Taro and Pumpkin Tofu Puffs

Before my parents retired, they spent at least 15 years each in the food industry, working for hotel restaurants and Chinese bakeries. Every 12- to 14-hour shift would leave them exhausted, and understandably, my father had little desire to step foot in our own kitchen. My mother, on the other hand, sought refuge in front of our home stove. To the relaxing din of Cantonese soap operas, she would try out the "Western" tricks she learned on the job with our straight-from-Chinatown ingredients.

Most Chinese moms are ardent traditionalists with food. Mine is not. On a whim, she would make pizza with Cantonese sausage, steak with hoisin sauce, and sushi with roast pork. The strangest part is that most of the time, the food tasted very good.

So I didn't hesitate when she wanted me to help her with a new appetizer for Chinese New Year dinner. Rather than a traditional dish, she decided we should try something she "learned from Hong Kong TV."

Most years, our New Year dinner would have some form of taro: claypot chicken and taro, or taro in a version of Buddha's Delight. This year, we used the purplish tuber in taro and pumpkin tofu puffs.

The only fresh ingredients you need are taro, fried tofu puffs (豆泡 doupao), and pumpkin (which you can also substitute with carrots.) First, steam the taro and mash it up like you would a potato. Next, add the seasonings and stuff it into the tofu. The steamed pumpkin gets chopped up into little pieces, then added to the center for color.

After a quick dip in the skillet for a crispy exterior, these become great little hors d'oeuvres for a Chinese New Year dinner, or any other meal that warrants a special appetizer.


Other Chinese appetizers to try:

Chinese Tea Eggs

Turnip Cake (Law bok gow) 

Water Chestnut Cake (Ma tei gow)

Fried Wontons


Taro and Pumpkin Tofu Puffs

Makes 1 dozen

1 pound taro, peeled* 1/2 pound pumpkin 12 pieces fried tofu 1/4 cup water 1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce 2 teaspoons sesame oil 1 teaspoon cornstarch 1 teaspoon sugar 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1. Slice taro into 1/2-inch wide pieces. Slice pumpkin into 1-inch long, 1/2-inch diameter rectangles.

2. To steam, you can use either a vegetable steamer or do it the Chinese way: place a plate on a wire rack in a wok with about 2 inches of boiling water. Steam pumpkin until tender, about 2 minutes, then remove. Steam taro until fully cooked through, about 10 to 12 minutes, then remove.

3. With a potato masher or a rubber spatula, break taro into smaller pieces. Mix in water, peanut/veg oil, soy sauce, sesame oil, cornstarch, sugar, salt, and pepper. Continue to mash until taro is smooth. Adjust flavor if needed with additional salt and pepper.

4. Slice off 1 side (just a sliver) of each tofu puff. With your fingers, gently push the inner tofu to the sides. Spoon and pack taro into the tofu. With the blunt end of a chopstick, lightly press a hole in the center (but careful not to poke through to the other side.) Press a pumpkin piece into each hole, then smooth out the top.

5. You can eat the tofu puffs as is, or you can pan-fry them (the top only or all 4 sides) for some extra crispness. Taro and pumpkin tofu puffs can be eaten warm or at room temperature.

*When working with unshaven taro in China, I have found it's best to wear gloves; the outside has a tendency to cause itchiness (though not a rash.) I haven't had this problem with taro in the US.


Pumpkin Hummus

When I lived in the US, I was addicted to hummus. I would go through a tub a week, eating it with pita, raw vegetables, and (secret's out!) even plain rice if the cupboards were empty. I would make long treks from West Harlem to Atlantic Ave in Brooklyn just for hummus and pita from Sahadi's. Not surprisingly, I went through major withdrawal while living in China. Not even the Western import stores had the mass-produced tubs I took for granted at Whole Foods or even Safeway. And since Beijing's Middle Eastern population is tiny, with the majority working at embassies, not opening restaurants, I could forget about any sort of mezze platters or shawarmas whenever the mood stuck.

So I was ecstatic to finally find tahini at Sanyuanli, the local market that rivals the import stores in diversity, without the exhorbitant prices. The guy who runs the stall sells fresh sesame oil and sesame paste, but unlike his rivals around town, was smart enough to realize realize, hey, the foreigners all want this thing called tahini. Thomas Friedman would be proud.

Since I found the tahini guy I have been making all sorts of hummus at home. Regular, extra lemon, carrot. And since pumpkin is everywhere right now and ridiculously cheap, I also whipped up a batch of pumpkin hummus. In addition to the regular hummus ingredients, I roasted small pieces of pumpkin, and at the same time roasted the pumpkin seeds, which would later be used as garnish instead of pine nuts.

Since imported pita chips cost at least $6 US here, I made my own with fresh Chinese pancakes (like scallion pancakes, without the scallions.) On my street there are at least two stands that sell a big pancake sheets for about 60 cents; quite economical! I just baked the pancakes for about 10 minutes per side, broke them up, and got the requisite "pita chips" for dipping.


Pumpkin Hummus

  • 1 cup chopped pumpkin
  • 1 small handful fresh pumpkin seeds
  • 16-oz can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 1/4 cup tahini
  • 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil, plus additional for drizzling
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
  1. In a glass baking dish, roast the chopped pumpkin at 300 degrees Fahrenheit for 1 hour, or until soft. You may also roast the pumpkin seeds at the same time, then set aside.
  2. In a food processor or blender, combine the roasted pumpkin, chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice, water, and olive oil. Process until smooth, then add the sugar and salt. Adjust the flavor with more salt if needed
  3. Dish the hummus out into a serving bowl, drizzle with additional olive oil, and garnish with toasted pumpkin seeds. Serve with pita chips or raw vegetables like baby carrots or cherry tomatoes.

Gobi Manchurian - Indian-Chinese Cauliflower Fritters

I was first introduced to Indian Chinese food a few years ago in Hong Kong, at a restaurant in Tsim Sha Tsui whose name now escapes me. My first thought was, "This is Chinese food?" My second thought was, "How ironic." The cuisine of China, brought over to India by Chinese immigrants many generations ago and given an Indian make-over, is now in the 21st century being brought to a special administrative region of China by Indian immigrants.

Chinese food developed in India the way it does around the world: by immigrants using techniques from home to cook their new world ingredients. They begin by feeding themselves, then perhaps open a restaurant to earn a living, thus adapting the food even more to suit local palettes.

Indian-Chinese cuisine incorporates not only Chinese ingredients like soy sauce and and ginger, but also cumin, turmeric, and hot chilis. Neither beef nor pork, the de facto meat of China, are used, because of India's large Hindu and Muslim populations. That leaves chicken, lamb, and vegetables as the mainstays.

And even the vegetables used in Indian-Chinese cooking may seem foreign to the Chinese. Gobi Manchurian, one of the dishes I had in HK many years ago, is cauliflower fritters covered in a sweet-sour-spicy sauce. ("Gobi" is cauliflower in Punjabi; "Manchurian", the name for any sweet and sour sauce, has no basis in the historical Chinese region.)

The technique for making gobi Manchurian is not unlike those for other overseas Chinese dishes, such as sweet and sour pork and sesame chicken. (We immigrants sure love our deep-fried food.) You marinate the main protein or vegetable, coat it, fry it, and make a sauce coating. Here, however, instead of plain cornstarch these cauliflower florets take a dip in a batter laced with cayenne and chili garlic paste. And the sauce, which incorporates caramelized onions, chili peppers, and ketchup, is a nice balance of sweet, tangy, and spicy.

Update: Related Indian-Chinese Recipe: Chicken Lollipops


Gobi Manchurian - Indian-Chinese Cauliflower Fritters Adapted from Saveur

Serves 4 as an appetizer or part of a multi-course meal

10 to 12 cloves garlic 1 piece ginger, peeled and sliced into coins, + 1 teaspoon julienned ginger 1 head cauliflower, cut into bite-size florets 2⁄3 cup cornstarch 2⁄3 cup flour 1 tsp. cayenne pepper 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon ground pepper 2 tsp. plus 3 tbsp. soy sauce Peanut oil 2 small onions, chopped 8 to 10 fresh bird's eye chilis, thinly sliced 3/4 cup ketchup 2 teaspoons sesame oil Cilantro leaves for garnish

1. In a blender, purée garlic, ginger slices, and 1⁄3 cup water. Set aside.

2. In a a pot of salted water, cook cauliflower until tender, about 5 to minutes. Drain, pat dry with a clean towel, and set aside.

2. In a small bowl, mix together cornstarch, flour, cayenne pepper, salt, and pepper. Stir in half the garlic paste, 2 tsp. soy sauce, and 3⁄4 cup water to form a batter.

3. Heat about 1 inch of oil in a wok over medium-high heat. Working in batches, dip cauliflower in batter, then fry until golden brown, about 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer fritters with a slotted spoon to a plate lined with paper towels.

4. Drain all but 2 tablespoons of oil. Sauté onions until soft, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add chilis and remaining garlic paste and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Add ketchup, remaining 3 tablespoons soy sauce, sesame oil, and 1⁄3 cup water; simmer until sauce is thickened, about 1–2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

5. Return drained cauliflour to the wok and toss to coat. Transfer to serving plate(s), garnish with julienned ginger and cilantro, and serve as an appetizer or with rice as a main entree.



Chinese Hot and Sour Soup

I meant for this to be my dinner appetizer, but I spooned so much into my bowl that it became a meal.

Hot and sour soup didn't appear in my childhood of Cantonese home dinners. It did, however, appear in my Chinese-American childhood, as a Sichuan/Northern Chinese dish that became bastardized for the greasy take-out joints of suburban America. I have had one too many versions that were so thick and rubbery I could stretch them with my hands like Silly Putty. Here is some advice to the aforementioned Chinese restaurants in the US: Cornstarch is never a main ingredient; just use sparingly.

(From upper left: Wood ear, lily buds, fresh bamboo, shiitake mushrooms. Bowl: fresh firm tofu.)

In the US, hot and sour soup also tends to lack the lily buds, shiitake mushrooms, and bamboo shoots that make it a nutrient-rich, even somewhat refined, dish. (This is the Chinese version, not to be confused with Vietnamese, Filipino, or Thai hot and sour soups.) I also like to add wood ear and tofu for texture variation. Today I also used fresh instead of canned bamboo shoots, which I couldn't find when I went food shopping this morning.

The amount of pepper and vinegar here is enough to make the soup sufficiently, and respectively, "hot" and "sour", without being overwhelming. But if you like more bite and tang, feel free to add a tiny bit more. And remember to drizzle in the egg after adding the vinegar, or else the egg will just disperse and give the soup a cloudy appearance.

And finally, a tablespoon of cornstarch goes a long, long way.


Chinese Hot and Sour Soup

Serves 2 as a meal, or 4 to 6 as an appetizer

  • 6 or 7 dried shiitake mushrooms
  • 1/2 cup dried lily buds
  • 1/2 cup dried wood ear (also called cloud ear or black tree fugus)
  • 1/2 cup bamboo shoots, sliced, fresh or canned
  • 6 cups chicken or vegetable broth
  • 1 cup firm or extra firm tofu, sliced into strips
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 3 tablespoons vinegar (I used dark, but white or cider vinegar also fine)
  • 2 teaspoons sesame oil
  • 1 teaspoon white pepper
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch, dissolved in 2 tablespoons water

1. Soak the mushrooms, lily buds, and wood ear in room temperature water for 20 to 30 minutes. Squeeze out excess water. Thinly slice mushrooms and wood ear. Slice rough black ends off lily buds and cut them in half. Rinse bamboo shoots and thinly slice.

2. Bring water to boil. Toss in mushrooms, lily buds, wood ear, and bamboo. Simmer for 10 minutes. Add tofu and soy sauce and simmer for another 5 minutes.

3. Add the vinegar, sesame oil, and pepper. Drizzle egg into the pot while stirring so that egg rivulets form. Stir in cornstarch mixture to thicken. Simmer for another 5 minutes, then reduce heat. Salt to taste. Spoon into individual bowls and serve.

Shandong-Style Asparagus

It's the mid-June, meaning asparagus season is coming to a close. I have been seeing less and less of my favorite stalky vegetable at the markets, and what's left tends to be expensive. So I thought I would celebrate the end of the season with a recipe for Shandong-style asparagus. Make this while you still can!

It's true that asparagus isn't used much in Chinese food. I don't recall ever having it at the dinner table growing up, nor at restaurants in Boston's Chinatown. Here in Beijing, whenever asparagus appears on menus it is qingchao-ed (请炒-ed), or lightly stir-fried, with other vegetables.

Shandong province is China's center for asparagus production, so it's no surprise Shandongers showcase the asparagus practically au naturel. And since the dish eaten at room temperature, it makes a perfect appetizer for picnics, grilling dinners, or any other situation when you're wiping the sweat from your brows and spritzing water on your face every 2 minutes to keep cool.


Shandong-Style Asparagus

Serves 2 to 4 as an appetizer

  • 1 pound asparagus, trimmed and sliced diagonally into 1 1/2 inch pieces
  • 1 tablespoon light soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • A few drops chilli oil
  • 1 teaspoon toasted white sesame seeds
  1. In a pot of boiling water, blanch  the asparagus until just tender (it should still have a snap), about 90 seconds. Quickly plunge asparagus into a large bowl of ice water. Let cool for a few minutes, then drain and transfer onto paper towels to dry.
  2. In medium-sized bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, sesame oil, and chili oil. Add asparagus and toss to coat. Transfer to a serving dish, and sprinkle toasted sesame seeds on top.

Adapted from Saveur.