In one of my favorite family photos, my brother and I are wearing matching red shirts and are flanking our Yeye (paternal grandpa). We are all grinning behind heaping mounds of freshly stir-fried rice vermicelli with ham, egg, bean sprouts and scallions. A simple lunch at home, home being my grandparents’ apartment in Ho Man Tin that my father grew up in. We were visiting for the holidays and I couldn’t wait to chow down and use my new pair of orange chopsticks, a gift from Japan Airlines on the flight over.
Many of my most treasured childhood memories involve Koi Goo, an incredible woman who lived with my grandparents for over 50 years. She is one of the best chefs I know and learned everything through trial and error. She was hired as a maid when my eldest uncle was born and stayed on to tend to the entire family – no easy task as my grandparents had two boys in succession after my uncle was born, the youngest being my father. With seven individuals to look after – my two aunts were born before the three boys – Koi Goo completed the unimaginable every day: keeping my grandparents’ large apartment spotless, doing all of the housework and of course, cooking incredible meals. I can still recall the sonorous clack of her broom sweeping the floors in the afternoon, or the rush of anticipation I felt when I heard the screech of the gate to our apartment being pulled aside – what treats did she bring home to cook that evening?
Over the years that I visited and subsequently lived in Hong Kong after college, I became close with Koi Goo and I think of her as a grandmother, especially since both of mine have passed on for some time now. I knew that I wanted her to meet Chris, but was unsure of what we would do together considering she spoke no English and Chris’ Cantonese is in the research and development stage. Then it dawned on me – we’d cook together! I didn’t want her to go through the trouble of making a whole meal, which she certainly would have done if I told her ahead of time that we were coming. She is in her mid-90s now and has a full-time helper to assist her with things she cannot do alone anymore. Hence, I called her after lunch, casually mentioned that I was in town and said would come by in an hour or two.
We picked up a giant taro at the market close by Koi Goo’s apartment, and excitedly crossed the street, eager to learn her secrets for making taro puffs. No, these aren’t the kind you get at dim sum that are mashed and wrapped around a mixture of pork and shrimp before being deep fried, although those are yummy as well. I was after the recipe for her shredded taro deep-fried into delicious snack-sized bites. Whenever I met up with Koi Goo, she would inevitably give me a box of taro puffs that she’d fried especially for me. Thus, I often timed my visits for a day or two before I flew back to California. It would take a lot of will power not to gobble up every puff before landing in LA!
When we got to her apartment, we set out to work and for once, she let me. I grated the taro – “not too fine, not to coarse, not too long, not too short” – she said by way of instruction. Clearly, she was a practiced hand. I used an ancient, still razor-sharp grater I recognized from Ho Man Tin. Chris documented the process as I measured out the dry ingredients and fried the small mounds that Koi Goo shaped for me. “Pick up the sesame seeds,” she said as I scooped a puff out of the wok, ever conscious of not wasting any ingredients. Even though she didn’t know I was coming, she had an empty tin box with a sturdy lid, ready for us to pile in our freshly fried snacks to take on the plane the next day. With Chris seated next to me on a 12-hour flight, I had to double my efforts to save some for my family!
Now that we are at home, we’ve tried her recipe and had to modify it a bit, given the tools we have at our disposal. The taste is similar, though, and in a nod to Chris’ New England roots, I’ve included a riff on Koi Goo’s recipe that includes maple sugar.
- 1 pound of taro grated in a Cuisinart, divided into two parts in separate bowls
- Blend #1: 3/4 tsp maple sugar, 1/2 tsp five spice powder, 1/2 tsp kosher salt, 1 tsp white sesame seeds and 2 T glutinous rice flour
- Blend #2: 1/2 tsp white sugar, 3/4 tsp kosher salt, 1 tsp white sesame seeds and 2 T glutinous rice flour
- 2.5c Knife-brand peanut oil – Koi Goo’s choice that can found in many large Chinese supermarkets Stateside
Yield: 20-24 puffs
With your fingers, mix together the dry blends with the 1/2 lb mounds of grated taro in a bowl. You should try adding 1T of glutinous rice flour first and seeing if the mixture is dry enough – it should feel just a touch moist. Our taro seemed to have more moisture than most, which is why we added more glutinous rice flour.
Heat oil in a wok over medium-high heat until one shred of taro sizzles and floats to the top. If the shred bubbles around the edges but sinks, it’s not hot enough yet. With your fingers, grab a cluster of shredded taro about an inch in diameter. Drop the cluster into the hot oil and let it fry for 2-3 minutes. With a long pair of chopsticks or a Chinese spider, roll the puff over so the top is submerged in oil. Fry for an additional 3-4 minutes or until golden brown. The puffs made with blend #1 will turn out a shade darker when done because of the five spice. When the puffs are done, take them out with the spider and lay them on a paper-towel-lined sheet. After a few minutes, or however long you can stand not tasting them, pop one in your mouth and enjoy! We had these alongside a gingery soup with beef shank, green daikon and carrot; the textural combinations were amazing!