The humble taro or yam has helped many Foochow pioneers of Sibu pass their initial days. Many yam plants were found growing wild in the early 1900's around Sibu. The Foochows then grew their own in their vegetable patches.
Although taro or yam has been a familiar plant in Southern China, there are more varieties of this food crop in Sarawak. they come in different shapes, sizes and even colour. The best type being the bilong type in the Foochow dialect. It has a lot of purple streaks and its skin is thinner than the others. It has a gentle and crunchy feel. All others belong to the "indigenous type" and are therefore less valued. They are harder to cook too.
The yam is a very humble root crop. However in recent years when the world is facing a food crisis every food crop is in the lime light. The yam is now a much sought after food in the market. And in fact it can be found as part of some food supplements. However it remains a delightful occasional food item on the table of the Foochows.
How do the Foochows value this food?
First of all it is a good supplementary food item besides rice. The Foochows have created a few signature dishes out of the yam which is grown on sides of fish ponds, in the main vegetable patch or even on road sides. The best yam is grown on well drained and fertile hillslopes.
The best dish is the Foochow yam cake, followed by mixed vegetables in yam ring, deep fried yam balls (dim sum) and Abacus Yam Balls. The Foochows have a fantastic savoury yam porridge or paste made out of yam, dried shrimps and pork fat with lots of fried onions. Yam has also found its way into cold desserts recently . Bubur char char, halo halo and ice cream now contain yam.
There is a very strong Foochow belief that yam helps in digestion. Hence a good meal with some mashed yam seems to be more complete than others. Perhaps it is because yam is fairly fibrous.
And here is a simple recipe from my grandmother, Tiong Lien Tie.
One fairly big yam, skinned and cut into small pieces. Steamed until soft.
Deep fry chopped small onions.
Add a few table spoons of pork fat into a heated kuali. Saute until the oil comes out and the fat is crispy.
Add 2 tablespoons of pounded dried prawns. Fry until fragrant.
Add a few slices of lean pork.
Add the onions and the mashed yam.
Add water and cook until a paste is formed. This takes a good hour of slow cooking. Finally add salt, pepper, chillies to taste.
Enjoy the simple but tasty Foochow yam dish with rice and kang kong soup.
You cannot get this dish in a restaurant. It is what we always humour ourselves with - our village Foochow food - but it is always our dream food. I believe that if we remember our roots in the villages, we will remember our ROOT food too.
We call it Wow Neh or Yam Paste.