What’s special about the abacus dish?

The Abacus Beads is a classic Hakka dish consisting of tiny chewy dough balls made from yam (or taro) that resemble the abacus seeds of the traditional Chinese calculating device. It is surprisingly underrated; not many people have heard of this dish until it made a comeback a few years ago, and it has since become a must-order dish at Hakka restaurants.

Hakka cuisine is generally known for its earthiness and simplicity, usually simple home cooked dishes and nothing too fancy. This recipe may seem long, but technically, it is just a simple stir-fry. The secret lies in getting the Mise en Place right, and the rest will fall into place like a simple equation, so to speak. Traditionally, pork mince, cuttlefish and dried shrimp are used in this dish but since we are creating a ! vegetarian version, we replaced them with chestnuts and firm tofu for the crunch to counterbalance the chewiness of the abacus beads. It is comfort food at its best.

What’s your take on eating and cooking vegetarian?

People often have the misconception that vegetarian dishes are boring and bland, but they don’t have to be. Take these two vegetarian recipes for example. It is easy to make a simple vegetarian dish more exciting by adding fresh herbs and spices as flavour enhancers. Vegetable is like meat, try not to overcook them as they will not only become unpalatable. You’ll also want to keep all the nutritional value intact. For a healthy diet, we are encouraged to eat 5 serves of vegetables a day and believe it or not, there are already more than 5 types of vegetables in both of these recipes.

There are curry pastes aplenty; how is the flavour different if you make it from scratch compared to a readymade paste?

There is nothing wrong with using curry pastes that you can buy from the pasar {wet market) as they are usually made fresh. Having said that, pre-packaged curry pastes may contain flavour enhancers like MSG and can be high in sodium, even if is a good quality paste. If making it from scratch, at least you know what you are putting in your mouth, and the freshness is assured by using the freshest ingredients you can source from the market.

How often do you cook these two dishes?

I do like to cook these two dishes now and again to accompany the other meat dishes whenever I have a proper Malaysian meal at home. They are also good dishes for dinner parties as you can prepare them earlier d all you need to do is a quick stir-fry and then dish m up when guests arrive.

lat’s your favourite way to eat them?

With lots of steamed rice! And sometimes I do like to add sambal chilli sauce to the Abacus beads for that extra spicy kick!


Serves 4

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

A small knob (5 gram) ginger, peeled then julienned

120g water chestnuts, cut into cubes

6 dried mushrooms, soaked in hot water for 1 hour, thinly sliced

15g wood ear, soaked in hot water for 1 hour, thinly sliced

2 block firm tofu, cut into small cubes

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 teaspoon white pepper powder

1 teaspoon sesame oil

2 tablespoon Shaoxing Wine

2 sprig spring onion, thinly chopped

2 tablespoons vegetable oil


500g taro, sliced into 1cm thickness 100g tapioca flour, plus extra for dusting A pinery of salt 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

First, prepare the abacus beads a day ahead. Place taro in steamer and steam until the taro has softened, about 15-20 minutes. Transfer taro to a large mixing bowl, mash with a fork while taro is still hot. Add tapioca flour a little at a time and mix it in until combined, repeat until all flour is used. Knead the dough until there are no lumps. Add salt and oil to the mixture and knead for another minute. Wrap the bowl in cling film, set aside to rest for at least 10 minutes.

Prepare a tray lined with baking paper or a greased plate. Pinch a small clump of the taro mixture and roll into a ball the size of a marble. Use your index finger to poke into the center of the ball to make an indentation, then place the taro bead on the tray. Repeat until all dough is used.

Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil on high heat, and also prepare a large bowl of chilled water on the side. In batches, drop the abacus beads into the hot water. Once the beads are cooked and float to the surface, scoop them out with a strainer and transfer them to the chilled water. Drain and transfer to a bowl, pour some oil into the bowl and give it a mix so the beads won’t stick together. Transfer the abacus beads to the refrigerator and let them cool down overnight.

Add a dash of oil to a frying pan on medium-low heat. In batches, fry the abacus beads until golden brown on both sides. Place them slightly apart to prevent them from sticking together. Once all done, place them on a plate and set aside.

In a work, heat 2 tablespoons of oil on medium-high heat add garlic and ginger, and stir-fry for a minute. Then add mushroom, wood ear, tofu and water chestnuts, stir-fry for a few more minutes. Add abacus beads and spring onions, then season with soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, white pepper and sesame oil. Stir-fry gently for another minute and it is ready.


100g long beans, cut into 5cm pieces

150g eggplant, sliced

150g carrot, peeled and sliced

300g cabbage, cut into big chunks

100g okra, cut the tops off

70g snow peas

A handful (50g) tofu puffs, halved

1 can (250ml) coconut cream

750ml water

1/2 cup vegetable oil

Salt, to taste


10g dried chillies, soaked in hot water for 30 minutes

5 red chillies, roughly chopped

10 candlenuts

130g shallots, peeled

3 garlic cloves

20g ginger, peeled

2 lemongrass, white parts only, roughly chopped 1 tablespoon turmeric powder

To make curry paste, put all ingredients with 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil in a food processor and blend to a fine paste. Heat the remaining oil in a wok on medium heat and fry the curry paste until fragrant and the oil separates, about 10-15 minutes.

Add coconut cream, water and bring to the boil. Add carrot, eggplant, cabbage and lower the heat down to a simmer. Simmer the curry for 10 minutes, then add okra, snow peas and tofu puffs, simmer for another 5 minutes. Season the curry accordingly. Serve with steamed rice.

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