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:
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.