It is not unusual for me to receive emails, text messages or even real telephone calls from friends, my friends’ children or their grandchildren, former co-worker or relatives back in Ohio—asking for a particular recipe or directions for cooking some obscure food. I think the last one was from a girlfriend in Oregon asking about quince. What did I know about quince? Almost nothing – it was right up there with loquats. We had a volunteer loquat tree down in Arleta in my back yard and I knew NADA about making jelly out of loquats. But we figured it out. If it grows on my property, I’ll find out a way to use it. And last January my friend Bev brought me some quince jelly to try. I want to say that I tried some quince wine her husband made but I can’t say I liked it.
Well, there is no guarantee you are going to LIKE everything you make or bake or cook with an obscure ingredient, like quince. Or loquat. And there may be a lot of things you have absolutely no interest in trying – like rattlesnake meat (ugh) or little fried fish balls that have eyes looking back at you—something a neighbor in Simi Valley tried to coax me into trying way back when. I told her I couldn’t eat something that was looking back at me.
Well, this friend of mine called a few days ago and asked “What do you know about Taro cake?”
“KARO cake?” I inquired, not understanding.
“No, T-A-R-O, TARO, he repeated.
Well, not a lot. I wish he had asked about KARO as in syrup because I know a lot more about the latter than the former. But I love a challenge and said “I’ll get back to you on this”.
Ok, from Google I learned: Taro is native to Southeast Asia. It is a perennial, tropical plant primarily grown as a root vegetable for its edible starchy corm, and as a leaf vegetable and is considered a staple in African, Oceanic and Asian cultures. It is believed to have been one of the earliest cultivated plants. Colocasia is thought to have originated in the Indo-Malayan region, perhaps in eastern India and Bangladesh, and spread eastward into Southeast Asia, eastern Asia, and the Pacific islands; westward to Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean; and then southward and westward from there into East Africa and West Africa, from whence it spread to the Caribbean and Americas. It is known by many local names and often referred to as ‘elephant ears’ when grown as an ornamental plant.
The best description I have found for taro root comes from Grace Young in the Glossary of “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchern”. She writes, “The starchy root vegetable is six to ten inches lon, four inches wide and cylindrical. The skin is dark bron, hairy, and very dusty. The taro rot should be firm and heavy. Never choose taro root that has been sliced on either end. Check the root carefully for mold spots. The texture is starchy and reminiscent of a potato. It is used in braised dishes and in Taro Root Cake. Raw taro rot is said to cause itchiness when touched with bare hands so many people wear rubber gloves when handling it. The flesh is potato colored with fine flecks an doccasional blush spots; it turns a pale lavender color once it is cooked. Store as you would a potato and use within one week”.
From Wikipedia I learned: Taro cake is a Chinese dish made from the vegetable taro. While it is denser in texture than radish cakes, both these savory cakes made in a similar ways, with rice flour as the main ingredient. When served in dim sum cuisine, it is cut into square-shaped slices and pan-fried before serving. It is found in Hong Kong, China, and overseas Chinatowns restaurants. Other ingredients often include pork and Chinese black mushroom, or even Chinese sausages. It is usually topped with chopped scallions. Well, I know Dim Sum and have eaten it with my girlfriend Liza at the Chinatown in downtown Los Angeles. But what about taro CAKE? I wondered.
Then I found references to Grace Young and her cookbook “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen” – a cookbook I have, and in which she shared a recipe for Taro Root Cake for Epicurious in 1999:
Taro Root Cake (Woo Tul Gow)
yield: Makes one 8-inch cake, about 48 slices
Writes Grace: “Homemade taro root cake is unsurpassed if the home cook doesn’t skimp on the ingredients. Thick slices of taro cake, richly flavored with scallops, mushrooms, shrimp, Chinese bacon, and creamy taro are pan-fried until golden brown and fragrant. My Auntie Ivy’s mother, Che Chung Ng, makes such a recipe and is famous in the family for both her Turnip Cake and Taro Root Cake. Every New Year, she cooks several cakes and gives them away as gifts to close family members. Nothing is measured exactly, and it is impressive to see her produce cake after cake, especially because she is over eighty years old. Spry and agile, she cooks with full energy and total intuition, never missing a beat. She kindly taught me this recipe and the one for Turnip Cake. Wear rubber gloves when handling taro, as some people can have an allergic reaction to touching it. Also use rice flour, not glutinous flour!
• 1/4 cup Chinese dried scallops (gown yu chee), about 1 ounce
• 8 Chinese dried mushrooms
• 1/4 cup Chinese dried shrimp, about 1 ounce
• 6 ounces Chinese Bacon (lop-yok), store bought or homemade
• 1 large taro root, about 2 1/4 pounds
• 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
• 2 cups rice flour
• vegetable oil, for pan-frying
• oyster-flavored sauce
In a small bowl, soak the scallops in 1/3 cup cold water
for about 2 hours, or until softened. Drain, reserving the soaking liquid. Remove and discard the small hard knob from the side of the scallops. Finely shred the scallops.
Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, soak the mushrooms in 1/2 cup cold water 30 minutes, or until softened. Drain and squeeze dry, reserving the soaking liquid. Cut off and discard stems and mince the caps. In a small bowl, soak the dried shrimp in 1/3 cup cold water for 30 minutes, or until softened. Drain, reserving soaking liquid. Finely chop shrimp and set aside.
Cut the bacon into 3 equal pieces and place in a 9-inch shallow heatproof dish. Bring water to a boil over high heat in a covered steamer large enough to fit the dish without touching the sides of the steamer. Carefully place the dish in the steamer, cover, reduce heat to medium, and steam 15 to 20 minutes, or just until bacon is softened and there are juices in the dish. Check the water level from time to time and replenish, if necessary, with boiling water. Carefully remove the dish from the steamer and set aside to cool.
Meanwhile, wearing rubber gloves, peel taro root and cut into 1/2-inch cubes to make about 7 cups. In a 4-quart saucepan, combine the taro root, 1 teaspoon salt, and about 1 1/2 quarts cold water, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer 15 to 20 minutes, or until taro has turned a pale lavender color and is just tender when pierced with a knife.
Remove the bacon from its dish and reserve the juices in the dish. Cut off and discard the rind and thick layer of fat underneath. Cut the remaining meat into paper-thin slices and then finely chop. In a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok or skillet, stir-fry the chopped bacon over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes, or until meat releases fat and just begins to brown. Add the minced mushrooms and shrimp, and stir-fry 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in pan juices from the bacon and remove from heat.
Drain the taro in a colander, reserving the cooking liquid. Return the taro to the saucepan, add the bacon and mushroom mixture, and stir to combine. In a large bowl, combine the rice flour and the reserved mushroom, scallop, and shrimp soaking liquids, stirring until smooth. Stir in 1 cup of the reserved hot taro broth. Pour this batter over the taro mixture in the saucepan. Add the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and stir until combined. Consistency will resemble that of thick rice pudding. Pour the mixture into a heatproof 8-inch round, 3- to 4-inch-deep, straight-sided bowl, such as a soufflé dish.
Bring water to a boil over high heat in a covered steamer large enough to fit the dish without touching the sides of the steamer. Carefully place the dish into the steamer, cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and steam 1 hour, or just until cake is set and is firm to the touch. Check the water level and replenish, if necessary, with boiling water. Carefully remove the bowl from the steamer and cool on a rack about 1 hour. Cover and refrigerate at least 3 to 4 hours.
Run a knife along the edge of the cake to loosen sides. Place a cake rack over the bowl and invert to unmold. Flip the cake right-side up onto a cutting board. Wrap the cake in plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use.
When ready to eat, cut the cake into quarters. Cut each quarter crosswise, not into wedges, but into two 2-inch-wide strips. Cut each strip crosswise into scant 1/2-inch-thick slices. This is the typical way of slicing a cake Chinese style.
Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok or skillet, over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Add just enough vegetable oil to barely coat the wok. Add the taro cake slices in batches and cook for 2 to 3 minutes per side, until golden brown. Serve immediately with oyster sauce.
(I wonder if my friend wears rubber gloves when peeling taro root?)
But be not dismayed! We haven’t given up – although it appears to me that in addition to being enormously popular with the Chinese, taro is a favored dish—in whatever form—of the Vietnamese as well. I became acquainted with several Vietnamese women at a manicurist salon I favored for many years, until we moved to the desert. From the Vietnamese then comes this:
To make a Taro and Coconut cake
You will need:
• 2 cups hot, peeled and cooked mashed taro
• 1/4 cup melted butter
• 1 cup freshly grated coconut
• 1 cup milk
• 2 eggs, beaten
• 1/4 tsp. each ground nutmeg and cinnamon
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
Butter a shallow 8 inch. cake pan. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Combine the hot taro with the melted butter, mashing again as you work in the butter. Add the coconut, sugar and beaten eggs, and mix in well. Add the cinnamon, nutmeg, milk and vanilla, and beat all together by hand or with an electric beater for 1 minute. Pour into cake pan and bake for 45 minutes to an hour (or until firm). Remove from oven and cool completely. Sprinkle top with sifted icing sugar if desired. (Flame Tree Cookbook by Sue Carruthers)
Well, while you are searching for taro or quince or loquat, I will try to focus on something simple. Like rhubarb. Or radish or turnip cakes. Or maybe something like strawberry shortcake!
But in the meantime, for some good reading and recipes, I recommend “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen” by Grace Young and if anyone is interested, I will write a review of the book. Meantime,
Happy Cooking and Happy Cook Book Collecting!