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The humble root

Monday, March 1, 2010

Speak softly and carry a big stick. Okay, this supposedly African proverb attributed to Theodore Roosevelt may not actually fit here... Here's a paraphrase: Cook this big stick and you'll hear no noise from everyone enjoying it. 
My mother must have loved having cheap child labour when I was little. I couldn’t stand cooking but if she needed to clean squid or pluck feathers off a chicken, I would be up to the task (picking the tail off bean sprouts and peeling onions, however, bordered on child abuse).

I really liked peeling tapioca. My mother would run the tip of a knife lengthways down the root and leave me to get my little fingers under the thick pink skin with its papery outer bark-like layer (no wonder it's called ubi kayu, or wood potato, in Malay) and pull it off. How happy I would be to keep as much of the peel unbroken so that it would come off in one curved piece.

Perhaps learning at that young age that during the Japanese Occupation in then-Malaya (and in Singapore) in World War II, people survived on tapioca and other root vegetables like sweet potato and yam made me appreciate it more.

We only ever had steamed tapioca, which I love to this day, but if my mother had made bengkang or baked tapioca cake, I probably would have enjoyed grating the tapioca – although I'm sure she would never have let me anywhere near a sharp knuckle-scraping kitchen implement.

Since I had never made bengkang before but chose to do it for the March issue of "Don't Call Me Chef" (see tab above), I started reading up to find out about the tuber. In the book Introduction to Jaffna Cookery by Sathanithi Somasekaram, the author cautions in her recipe for Tapioca Curry never to eat the vegetable with ginger as she says the combination is poisonous, but does not elaborate. I looked for more information online, but although certain varieties of tapioca are known to be toxic, especially when eaten raw, I couldn't find anything about the reaction with ginger. (I found an interesting article on cassava, another name for tapioca, but lost the link so I apologise for not being able to provide it here.)

Note: The "chunky" in the name of the recipe comes from additional grated coconut and the texture of the tapioca. I prefer this to the bought bengkang with its oily, gelatinous texture. 

Bengkang with a bit of robustness
Serves 8

1kg tapioca root
200g caster sugar
100g grated coconut (white part only)
200ml thick coconut milk (from 2 coconuts)
2 tbsp plain flour
Pinch of salt
2 medium eggs, beaten
Vegetable oil
Banana leaf (optional)
  • Peel and clean the tapioca, removing the tough fibre in the centre. Finely grate the tapioca or put into a food processor and pulse to chop; the tapioca should be fine but not puréed. Preheat the oven at 200°C.
  • Place tapioca in a sieve over a bowl; squeeze out the juice. Let the juice sit undisturbed for 10 minutes ­­– it should separate, with the starch sinking to the bottom. Pour off the liquid on the top and add the starch to the grated tapioca along with the sugar, grated coconut and milk, flour, salt and most of the egg (leave about 1 tbsp for later).
  • Lightly brush the inside of a shallow 20cm square cake tin with vegetable oil and line the base with a piece of oiled banana leaf, if using. Pour in the tapioca mixture and level the top. Bake for 45 mins until quite dry; brush the top with leftover egg and bake a further 15-20 mins until crusty and golden brown.
  • Cool before cutting in squares.

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