Sunday, 22 May 2011

Steamed Tapioca Cake in War & Peace

I remember Grandma fondly. We spent a lot of time together.  I remember the stories she told me about World War II – of how it affected and changed my family’s destinies.

They were stories of tragedy and windfall; of opportunities thrown up by the vicissitudes of war; opportunities grasped or missed that led to fortune or disaster. Grandma was such a vivid raconteur that my ancestral family came to life in my mind as an album of living full-blooded persons, though I had never met any one of them.

The downside was, as a naive little kid, I became “indoctrinated” with the prejudices and stereotypes Grandma wove into her stories -- which I have struggled to dispel to this day. And though she would often ramble and repeat herself for the umpteenth time, each telling would bring a small, previously unknown, embellishment or fact to light. And a new layer of emotion or insight would be added. Through her simple words, Grandma made the war appear more real to me than all the books, movies, and documentaries, that I later had access to, ever did.

Maybe, it was from Grandma too, that I grew to love the romance of the War Years – from its furniture and interior designs to its music, cabaret life and clothing styles. And, for sure, too, Grandma’s stories made me “grow up”, by acquainting me with the seamier side of human nature – of life’s underbelly.

She often told of an uncle of mine who made his fortune peddling opium in Singapore during the war. It was said he made enough to fill large kerosene containers with jewelry, gold and cash. With war’s end, he left for China, taking along all his “earnings”, and became a landlord. When the Communists came to power, he had everything taken away, and became destitute. He took to writing letters home to Singapore pleading for help and money. But, recalling his departure for China without a cent or thought for those left behind, his family and relatives chose to ignore him, and left him to his fate. …And to think I belong to a family like that!

Grandma would also paint an interesting picture of the food that people ate during the war, of the types of ingredients available then, and of how they were obtained from the black market. I became all ears whenever Grandma got to the food part of her stories. And when I pestered her hard enough, she would even cook some of the dishes she talked about.

During the war, food was naturally scarce, so people made do with whatever they could lay their hands on. One of the staples was tapioca, as it was easy to grow and harvest. It was common for families to eat tapioca for 3 meals a day, on its own or accompanied by simple dishes such as salted fish, porridge, or mixed with potatoes. It was not surprising to learn that many people suffered from malnutrition during the war.

By itself, tapioca is tasteless; but when steamed and eaten with sugar, it makes a nice snack. I must confess that tapioca hardly figures on my table, and I do not have a liking for it except in the form of this cake featured. I learned the recipe because it didn’t require much technique or skill; and Grandma would insist that I make the cake just to get me out of her hair whenever I became too much of a handful!

Steamed Tapioca Cake

Tapioca (木薯)        320 g, grated            
Sugar                           85 g                          
Egg                               1, lightly beaten
Coconut milk              180 ml, or can be substituted with milk              
Pandan juice               2 tbsp, optional
Salt                               a pinch

1.    Combine sugar, egg, coconut milk, pandan juice and salt, and stir the mixture until the sugar has melted.
2.     Add grated tapioca and mix thoroughly.
3.     Pour into a greased pan and steam for 45 minutes.
4.     Cool the cake completely before slicing it for serving.

Note:   The sliced cake can be coated with steamed grated coconut before serving. 
             Two versions are featured. The green one has pandan juice and milk, while the white cake uses just coconut milk.
             There is a baked version of this cake. It's called Kueh Bingkar Ubi in Malay.

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