Tasty Chinese Yam in Hot Toffee
Basi shanyao (Chinese yam in hot toffee), a distinctive traditional Beijing dish, is light, crispy, sticky and known for its sweetness. Because basi shanyao is easy to cook and so attractive in presentation, it has long been popular with ordinary Chinese and foreigners alike.
In China, northern dishes are usually mistakenly considered to have a heavy, savoury flavour; whereas, southern dishes, a light flavour. However, basi shanyao (Chinese yam in hot toffee), a distinctive traditional Beijing dish, is light and sweet.
Basi shanyao is crispy and sticky, and known for its sweetness. Its main ingredient is shanyao, a root vegetable with a long, cylindrical shape and white flesh with a mild, sweet flavour. Basi dishes, or dishes with hot toffee, originated in Shandong cuisine. Their cooking method is unique amongst dishes of the Han ethnic group. The finished dish is soft and has a bright yellow colour. When pulling out a piece to eat, the sticky toffee stretches out, making a sweet string which can extend several inches. Because basi shanyao requires few ingredients, is easy to cook and is so attractive in presentation, it has long been popular with ordinary Chinese and foreigners alike.
Making the dish is quite simple. Cut the Chinese yams into cubes and deep fry them to a golden yellow colour. Take them out and drain off the oil. Boiling the sugar correctly is the next important step. Put water
and sugar in a wok and heat on a low fire until the sugar becomes stretchy, turns yellow and bubbles. Then, put the deep-fried cubes into the syrup and keep stirring until the cubes are evenly coated. This is similar to the cooking procedure described in Sushi shuolüe ( Records of Vegetarian Food) authored by Qing scholar Xue Baochen. Of course, as time has passed, the cooking method continues to evolve. Many restaurants in Beijing add their own touches. Some will decorate the dish with candied osmanthus and some will add fried sesame seeds. Regardless of how it is made, however, do not be too quick to eat it as the dish is piping hot. Prepare a bowl of cold water, pick up a piece and dip it into the water to prevent scorching the mouth.
There is a legend related to basi shanyao burning the eater's mouth. In the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907), Li Mi, leader of a rebel movement against the rule of Sui (AD 581–618), invited politician Wei Hui to a banquet to discuss strategy for attacking Xingyang (in today's Henan Province). Li wanted to attack the city as soon as possible and fight a quick battle. During the banquet, Wei did not mention any opinion on Li's plan, which left Li baffled. Then the chef served a dish with a bright golden colour. Li Mi immediately picked up a piece and tried to eat it, burning his lips. On the other hand, Wei picked up a piece unhurriedly, dipped it into cold water, then put in his mouth. Wei then asked Li to try the dish in the same way as he did. It was sweet, crispy, sticky and delicious. Li understood that this was Wei's way of telling him not to be too hasty. The two devised a thoughtful plan, and their attack succeeded.
The Chinese yam, the main ingredient in the dish, was named after a battle in ancient times. Two armies were engaged in a war and the defeated army suffered heavy losses. The soldiers fled to the mountains and were trapped there because the winning troops guarded all the passes. There, they ate edible wild herbs to keep themselves alive. One day, they found a vine that had little flowers and roots growing under the soil. The roots were sticky and sweet inside. The armies boiled them and found the taste was very good. Though stuck in the mountains for a long time, both the soldiers and the horses ate the roots to sustain themselves and survived. Finally, on one stormy night, the troops broke through the blockade and counterattacked. The enemy troops thought the defeated army had already starved to death, so they had dropped their guard. This time, the former winning army was wiped out. The victorious soldiers called the plant that had kept them alive “shanyu” (encountering in the mountain). Later, it was found to cure diseases and was renamed “shanyao” (mountain medicine).
The Chinese yam is not only an ingredient for cooking, but a kind of traditional Chinese medicine. Three hundred and sixty-five varieties of Chinese medicinal herbs were recorded in Shennong Bencao Jing ( Shennong’s Classic of Materia Medica), a book complied during the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25–220). The qualities were divided into three grades: top, medium and low. Chinese yam was classified in the top-level category. The Henan Xianzhi ( Henan County Annals) (1883 edition) recorded: “Chinese yams for medicinal use were called ‘yao shanyao,' or tiegun shanyao, and those produced in Fushan, Huaiqing County, had superior quality.”
There are many varieties of Chinese yam and their quality varies as well. Huai shanyao, also called tiegun shanyao (“iron stick Chinese yam”) planted in Huaiqing, Henan Province, is considered top quality. Huai shanyao, which used to be given as tribute to imperial families, is tender and sweet and was called “ginseng in Huaiqing.” Chinese yams from Huaiqing are popular both at home and abroad. They were recognised and won great fame at the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco, in the United States. Afterward they were exported to many European, North and South American countries.
Foshou shanyao, grown in Wuxue City, Hubei Province, is also famous and is mentioned in a classic work of literature. Kuangshan Mountain in Qizhou, today's Wuxue City, is considered the backdrop of the novel Journey to the West. It includes the lines: “Dig up the Chinese yam, boil it with the medicinal herb huangjing, and drink the soup completely.” This proves that Wuxue people had the tradition of digging up Chinese yams and drinking Chinese yam soup several hundred years ago. The shanyao they used, “foshou shanyao,” got its name from Dao Xin, a “Great Doctor Chan Master.” It has rich nutrition, distinctive flavour and a long history
Chinese yams are mentioned in historical anecdotes about well-known people. Song Dynasty (AD 960–1279) poet Su Shi lived a hard life after being demoted and sent to Danzhou in today's Hainan Province. His life became even worse when natural disasters occurred. Locals there used Chinese yams as their main food. They chopped Chinese yams, then mixed them with rice or other cereal crops to cook porridge. Su Shi was not used to this and his health worsened. His son Su Guo was worried about his father, so he improved the recipe and cooking method. Finally, with Chinese yam as the main ingredient, he made a delicious soup. Su Shi was glad to taste the soup and wrote: “My son Su Guo came up with a new idea and cooked Chinese yam soup which is splendid in colour, aroma and flavour. We do not know the flavour of sutuo, a delicacy in Heaven, but the soup has the ultimate flavour on earth.” Su Shi loved the soup very much and even planted Chinese yams himself.
Lu You, another Song poet, praised Chinese yam porridge in his “Shizhou shi” (“Poem of Drinking Porridge.”) It reads: “Everyone wants longevity; the secret for it is at hand. I learned the easy way to live long from poet Zhang Lei (known as Wan Qiu); that is to drink Chinese yam porridge.”