the ability to do strict calculations and budgeting and so that the household or business would result in surplus year after year. This money talk related to the abacus probably led to stereotyping the Hakka people as a very stingy tribe but I like to think that Hakkas are frugal by virtue of their origin and culture and certainly extremely hardworking.
Abacus Seeds is an auspicious Hakka dish that my mother, also a Hakka who hailed from the Riau archipelago of Indonesia would cook during happy occasions, especially during every Lunar New Year.
As a true blue Hakka, I would not let this traditional dish fade away as it is not prevalent in restaurants and Hawker centres, and the cooks, in any case, are probably not Hakka (a minority race) to understand the significance and intricacies of cooking this dish. This cuisine requires skill and patience.
Today, at the age of 63, I seized the opportunity to learn it from my 80-year-old sister who excels in this dish.
At any rate, I had missed the opportunity to learn from my mum her renowned fried chicken recipe, Hakka style, which to this today, I am still being chided by my husband who swore by her recipe. I would not miss learning how to make abacus seeds.
The recipe for the Abacus Seeds dish is ubiquitous on the internet and easily available on Youtube. However, some modifications have been made to the dish by different people.
Traditionally, the recipe included steamed yam, tapioca flour, black fungus, minced pork, dried mushrooms, and the garnishes used are parsley, fried onion bits, and fried, dried shrimps. This dish is cooked in oil with garlic and seasoned with soya sauce and some chicken stock plus white pepper. A simple dish that requires skill and patience in handling and preparation.
There are intricacies involved in the making of this dish; It is the finer points that make the dish an exquisite one that I would like to expound on. Hakka Abacus seeds dish is a laborious one which accounts for it not frequently sold outside.
As they say, God is in the details. Those who want to make a delicious plate of abacus seeds would like to note;
1 The yam must be of good quality at the outset. They are in season from August to November and knowing what a good yam is important. Yam should feel firm to touch with little to no cracks. The root should not have any soft or mushy spots.
2 Steamed yam must be mashed thoroughly when hot. To facilitate this, shred the yam instead of cutting it into pieces before steaming. A point to note is to wear gloves when skinning the yam as it may cause some itchiness to some people but is rare.
3 Yam should be kneaded with the tapioca flour with the hand when hot so some tolerance to heat is required. This is to enable the yam to be mashed easily and uniformly with the flour.
4 When the abacus seeds are cooked in boiling water, they would rise to the surface. Quickly remove them and place in normal room temperature water to cool and firm them up. Next, add some cooking oil in a bowl to contain them and gently stir to prevent the seeds from sticking together.
5 Attain a delicate balance of yam and flour in proportion as too much flour would mask the taste of yam and too little flour will make the yam less firm. This is the secret to attaining a delicate balance of having a fragrant yet smooth, chewy dish.
— One whole Thai yam about 1.3kg
— 250g tapioca starch
— 8 pieces black fungus
— 8 dried shiitake mushrooms
— 100g dried shrimps
— 200g minced pork
–2 red sliced chillies
–3 sliced shallots
–3 minced cloves of garlic
–some sliced fried shallots, chopped parsley and spring onions for garnishing.
— 1 teaspoon sesame oil (optional)
–1 tablespoon oyster sauce in half cup water (for those who are allergic, use one chicken stock in half cup water)
–1 tablespoon light soya sauce.
— white pepper to taste
- Wash the dried shrimps, dry them, deep fry, and keep them aside.
- Soak the fungus and the shiitake mushrooms, chopped into pieces, and set aside.
- Peel and slice the yam and quarter.
- Steam the yam for about 30 minutes until soft.
- Transfer yam to a mixing bowl and mash the yam while hot.
- Allow yam to cool slightly then gradually add the tapioca starch into it and knead.
- Continue kneading into a fine dough that is not sticky to touch.
- Dust the working top with tapioca starch, make a ball out of the dough, and shape it into a roll 2cm thick.
- Cut into 2cm slices.
- Roll each into a ball and gently depress the center. Prepare all the abacus seeds on a tray dusted with starch powder.
- In boiling water, put the abacus seeds into the water and stir gently to prevent them from sticking to the bottom.
- Once cooked, they will rise to the surface. Scoop up with a metal sieve and put in a basin of water to cool it. This makes them more firm.
- Put aside in a bowl, then add some vegetable oil to prevent them from sticking together.
- In a hot wok, add vegetable oil and fry the garlic, shallots, till fragrant.
- Add the minced pork, black fungus, and mushrooms and continue to stir fry, adding some seasoning. Add one tsp of sesame oil if desired.
- Once cooked, add in the abacus seeds, add the chillies and stir for a minute or two. Do not over fry as they are already cooked.
- Add the seasoning and adjust according to taste. You may want to add some hot water so that it is not too dry.
- Serve hot and garnish with the dried shrimps, chopped parsley, fried sliced onions, and a dash of pepper.
Advantages of eating yam;
Yam is a highly nutritious vegetable and is rich in vitamins, fibers, and minerals. They include protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, potassium, magnesium, sodium, carotene, niacin, vitamin C, B vitamins, saponins, and fluorine, etc.
1 enhance brain function.
2 ease menopause symptoms.
3 cancer-fighting properties.
4 reduce inflammation and increase immunity.
5 improve blood sugar.
6 rich in vitamins that can accelerate the metabolism useful in weight loss.
7 increase appetite and help digestion and work on diarrhea.
8 adjust the acid-base balance of the body, hence it is good for the skin and black hair.
People who are not suitable to eat yam or taro are those people with phlegm, itching problems, eczema, asthma, allergic rhinitis, diabetes, dyspepsia.
Some things to be cautioned about yam or taro.
1 Eating too much can cause bloating as it contains a lot of starch.
2 Raw taro is quite toxic so it must be fully cooked.
3 Raw taro juice may cause skin allergies.
It was a weekend dinner time and everyone around the table expressed their satisfaction with this cuisine. Fragrant goodness of yam oozed as one chew into the succulent abacus seeds. In addition, the delicacy of the mushrooms and black fungus, and juicy mined meat swirl around the mouth. Dried shrimps added to the crunchiness, the smell was aromatic with chopped parsley and dried onion bits.
There is no love like good food such as the Hakka Abacus Seeds dish. This is famous cultural dish of the Hakka people and we hope that it would become known as a special, tasty and healthy dish. From the Hakkas, there are many more culinary delights in tow.