Culture In The Cuisines - Heirloom Recipe Of Hakka Abacus Seeds (Suan Pan Zi)

It is always interesting to discover culture in the cuisines. Sarawak is a society like no other with its unique amalgamated culture. Its diversity is celebrated through the multilingualism of its people and also through the variety of food. 

Previously covered in WADD (including hard-to-come-by traditional Borneo delicacies recipes)

We have also previously uncovered the roots of a few dominant Sarawak Chinese dialects, namely Hakka, Hokkien, Teochew and Foochow in 'Sarawak: Tracing The Roots - The Chinese'.

Sarawak Chinese

Chinese Temple in Kuching, Sarawak in 1919. Image source via The National Geographic Magazine

The Chinese migration to Sarawak happened most dominantly in the 19th century when attractive opportunities opened up through development in the industries of commodities, natural resources and international trade. It played a pivotal role in spurring the waves of Chinese migration into Sarawak over a linear timeline since then.

There are so many unique foods from different tribes that one gets to enjoy here in Sarawak. Today, we will be going into the kitchen of the Hakka dialect by introducing one of their most traditional cuisine call the Hakka Abacus Seeds. 

Fun Fact: Did you know that world-renowned fashion designer Datuk Jimmy Choo is a Malaysian of Hakka Chinese descent? We imagine the man who has personally designed shoes for Diana, Princess of Wales, and many other Hollywood celebrities would enjoy a platter of this Hakka delicacy too. 

Jimmy Choo Hakka Malaysia

Image source via Iluminasi

Hakka Abacus Seeds – The Origin

Read as 'suàn pán zi' (算盘子) in mandarin, this traditional Hakka cuisine is also known as Yam Abacus Seeds or Beads. The dish is named after its appearance, which resembles the movable beads of the abacus (ancient calculating tool).

Hakka Abacus Seeds resembling AbacusImage source via The Spruce

The origin of this authentic Hakka dish was traced all the way back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and it has much to do with the history of the people who created them. 

Life was not particularly easy for the Hakka community back then. Due to perpetual social unrest and chaotic clan wars, the history of Hakka in China saw several migrations southwards through centuries of dynasties. It was only after the Song Dynasty that the community gradually came to be more settled. 

The History of the Hakka Migration

Image source via My China Roots

After a series of migrations, the Hakka finally found their place in the provinces of South China, such as Guangdong and Jiang Xi. Therefore, Hakka gastronomy is one of the most significant cuisines in southern China today. 

Fun Fact: Do you know that there is a county in the city of Mei Zhou (northeast Guangdong, China) call Dà Bù that is known as the "Shangri-La of Hakka"? With most of its residents being Hakka, Da Bu has become the centre where one gets to experience the best of Hakka culture and cuisines. 

Da Bu County China

Image source via Ma Feng Wo

Before it became the Shangri-La of Hakka that it is today, there was a time when the community struggled with finding arable land for cultivation in the place where they reside. Men would have to travel far to earn a living. It then became a practice for the women to prepare this unique dish of abacus for the men to carry with them. 

They are food and, at the same time, symbolic wishes of prosperity so that the men would be successful in their endeavours, earning more profit (or beads) to count with the abacus. 

As one of the most diasporic among the Chinese, people of Hakka ancestry are scattered worldwide. Where the people go, their customs and traditions follow. 

The Hakka have a long history engaging mainly in laborious physical work thus their foods are essentially flavourful nourishment of energy. You will come to notice that the Hakka gastronomy is mainly centred around meat. Hakka stuffed tofu (Yong Tau Foo), Hakka braised pork belly, salt-baked chicken, stuffed bitter gourd, just to name a few.

Hakka Abacus Seeds
 

In the modern-day, Hakka abacus seeds have become one of the many legacies for the diasporic Hakka community. While in the past, it was plainly prepared with only taro and potato flour, the cuisine is now enriched with a lot more ingredients, flavours and colours.

Hakka abacus seeds takes time and effort to prepare hence it is rare to find them in restaurants. It has evolved into somewhat of a festive dish. Instead of a staple, they are more frequently served on special occasions like the Lunar New Year reunion dinner to signify prosperity and abundance. 

Though it may appear a complicated dish to make, it is actually very doable, even for amateur cooks. The ingredients you need are easy to find, and the result is absolutely satisfying!

Here is an heirloom recipe from one of WADD's own writer who has learnt it from her grandmother. Great stuff is meant to be passed on, now you can serve them in your kitchen too! 

Hakka Abacus Seeds (Grandmother's Recipe)

Ingredients

  • Yam
  • Tapioca Starch
  • Potato Starch
  • Large Dried Shrimps
  • Minced Pork
  • Carrot
  • Black Mushrooms (Shitake)
  • Garlic
  • Spring Onion
  • Salt and Pepper
  • Garlic Onion Oil

Steps:

1. Cut off the two edges of the yam and peel the skin.

2. Cut yam into smaller pieces.

3. Soak in saltwater for 30 minutes, followed by plain water for another 30 minutes

4. While soaking the yam, begin to prepare other ingredients. Julienne cut the carrots, slice the mushrooms and prepare some garlic on the side for frying later.

Hakka Abacus Seeds Ingredients

 

5. Soak the shrimps for approximately 15-20 minutes to soften them and release their flavour.

6. Prepare some garlic onion oil if you don't have them yet.

7. For the minced pork, mix them with a teaspoon of salt, a pinch of monosodium glutamate (MSG), some white and black pepper for taste and a spoon of sesame oil.

8. Next, cook the yam you've soaked over high heat until they become soft. Keep a portion of the yam water as it will be useful later. 

9. While it's still hot, mash and mixed the cooked yam with tapioca starch. A simple ratio to go with would be 2:1 of yam over the starch. The more starch, the more tender and springy the abacus seeds will be. However, careful not to add too much tapioca starch that it covers up the flavour of the yam.

10. The kneading of yam and starch is done when the dough is no longer sticky.

11. Before shaping the dough, dust potato starch on your working surface so that the dough does not get sticky. It helps to have some starch on your hands as well. To shape, grab an even portion of dough each time, roll it into a ball, then gently press it in the centre to get the look of the abacus seed.

Hakka Abacus Seeds Recipe
 

12. Once all remaining dough has been shaped, it is time to boil the abacus seed. Bring the water in your cooking pot to a boil.  Add some salt and a drop of oil. Simply place the dough pieces into the boiling water. As soon as they float to the surface, you can use a metal sieve to scoop them up.

Hakka Abacus Seeds Recipe
 

13. Leave the abacus seeds on the side to cool.

14. Begin to fry the ingredients starting with garlic, followed by the dried shrimps and then the pork mix. As you are frying, add some sesame oil and garlic onion oil.

15. Push the pork mixture to the side of the wok to make room in the centre of the wok to fry the carrots shreds and the mushrooms slices.

Hakka Abacus Seeds Recipe
 

16. Add the yam abacus seeds into the wok to fry and mix all the content together. Let the mix cook for a while. If it feels a little dry, you can always add some yam water you have saved aside earlier to keep it all moist.

17. Add some oyster sauce, pepper, salt and light soy sauce for taste. 

Hakka Abacus Seeds Recipe
 

18. Finally, use the spring onions as a garnish sprinkled over the dish, and your Hakka abacus seeds is now ready to serve! Enjoy!

Hakka Abacus Seeds Recipe


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