If you have watched as many episodes of Masterchef as I have, you would have invariably come across scenes of contestants chucking freshly boiled potatoes in a blender to make mash, with the camera panning to the judges’ looks of horror. The fast-moving blade of a blender ruptures starch molecules, which combines with the moisture in the potatoes to form a thick gloop, certainly not a desirable outcome.
In the case of the classic Teochew dessert orh nee, literally translated as ‘taro mud’, however, gloop is a good thing. As the days get colder and nights longer, there is nothing I want to eat more than gooey taro paste, its sweetness cut through with a drizzle of thinned-out coconut cream. It is warm, comforting and sits squarely in nursery food territory, the way oatmeal porridge or Cantonese-style congee is.
But wait. Here’s another twist that throws you off – crispy shallots. Many restaurants that serve orh nee opt not to include shallots, but if you want the traditional flavour of orh nee, it is criminal to leave this out. Taro is a versatile root that straddles the worlds of savory and sweet; the addition of shallot oil and crispy shallots to this sweet dessert is a prime showcase for its versatility.
As of now, ghee is my go-to for frying, its rich flavor sits so well with the caramelized sweetness of the shallots. It is also stupidly easy to prepare at home, with just one ingredient (butter) that is so easy to source. Traditionally, though, pork lard is the time-honored fat of choice. Most home cooks opt for vegetable oil – though they insist on using Knife brand.
I have to add a disclaimer that the drizzle of coconut cream is not a traditional Teochew garnish, but a local spin on the dessert. I have kept it in this dish, and salted it, and found that it provides a much needed respite from the otherwise cloyingly sweet orh nee.
340g skinless taro, sliced thinly
135g skinless and seedless pumpkin, sliced thinly
90g vacuum packed ginkgo nuts
90g gula melaka (or sugar if you would like a more purplish look)
1 pandan leaf, knotted
70g ghee, rendered lard or oil
35g thinly sliced shallots or red onion
2-3 tablespoons sugar
50g coconut cream mixed with 50g water and a pinch of salt
Place the taro slices on a plate and steam in a wok until you can easily mash it with a spoon. This will take about 15 minutes on high heat.
While the taro steams, combine the ginkgo, sugar, 200ml water and pandan in a pot. Bring to a boil, before simmering for 15 minutes to dissolve the sugar and rid the ginkgo nuts of their bitterness.
At the same time, heat the ghee with the sliced shallots in a pan over high heat until golden brown. Set the shallots aside, reserving the ghee.
When the taro is fully cooked, steam the pumpkin in the same way in the wok. While hot, blend the taro until smooth, adding some ginkgo syrup to aid in the blending.
Heat half of the shallot oil in a pan over low heat, and add the taro paste. It will be very gloopy – this is normal! Stirring constantly, gradually incorporate the rest of the shallot oil.
Add the rest of the ginkgo syrup and season with the sugar. Add 200ml water gradually, adjusting the consistency to your liking. More water would mean a lighter dessert, while less water would result in a heavier, richer dessert.
Mash or blend the steamer pumpkin coarsely.
To assemble, dollop the taro paste into serving bowls. Just a small portion per person will do – it is very rich. Drizzle over the thinned and salted coconut cream, and add a spoonful of mashed pumpkin.
Finish the dish with a few ginkgo nuts and a sprinkling of crispy shallots.