When I went to China to do research for Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, I traveled from Guilin to Gongcheng and then on to Jiangyong County in Hunan province, where nu shu was invented and used. We stopped in Gongcheng for lunch. It was a tiny restaurant. By tiny, I mean just one small room with just one tiny table and tiny chairs that seemed like they’d been built for kindergarteners. The restaurant owner brought in a live chicken for us to look at, and then he went away, slaughtered it and we ate it, along with some freshly picked greens and rice. For dessert, he suggested we try the sugared taro. I loved it so much that I not only insisted we stop at the same restaurant on our way back to Guilin but I also used it in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan as part of Lily and Snow Flower’s memorable meal at the Temple of Gupo.
When the book first came out, readers often wrote to me to ask for a recipe for the taro to serve at their book clubs. I didn’t have one, but one enterprising woman found a recipe online. I used to have a link to that site, but it has since disappeared from the ether. So this is that original recipe with standard Western measurements in parentheses. Most of the dish is amazingly easy to make. The tricky part comes just at the end.
Taro 750 g (or 3 1/4 cup)
White sugar 400 g (or 1 3/4 cup)
Peel the taro. Trim the ends and sides of the taro to make a rectangular block. Then slice each block into one inch cubes. Deep fry with pre-heated oil until golden in color; make sure the taro cubes are cooked through. (It should be rather like a French fry in texture—a little crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.) Remove the taro and the oil from the wok. Add white sugar and a little water to the wok. Cook the syrup slowly until the surface of the liquid bubbles. I like it when it starts to caramelize and gets that nice amber color. (Be careful not to let the sugar burn.) Add the fried taro.
Now comes the tricky part.
Here’s how the website recommended the next step: “Remove the wok from the fire immediately. Switch on a fan in full gear and stir the taro in the liquid in the wind. Point the air at the taro so the syrup can solidify during the stir-frying.”
I can guarantee you that the tiny place where I had this dessert definitely did not have a kitchen fan. What they did was put the fried taro into the wok and swirl it around so that each piece was fully coated with the syrup. Then the taro was put on a serving dish and brought to the table. We used our chopsticks to pick up a piece of the taro and then dip it into very cold water. The cold water turned the sugar hard, like a candy apple. When you bite into your piece, you will get the crunch of the caramelized sugar and then the softness of the taro.
A third way that would work would be to swirl the taro in the sugar syrup and then spread it on a Teflon cookie sheet that has been sprayed with PAM. Make sure each piece stands alone. The sugar coating will harden pretty quickly this way too.