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Chinese Yam

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Vegetables and Vegetarian Foods

Fall Volume: 2007 Issue: 14(3) page(s): 5 and 8

alled shan yao or jia shan yao, this long hairy tuber is popular fresh or dried; the latter usually found in slices. When growing, it is a perennial climber and a member of the Dioscoreaceae family. It can be prepared boiled, baked, fried, mashed, or grated, and in many other ways.

The Chinese yam has several relatives and several names. Botanically, it is called Dioscorea opposita. Its closest relatives are Dioscorea japonica and Dioscorea esculenta. This entire genus has been a staple food since prehistoric times though the Chinese Yam itself may be somewhat younger. When it actually began as a food is not clear.

Also known as 'mountain yam' and 'long potato,' this vegetable is not a 'sweet potato' which the Chinese call hung shu, though we have seen it referred to as one. That particular item, brought to China from the Phillippines circa the 1500's, moved to The Middle Kingdom expressly to alleviate famine. To learn more about sweet potatoes and other yams, see the article titled: Sweet Potatoes, Yam, and the Yam Bean in this magazine's Volume 8(3) on pages 17 to 20.

The Chinese yam is quite hairy and a tuber. It is also known as 'cinnamon vine' and wai shan, and as 'Guiana arrowroot.' Not a sweet potato, it is also not an arrowroot vegetable. It does grow in both cool and warm climates and is found throughout southeast Asia; it even grows as far north as northern Canada and can be found in southern Russia. Once located, when using this vegetable, it must be peeled. Beside the ways already mentioned, it can be and is popular batter-fried.

Early on, this tuber was sliced and dried in the sun. It was then made into flour. Before or after drying it, it was made into noodles that were called shen yao mein. The flour was also used to make pancakes. The slices or the whole tuber were boiled or steamed, then sliced, and used as is or in other dishes. They are still made that way in the Fujian province, and particularly in the city of Fuzhou.

Their use as noodles or as flour fascinates as they are rather gluey, have a high starch content, are somewhat dry, and have little binding ability. In the Sung Dynasty (960 - 1280 CE) or before, the technique employed was to use mashed yams or yam flour paste and force either of them through something with small holes, sort of like making Middle Europe's starch food called spaetzle, only these were long and thin. These yam noodles, which the Chinese called ho lo mien, were described in the Yuan Dynasty (1280 - 1368 CE) in the materia medica known as the CMYS. They are still in use today.

Nutritionally, this Chinese yam is rich in thiamin, has more protein than most potatoes do, and it is high in vitamin C. Traditional Chinese medical practitioners recommend this tuber for the elderly and for younger folk. They say they prevent miscarriages, ease menopause, and provide energy; and they are a tonic for the elderly. They also say they are naturally sweet, strengthen the spleen, aid the kidneys, improve intercourse, strengthen blood vessels, help weak stomachs and lungs, and reduce long coughing. They often prescribe them cooked with Lycium barbara and/or with Polygonatum odoratum.

There is a famous Chinese dessert called 'Pulling Yam Silk' which the Chinese call ba si shan yao. It is known in Beijing and most often served there and elsewhere at banquets. We have heard about it, but never seen nor eaten it. We also have never located a recipe for it. Should any reader know of one, please advise. We promise to share that with our readers. In the meantime, here are popular published Chinese Yam recipes, do enjoy them.
Chinese Yam Congee
1/2 cup dried Chinese yam slices
1/2 cup jobs tears
1/2 cup lotus seeds
1/2 cup glutinous rice
1/4 cup sugar (optional)
1. Soak yam slices, job's tears, lotus seeds, and rice, each separately, for four hours or overnight. Then drain them.
2. Put ten cups of water in a large pot. Add the four drained items and bring to the boil, then immediately reduce the heat and simmer them for two hours, stirring occasionally.
3. Add sugar, if desired, and serve. Reserve any unused congee covered and in the refrigerator. It keeps about a week.
Chinese Yam and Sparerib Soup
1/2 cup dried Chinese yam, soaked for two hours, then drained
1/2 cup fresh Chinese yam, peeled and diced
1/2 cup Lycium (goji) berries
1/2 cup dried pitted Chinese red dates
2 pounds spareribs, cut in one-inch pieces
1 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1. Put ten cups of water into a large pot. Add all the ingredients except the cornstarch and bring water to a boil, then reduce the temperature to simmer, and do so for three hours. Skim, as needed.
2. Mix cornstarch with three tablespoons cold water, and add to the pot. Bring the temperature back to the boil, add the cornstarch mixture, and when thickened, serve.
Chinese Yams and Scallops
1 dried scallop, soaked covered overnight in the refrigerator
6 scallops, minced
2 Tablespoons Chinese yam flour
2 Tablespoons dried grated steamed bread or bread crumbs
1/4 teaspoon salt
dash ground white pepper
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
2 cups vegetable oil
8 empty scallop shells, if available
1 cup shredded lettuce (optional)
1. Shred the dried scallop, then mince coarsely.
2. Mix minced dried scallop, minced fresh scallops, yam flour, minced bread, and salt and pepper. Make into eight scallop-shaped pieces, and dust all sides lightly with the cornstarch.
3. Heat oil, and fry half the shaped items until golden, remove and drain on paper towels. Repeat with the other half, then serve on the shells or on shredded lettuce.

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