It has been an eventful week. Singapore just celebrated its 53rd National Day on 9 August, which also happens to be the anniversary of the Nagasaki bomb, which quickly brought WWII to an end in Asia. From the perspective of a hobby cook & history nerd, this brings to mind sweet potatoes.
“Why leh?” you might ask in Singlish—Singapore’s ‘street’ version of English, generously peppered with local expressions and colloquialisms.
During the Japanese Occupation when food ran scarce, sweet potatoes was one food that was easy to grow and lots of people in Singapore ate of steady diet of it during the war years. Lunch could be nothing more than a couple pieces of the tuber, plain and simple. That was precisely what my mother was eating 73 years ago when she saw British planes fly overhead and drop leaflets all over the island, announcing the end of the war. She was so overjoyed, she tossed her sweet potato in the air as she ran to grab those good news leaflets. I guess she knew that tuber-only meals would soon be a thing of the past. While they are a reminder of the painful years for Singapore, they are also a reminder, for me at least, of one of my country’s happiest moments in history.
While those terrible years are long over, sweet potatoes are still very much on the menu. It is used extensively in making kueh, or local cakes, including one of my favourites—sweet potato ubi talam. This snack is subtly sweet, soft and wobbly in texture, and coated in a fluffy layer fresh coconut (not dessicated, please).
The best sweet potatoes to use for this kueh is Japanese purple fleshed sweet potatoes. (Yes, the delightful irony is not lost on me, though having said that, Singapore and Japan now enjoy excellent diplomatic relations, which makes this kueh even more significant if one wants to seek political analogies in this recipe.) They provide the best texture, as other varieties tend to be fibrous and less sweet. It also gives the kueh a rich beautiful purple hue.
The kueh is surprisingly easy to make and without the grated coconut, can keep for a few days in the fridge. Grated coconut should be handled with care as they turn rancid easily. If you need to store the grated coconut, keep them in the freezer. Toss the kueh in coconut only when you want to serve.
So on the occasion of Singapore’s 53rd National Day, here’s a meaningful local kueh for you to try.
Purple Sweet Potato Ubi Talam
300g Japanese purple sweet potato, cut into 3cm cubes
200 ml thick coconut cream
150g tapioca starch
Pinch of salt
100g fresh grated coconut mixed with another pinch of salt*
2 pandan leaves
First, make the syrup. Combine all the syrup ingredients in a small pan and boil until sugar has dissolved. Simmer for another 10 mins to let the pandan leaves infuse. Set aside.
Place sweet potato in a deep heat-proof dish and steam for 20-30 mins until cooked through.
Place sweet potato, coconut cream, water and syrup in a food processor and blitz until fine.
Mix in tapioca starch and salt, then push the batter through a sieve to remove any lumps.
Pour the batter into a deep dish preferably enamel or metal, and steam for 45 mins.
Set aside to cool. Cut the kueh into cubes using a sharp knife dipped in water. This prevents the kueh from sticking to the knife. (It can get a bit messy otherwise.)
Coat the kueh in freshly grated coconut and serve.
*Adding a bit of salt to the coconut enhances its flavour and brings out the sweetness of the coconut. Try it out with and without the pinch of salt, and you’ll find that the addition of salt actually does bring out a depth of flavour in the coconut.
**Make a bigger batch of pandan syrup and store it in the fridge. It is a pretty versatile thing to have: add it to desserts, drizzle it on cakes or use it in cocktails. [/recipe]