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Yams: Perennial Tasty Tubers

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Vegetables and Vegetarian Foods

Spring Volume: 2013 Issue: 20(1) page(s): 9 and 10

This valuable food source is not yellow, not new, and not well known. They were written about in this magazine in Volume 8 on pages 17 and 18, yet questions about them keep coming.

Needed during an earlier famine, Chinese yams can be boiled, roasted, fried, steamed, stewed, and cooked in many other ways. In the United States, this climber's name is confused with sweet potatoes. However, Chinese yams are white, and many different parts of this plant are appreciated even though they are long, gluey, and far from gorgeous.

One part liked in China are their underground stems, something not often seen in the USA. Another appreciated part are their leaves. When looking for them, one needs to know that their skins are light tan, hairy, and not easy to peel. Furthermore, their white flesh can be speckled purple with spots.

Said to be neutral in medicinal value, they are bitter-sweet in taste and known to the Chinese as shan yao which translates to 'mountain potato.' They are one of the thirty or more Dioscore species, a few of which are important in China such as D. opposita and D. alata. The latter is also known as the 'lesser yam' while the former is known as the 'greater yam.'

Both are consumed as starchy vegetables, and both have roles in Chinese medicine. Said to act on the spleen, lung, and kidney channels, actually the D. rotundata is more common in China. Almost all species are well-known there, and also known as shu yu and dai shue. In English, the Chinese also know them as 'mountain potatoes' and 'long potatoes.' That last name is because they are often seen up to five feet long, though three feet is a more common length. The photograph on this page has them next to lotus roots to show differences in length and exterior texture.

Some refer to their aroma as cinnamon-like, though we do not smell that. Most Chinese recommend them for the elderly, and for good health for folk of all ages.

Wild ones of this species are not always deemed safe, cultivated ones always seem to be. One does not, however, need to worry about this as they do have an alkaloid such as dioscorin that is eliminated when Chinese yams are cooked. That said, do not eat them raw such as in a salad; this is a most useful precaution.

Pharmacists do call these starchy underground vegetables Rhizome dioscorea. Often found in Henan, Hebei, Shanxi, and in the Shandong Provinces, they are said to tonify, that is to improve ones Qi. They are also valuable to relieve coughs, asthma, and other lung deficiencies. They prescribe them for consumptive thirst, and prepare them with Astragali membranaceus or with Huang Qi for other weakened conditions.

Elders prepare them with honey and make them into candies. They also slow-cook them with pork belly and red bean curd, or with dried shrimp, shallots, and Chinese sausages for their delicious texture, and the good taste they add to these dishes.

In the United States, some refer to these lovely long items as taro, but these hairy items are not in the taro family, and they are not really yams, either. They are not easy to cut or cook if doing so for the first time.

We like to recommend peeling and cutting them under cool running water, and we do suggest a thin cleaver brushed with oil when cutting them. Rinse the cleaver frequently, and brush it often as the yam pieces otherwise stick to the cleaver. Use the handful of different preparations below; they show off this vegetable and increase things you can serve at your table. (JMN)
Yam Cakes
1 Chinese sausage, minced
4 Tablespoons dried shrimp, soaked for one hour in warm water, then drained, and minced
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
2 pounds peeled Chinese yams, diced in quarter-inch cubes, then steamed for ten minutes over boiling water
1 cup water chestnut flour
1/2 cup glutinous rice flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
2 Tablespoons sesame oil, divided into two parts
1 teaspoon mixed ground white and black pepper
2 Tablespoons black bean chili sauce
2 scallions, minced, and divided into two parts
1. Mix sausage and shrimp.
2. Heat oil in a wok or a fry-pan and stir-fry the above mixture for three minutes, then drain and set aside.
3. Mash steamed yam cubes then mix this with both flours, salt, soy sauce, half the sesame oil, both ground peppers, black bean chili sauce, and half the minced scallions. Stir-fry this mixture in the same wok or fry pan for two minutes.
4. Oil a heat-proof casserole, brush with the other half of the sesame oil, and add the yam mixture, and top with the other half of the scallion, pressing them lightly into it.
5. Steam for fifteen minutes over boiling water, remove from the steamer and cool covered and in the refrigerator overnight.
6. Cut into wedges or triangle, and serve at room temperature.
Yams and Belly Pork
oil for deep frying
1 pound Chinese yams, peeled, sliced into one-inch by one-inch by half-inch cubes, then deep fried for three minutes
1 pound belly pork, sliced and cubed the same size as the yams, then deep fried for one minute
2 squares red bean curd
1 and 1/2 teaspoons five-spice powder
2 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
3 star anise, left whole
2 Tablespoons crushed Chinese brown slab sugar
2 Tablespoons Maotai or any clear brandy
1/2 teaspoon salt
1. Alternate slices of the Chinese yam and the pork belly in a single layer, the latter skin side down, in a heat-proof dish.
2, Mash red bean curd, then mix with the five-spice powder, thin soy, star anise, brown sugar, Maotai, and the salt. Add half-cup hot water, then pour this mixture over the sliced yams and pork belly.
3. Steam over boiling water for fifteen minutes, then spoon some of the sauce over the sliced items, and steam an additional fifteen minutes, and repeat spooning some of the sauce over the sliced food items. Repeat one more time and steam one last time for fifteen more minutes.
4. Remove the star anise pieces, and carefully slide the sliced items onto a serving plate keeping them in the order they were in; then serve.
Yam and Ginger Balls
2 pounds Chinese yams, peeled and cubed
2 cups glutinous rice flour
1/4 pound Chinese brown slab sugar, crushed
1/2 pound crystallized ginger, minced
2 Tablespoons white sesame seeds
1 Tablespoon black sesame seeds
4 cups vegetable oil
1. Put the yam cubes into a heat-proof bowl and steam for half an hour, then remove from the steamer and mash them.
2. Add the rice flour, crushed slab sugar, minced ginger, and stir well.
3. Mix sesame seeds and put then in a large shallow bowl.
4. Wet your hands and shape the yam mixture into two-inch balls, and roll them in the sesame seed mixture more than gently so the seeds are slightly imbedded into the yam mixture.
5. Heat the oil is a wok or a deep pan and deep-fry the yam balls for about four or five minutes or until they are a light golden color. Remove from the oil, and drain them on paper towels, and serve.
Yam Pies
1 pound Chinese yams, peeled, then steamed for twenty minutes
6 Tablespoons yam flour, divided in two portions
1/4 cup Chinese date jam or paste
1 Tablespoon osmanthus (or another) jam
1/4 cup glutinous rice flour
2 cups vegetable oil, for deep frying
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
1/2 cup granulated white sugar
1. Mash steamed yams mixing in half the yam flour.
2. Spread the rest of the yam flour on a board. Put yam flour mixture on it and make a square cake about one inch thick, and spread the glutinous flour evenly on top, the date jam on that, and spread the osmanthus jam evenly on the very top.
3. Cut into cubes and roll in the rice flour. Set aside for one hour to partially dry out.
4. Heat oil in a wok or deep pot, and deep fry the cubes for about five minutes or until golden brown, then drain on paper towels.
5. Mix sesame oil and sugar, brush on the yam pies, and serve.
Chinese Candied Yams
1 pound Chinese yams, peeled and sliced thinly
3 cups vegetable oil for deep-frying
1 cup granulated sugar
2 Tablespoons sesame seeds
1. Toss the yam slices in a little oil to keep them from sticking while heating the oil in a wok or deep pot.
2. Fry the yam slices until medium brown.
3. In a small pot, heat the sugar until it melts, turns light brown, and almost boils. Then dip the yam slices in it, one by one, and touch each one on one side to the sesame seeds. Lay them on paper towels, the side with the seeds up, and allow to dry for one hour or more, or serve them hot before they dry.
Note: They can be served hot or at room temperature, as desired.

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