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A Chinese winter treat

Updated: 2012-12-14 07:38
By Liu Jue ( China Daily)

 A Chinese winter treat

Sweet potatoes owe their presence in China to Portuguese and Spanish seafarers who sailed from America. Photos provided to China Daily

They have a multitude of names, but sweet potatoes taste good whatever you call them

For many Chinese, nothing says winter more than the baked sweet potato stalls on the street side. Chilling in the cold wind, you can hardly resist the fragrance and radiant warmth from a heated tin barrel on top of which lie the plump tubers. The vendor calls out to you, "烤红薯了,又香又甜的烤红薯!" (kǎo hóng shǔ le, yòu xiāng yòu tián de kǎo hóng shǔ! Roast sweet potatoes, fragrant and sweet), and before you know it you are holding one of the delicious snacks, breaking it into halves to enjoy the steam rising up to your cold cheeks. Bite into the golden sweetness, and you will be powered up in no time.

As a traditional winter street snack, baked sweet potatoes are enjoyed across the country, but with different names. They are generally called "红薯" (hóng shǔ, literally red potato) because of their red skin, but if people mention "白薯" (bái shǔ, white potato), "地瓜" (dì guā, earth melon) or "甘薯" (gān shǔ, sweet potato), they are talking about tubers in the same family, whose tastes and appearances differ slightly.

It is the term "番薯" (fān shǔ, foreign potato) that is the root of most of those names. "番" here is short for "番邦" (fān bāng), which meant "foreign country" long ago. More than 400 years ago during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), sweet potato was transported all the way from America by the Portuguese and Spanish to Myanmar, Vietnam and Luzon in the Philippines. It is from these countries that China got its first taste of the sweet potato. Before long, the plant spread across the country and is rarely considered foreign by now.

Roast sweet potato is a common snack that everybody can afford - for only 3 to 4 yuan, you can get a big piece of the sweet delight. Sometimes it is so cheap that people suspect the sweet potato vendors are in constant poverty, and use the term "卖红薯" (mài hóng shǔ, sell sweet potatoes) to refer to jobs that do not pay much.

There is a humorous saying, "If an official does not put the people first, he might as well go home and sell sweet potatoes" (当官不为民做主,不如回家卖红薯 dāng guān bù wèi mín zuò zhǔ, bù rú huí jiā mài hóng shǔ). That is to say an official does not deserve his salary if he is not responsible for his people.

Rich in starch, protein cellulose and vitamins, sweet potato has been awarded the title of "longevity food." Not only is it served on the tables of North Americans during the holiday seasons, but it has also been incorporated in Chinese cuisine as follows:

Sweet potato porridge (红薯粥 hóng shǔ zhōu)

Popular among women who want to lose weight or are watching their figure, sweet potato porridge is also believed to have positive effects on an irregular digestive system. It is easy to make with a stew pot.

Candied sweet potato (拔丝红薯 bá sī hóng shǔ)

This dessert dish involves a particular technique known as basi

(拔丝), which occurs when you melt sugar and mix it with fruits or tubers. Basi literally means "draw strings", because when you pick up the hot, sugarcoated morsels on the plate with chopsticks, you will draw some strands of sugar.

The dish has to be served hot, with a separate bowl of cold water. Immerse a glazed tidbit into the cold water and the sugar coating will harden and become immediately crispy. Each bite will consist of the tenderness and warmth of the filling on the inside with a cool crisp layer on the outside. The steps are a little more complicated than you would normally see in a family dish.

Now that you are equipped with the knowledge to make delicious Chinese winter treats out of sweet potatoes, fire up the stove and have a try.

Courtesy of The World of Chinese, www.theworldofchinese.com

The World of Chinese

A Chinese winter treat

(China Daily 12/14/2012 page19)

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