My husband’s grandma is a formidable cook and the very first dish I learnt from her was her abacus seeds. I have had this dish when I was younger but it was always hard, bland and not very appealing at all. The way she makes the abacus seeds is akin to making gnocchi, adding just enough flour to bind the dough, cooking the small bits of dough in gently simmering water, and allowing them to cool gently in water when they are done. She says that the ones sold outside have a higher proportion of water and starch to lower the cost, so you don’t a strong taro flavor.
I have since made this dish multiple times at home, each time with a slightly different variation or addition. I never used to add taukwa, but since I had some at home and I remember her version having some taukwa strips I added some. My mother-in-law who recently made this dish also told me that she enjoys deep-frying some strips of dried cuttlefish so I’ve added that into this version of the dish that I made for the video. However, having tried the dish with and without, my husband and I both prefer the iteration without these add-ons. Still, I have written these additions and filmed the video of this version so you can try it for yourself and make your own decisions.
I didn’t have minced pork so I omitted it, but I feel that the mince is so important for the flavor of the suan pan zi as the savoury flavour of the pork coats each abacus seed as it cooked. You might leer at the use of chicken powder, but that’s what my grandma-in-law used and it does make a difference to the final dish!
Suan Pan Zi
For the dough:
400g skinless taro, cubed
½ teaspoon salt
About 4 tablespoons water
65g tapioca starch
Steam the taro over high heat for 10 minutes or until tender. Mash while hot and add the salt and water. Add the tapioca starch and knead to form a smooth dough. You might need a little more water or more flour. Pinch off small pieces of dough (roughly 6-7g), roll into balls and poke a hole in each one using the back of a chopstick. Don’t go all the way through. You can also use your thumb to make an indent – it all depends on the kind of look that you’re going for. Bring a pot of water to a simmer, add the abacus seeds and cook gently until they float to the top. Transfer to room temperature water to cool down.
6 tbs lard or shallot oil (I used duck fat and it was really tasty)
1 dried cuttlefish, rinsed, transparent cartilage removed, snipped into thin strips (optional – I added this in the video, but I prefer it without)
80g taukwa (firm beancurd), cut into thin strips (optional – I added this in the video, but I prefer it without)
½ a large onion or 1 small onion, peeled and diced.
3 cloves garlic, minced
35g haebee, rinsed and roughly chopped
1 tablespoon cai poh, preferably sweet variety
200g minced pork (not in the video but I highly recommend adding this!)
10g dried black fungus, cut into slivers
5 small dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in hot water until soft, squeezed and diced
1 teaspoon chicken powder
Fish sauce to taste
1 sprig of Chinese celery or 1 spring onion, sliced
1 small chilli or chilli padi, sliced (optional – I mainly add chilli for colour as we eat this dish with chilli sauce on the side, so pick a chilli that is subtly spicy. Chilli padi looks even better when you plate the dish.)
Heat up the oil and when it is hot, add the cuttlefish strips. Fry until the strips curl up and become crispy. Remove from the pan and set aside, leaving the oil in the pan. Add the taukwa and fry until crispy. Set aside.
Fry the onion in the oil until well caramelized, before adding garlic. Saute for another minute before adding the haebee and caipoh. Fry until fragrant before adding the minced pork. Fry until the meat turns opaque, then add the diced black fungus and shiitake mushrooms. Fry for another minute. Add the drained abacus seeds to the pan and season with chicken powder and fish sauce to taste. Add the spring onion/ Chinese celery, chilli and fried taukwa. Toss well before topping with the fried cuttlefish, if using. Serve with chili sauce if desired.