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Conquering Hakka Yam Abacus Seeds: Part Deux - The Cili Padi Speaks

If you have been following my blog for some time now, you would know that I am not one to shy away from chillies. I love that rush of heat, that sense of thrill and relief; and that extra dimension of fragrance it lends to the dish.

But did you know, that my nickname as a child was "Lat Qiu Zai" which means Cili Padi (bird eye chilli) in Cantonese.

Cili Padi

(The explosive red chilli here is called Cili Padi)

I'd cringe when I hear that because, which child wants to be notoriously known for her temperament? Waaay before speaking up for oneself, having opinions, say-it-like-you-mean-it came into vogue, individuality was a terrible trait to have in a conservative Asian household. I think, in many cases, it still is frowned upon because it can be seen as disrespectful, entitled and outright rude.


(Gombak mari, hellooo)

But I couldn't change. Every censure was met with a quick quip from me, which was also promptly matched with a cane. So bold I was. I kept being mouthy even when the cane came in blows because well, whatchu gonna do, when I start bleeding? Cops will ask questions and I'll be pointing my finger at you! Gawsh, I was at best 5 to 9 years at that time. Unapologetic and a handful!

Over the years our family have developed other values like empathy, kindness and patience to deal with each other's limitations. But I'm still unapologetically a Cili Padi, because I think it's important to be truthful and authentic. If I like something, most likely my compliments are effusive but real. If I am against something, best believe you'd know about it. And if I have strong opinions about something, (most likely I have strong opinions about many things), I'll capture someone and discuss it!

Hakka Yam Abacus Seeds

I stand by my Hakka Yam Abacus Seeds rendition and I'm not going to completely replicate my late Granny's recipe. Hers was made in times of greatly reduced circumstances. She could not afford much meat, not even during festivities. The chicken she served was reared from her backyard. So her dish was mainly abacus seeds with tiny bits of minced pork sticking to it, with no visible signs of wood ear, Chinese mushrooms or other veggies...although I must say, it was sooooooo delicious..

For me, as a modern day eater, I prefer to have a bigger ratio of mushrooms/veggies/minced meat to yam abacus seeds - a direct ratio reversal to my Granny's because like modern eaters, I prefer to decrease starch and enjoy the freshness of my meat and veggies.

However, through cooking this dish, I am able to reflect about how blessed I am, now that I have so much more compared to Granny.

Hakka Yam Abacus Seeds Recipe

Hakka Yam Abacus Seed

Fry dried shrimps in medium heat flame.

Hakka Yam Abacus Seed

When the dried shrimps become fragrant, add shallots.

Hakka Yam Abacus Seed

Add a bit of cili padi and scallions once shallots turn translucent.

I like to season my aromatics with a little bit of white pepper and a few cracks of grounded black pepper.

Hakak Yam Abacus Seed

Next, add soaked wood ear and dried Chinese mushrooms. Fold them into the mix as you increase the heat.

Then add minced meat (I like to use minced beef) and season with a little soy sauce.

Hakka Yam Abacus Seed

Season some more with some Shaoxing wine.

Hakka Yam Abacus Seed

Now add julienned carrots. Give them a good stir and then add the blanched yam abacus seeds.

After folding them for 45 seconds, give it a taste test. Add a little salt if you like. Once the taste is adjusted, turn off the fire.

Then, add remaining scallions and fold into the mix.

Hakka Yam Abacus Seeds

In my opinion, this is a balanced dish, bursting with flavour. But I am only able to innovate this because other ingenious home cooks have created the base recipe and I am at liberty to add more ingredients to elevate the taste.

I want to personally thank my late paternal Granny for her sacrifices because she lived the hard life so we can experience comfort she never would have.

I am not better than my Granny or family members even though I have better education and have some accomplishments in my life. I just have more because they have instilled lasting values and committed their lives to improving mine.

May we never forget.

Recipe serves 2:

Abacus Seeds:

250g yam

3/4 cup of tapioca flour (eyeball and add as you work the dough)

Warm water (add bit by bit for a doughey consistency)

1 tsp vegetable oil

2 pinches salt

1/4 tsp white pepper

Step-by-step pics here

2 tbsp dried shrimps

200 gm minced beef (season with a tsp of onion powder, salt and pepper)

3 pcs wood ear, soaked in water then slice thinly

4 - 5 pcs of dried Chinese mushrooms, soaked in water then slice thinly

1 1/2 carrots, julienned

4 shallots, sliced

3 garlic cloves, bruised

2 cili padi or bird eye chillies

2 stalks of scallions, chopped

1 tbsp soy sauce

1 tbsp Shaoxing wine

Few shakes of white pepper

A few cracks of black pepper


1. Steam sliced yam for 20 minutes or until it becomes soft and you can poke a fork through it. Then add a bit of warm water, tapioca flour bit by bit and season the mix with a bit of vegetable oil, salt and white pepper. Knead it until it becomes soft and bouncy.

2. Pinch a small amount of dough and roll it until it becomes a long train of dough. Cut them into smaller balls and roll in the palm of your hands. Make an indentation with a chopstick. Example here

3. After the yam abacus seeds are rolled out, fill a sauce pan with water and prepare to blanch the abacus seeds.

4. In a separate wok, add some oil and fry dried shrimps until they become fragrant.

5. Next, add shallots, fry until translucent. Then add garlic cloves, half of the sliced scallions, cili padi, seasoning with white pepper and if you like, a few cracks of black pepper.

6. Turn up the heat. Then add wood ear, dried Chinese mushrooms and minced beef. Season with soy sauce and Shaoxing wine. Watch the sauce pan. When the water boils, add abacus seeds. The seeds should float within 10 - 15 seconds. This means they are cooked.

7. Add julienned carrots and cooked yam abacus seeds, stir for 45 seconds in high heat. Add some salt to balance the taste. If everything taste good, turn off the heat and add the remaining scallions.

8. Fold the scallions in to the mix for a few seconds and get ready to serve.

Note: This dish is easily customizable into a vegan recipe by removing dried shrimps and minced beef. The greater part of the flavour actually comes from yam abacus seeds, carrots, wood ear and dried Chinese mushrooms.

#cilipadi #masakciliapi #chillies #hakkayam #yamabacusseeds #Gombak #Setapak #grandma #granny #chinesedish #silymi

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