Abacus beads recipe

Posted on July 5, 2012

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Since Poh first cooked abacus beads in her Masterchef audition back in 2009, I have been meaning to replicate the dish at home. It has become one of my favourite dishes to cook, even though it is quite process intensive whipping this up for a mid week dinner! Now, I daresay I’ve mastered the dish enough to reproduce it for your judging.

Abacus beads is a famed and much loved Hakka dish. What is Hakka? It’s a Chinese dialect and a sub-categorisation of Chinese people who speak the dialect. Translated literally, ‘Hakka’ means guest houses. Hakka speakers are generally from the south eastern parts of China and were believed to originate from central China. Like the Cantonese, the Hakka make up a large amount of many overseas Chinese, with many of them settling in South East Asian countries including Malaysia. In fact, the Hakka group are the second largest Chinese dialect group in Malaysia and as expected, many of their cooking styles have been incorporated into what is more generally regarded as ‘Chinese-Malaysian’ food. And thus this goes some way to explain Poh’s affinity with this renowned Hakka dish.

So enough of the brief Chinese lesson, what are these abacus beads and how are they even edible? I assure you that edible, they are. They are essentially taro dumplings and are named after those old school calculator beads they are said to resemble. For the sake of easy reference, they’re quite similar to gnocchi, and are usually cooked then stir fried with mince, mushrooms and the like. To break away from the mould, you could always treat the abacus beads like you would a noodle and serve it in a broth. If you’re as much of a taro fan as I am, then you will find these an absolute delight in any way they’re served.

In terms of making the beads, the dough is usually a mixture of mashed taro and tapioca starch. The ratio of taro to starch can vary quite a bit from one recipe to the other, but generally recipes seem to follow a rule of 2 parts taro to 1 part flour. The more taro you use, the more fragrant and delicate your beads will be. The more starch you use, the chewier and more dense your beads will be. To complicate things just that little bit more, Poh’s recipe also uses glutinous rice flour in the mix, however in spite of this, she maintains the common 2:1 taro to flour ratio. I believe that (rightly or wrongly) the glutinous rice flour might be there to induce a chewier texture while maintaining a higher taro content. If someone could shed some light on this, it would be much appreciated.

In any case, my below recipe uses a 3:1 ratio of taro to flour and I follow Poh’s lead in using 2 parts tapioca starch to 1 part glutinous rice flour. This is after trialing the more common 2:1 ratio and finding that I wanted a richer taro fragrance and taste. Apologies in advance for not having more photos of the process, but you’ll have to appreciate that it was rather hard taking photos when your hands are covered in dough! Also, my picture of the completed dish doesn’t look as green as it should have, that’s because I ran out of spring onions and only had a measly bit of coriander left. If you follow the recipe though, you will get a greener finish than what I photographed.

RECIPE – Abacus beads

Ingredients:

Dough:

  • 300g sliced taro
  • 67g tapioca starch
  • 33g glutinous rice flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • water as required

Stir fry mix:

  • 2 shallots minced
  • 2-3 cloves garlic minced
  • 3 spring onions chopped (white part only)
  • 2 tablespoons dried shrimp
  • 200g mince meat (either pork or chicken works, but pork is more commonly used)
  • 2 large dried Chinese mushrooms soaked for ~an hour
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon kecap manis
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 generous pinch of ground white pepper
  • 3 tablespoons cooking oil

For garnishing:

  • handful of coriander leaves chopped
  • 3 spring onions chopped (the leftover green bits from before)
  • big handful of deep fried shallots

Method:

  1. Steam sliced taro pieces until soft (~10-15 minutes).Ā 
  2. While the taro is steaming, place dried shrimp and soaked mushrooms in the boiling water to cook through. Use a slotted spoon to remove dried shrimp and mushrooms after 10 minutes. Finely dice mushrooms.
  3. Once taro is cooked, pass it through a sieve or thoroughly mash with potato masher. Knead with flours and add water until it forms a smooth dough. To check the consistency of your dough, roll a small amount into a ball, if it cracks, add more water. If you’ve added a bit too much water, add a bit more tapioca starch to soak it up.
  4. To form beads, roll into bite sized balls. Hold the ball between your thumb and index finger and flatten into a disc, squeeze gently to make indents on both sides and viola.
  5. To cook, boil beads in salted water until they float. Remove cooked beads, drain in colander and run them under cold water. Coat with a little oil to prevent sticking. And now we can finally get to the stir frying!
  6. In a wok, heat 2 tablespoons of oil on medium heat. Once hot, saute minced shallots, garlic and white part of chopped spring onions until fragrant. Turn heat on high and add mince.
  7. When mince is 80% cooked through, add dried shrimp and mushrooms. Toss until mince is completely cooked, then add kecap manis, soy sauce and white pepper.
  8. Lastly add your cooked beads, along with an additional tablespoon of oil to prevent the beads sticking to your wok. Coat beads with sauce and meat mixture.
  9. Just as you turn off the heat, throw in coriander and spring onion to mix through. To serve, scatter a generous amount of deep fried shallots all over the top. Best eaten immediately.

This dish is an absolute textural delight. The lightly chewiness of the beads, moreish goodness of mince and mushrooms, crunch of deep friend shallots and the sudden burst of freshness from the greens. Yum! I know I’ve been a bit slack with posting in the past month. Hopefully this write up is suitably informative and makes up for some of my neglect!

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