Rough on the outside, slippery on the inside
Meet shanyao (山药), the Chinese Yam, aka Tuber of Longevity, or Rhizoma Dioscoreae. Don’t judge a tuber by its appearance – they all look kind of funny anyway – because what shanyao lacks in color, shape and general botanical stylishness, it more than makes up for in nutrition and versatility. Any toothless, wrinkled, yet sprightly Chinese granny will tell you that this tuber is a source of good health and longevity. Traditional Chinese medicine recommends it for ailments related to most of our major organs – the lungs, liver, kidneys and reproductive bits – and combines it with other herbs in prescriptions for everything from diarrhea to impotence.
Sure potatoes and yams are great, but they’re heavy and will have you feeling full quickly. Shanyao, on the other hand, is surprisingly light and stimulates the appetite. What’s more, you can eat it raw: Diced into salads or simply dipped in honey, the raw shanyao is crisp and juicy like an apple, with a wickedly slippery coating of mucilage – the slimy substance produced by plants – which shanyao happens to produce tons of. Not only is this slippery substance fun to eat, it’s also good for the body’s mucous membranes, such as the respiratory and digestive tracts. The Japanese, known connoisseurs of goop, prefer their raw shanyao ground into a thick paste and poured over hot rice with soy sauce.
At the market, you’ll recognize shanyao as hairy, dirt-covered stick-like things that can grow as long as one meter, but are more commonly 40-50 centimeters in length. There’s no real trick to picking shanyao: just think about how you want to serve it before you choose one. Thick cylindrical ones are good if you want to serve medallions, while flat ones are good for chopping into sticks.
After cleaning off all the dirt, put on gloves before peeling your shanyao, as the slimy secretion may irritate bare hands and make them itchy. If you get any on your skin, quickly wash several times with warm soapy water. If the itching persists, try heating the affected skin by holding it as close to a naked flame as you can bear. This “cooks” the mucilage and will stop the itching. When shanyao is cooked, you’ll notice that it loses its sliminess.
One shanyao, about 40-50cm long
Water for boiling
Chicken broth, about 75ml
Garlic, one head
Five spice, a pinch
Salt and pepper to taste
Cilantro and spring onions
Carrots and green capsicum to garnish
Shanyao can pretty much be used the same way as a potato, with the additional option of eating it raw. Mashed shanyao is a great way to include younger cooks, as everyone can participate in the mashing. First, chop the shanyao into small pieces. Raw shanyao is slippery, so try using small clean towels to cover the chopping board and to hold the shanyao to help get a grip as you chop. Boil or steam the pieces until they are thoroughly cooked and falling apart.
While the shanyao is cooking, take one head of garlic and chop off the tip so the flesh of each clove is exposed. Pour olive oil over the garlic so that it seeps inside each clove. Wrap in foil and roast at 180 degrees Celsius for about 20 minutes or until the garlic is soft. Alternatively, finely chop three cloves of garlic and stir-fry in a bit of oil until the garlic is just starting to turn brown.
Mash the cooked shanyao together with the garlic. Add hot chicken broth until the desired consistency is achieved. Next, add ground white pepper, salt, and a pinch of ground five spice (potent stuff!) to taste. Finely chopped cilantro or the green part of spring onions also works as a great addition. Shape the mash into a mound and sprinkle finely chopped carrot and green capsicum “confetti” on top before serving. Cashew nuts add a touch of crunch to the soft dish.
One shanyao, about 40-50cm long
Water, about 30ml or one soup-ladleful
Oil for deep-frying
Basi shanyao (拔丝山药), or silk-thread shanyao, is one of northern China’s favorite desserts. Essentially candied shanyao, it requires some time to make but is a great treat for parties. Cut the raw shanyao into small pieces, or for more creative shapes use small cookie cutters. Deep-fry the pieces until golden brown. You’ll want to first fry it over medium-low heat for about five minutes, then heat the oil to medium-high heat to crisp the outside of the shanyao pieces.
After draining the shanyao thoroughly, heat a wok with just enough oil to coat it. Add 300 grams of white granulated sugar and a soup-ladle’s worth of water. Keep stirring the sugar until it turns to syrup.
When the syrup begins to brown, add the fried shanyao pieces and thoroughly cover each piece in syrup. Remove the candied shanyao from the wok and serve with a small bowl of cold drinking water on the side. When each piece is pulled apart, fine threads of sugar form. Dip the pieces in the cold water before eating, as this will prevent the candy from sticking to your teeth.