Monday, July 2, 2012

Humble fare no longer small potatoes

HAVE you ever had steamed tapioca (or ubi kayu) for breakfast? It was common fare back in the old days. It was seldom sold at the stalls because it was not as popular as breakfast staples nasi lemak, nasi dagang and kuih , but it was often served at home.

Folk ate it with grated young coconut or dipped in sugar. As a kid, I ate it, too, but with ikan kering (salted fish), usually selar kuning (yellow-tailed scad).

Steamed tapioca was regarded as humble fare for the poor. It was very cheap, at only 10 cents a kati (or 600 grammes). Two katis were enough to provide an ample meal for a family of five.

Tapioca plants grow quite easily, too, and most homes would have a few planted in their backyards to provide shade for the ducks and chicken.

To grow a tapioca plant, you only need to stick a cut stem into the soil. Even with minimal care, it would mature in about 10 months to provide you with three to five tubers, each the size of a corncob. If you regularly feed the plant cow or chicken manure, it would reward you with tubers as big as a man's thigh.

Harvested tubers can keep for a long time if stored in a cool, dry place, away from the rats.

Apart from being steamed, the tubers can also be grated and baked into tapioca cakes. People also made tapioca flour at a time when cornstarch was a luxury.

Recently, at a coffee shop in Hulu Kelang, I saw plastic packets of steamed tapioca sold at RM1.50 each. Curious, I asked a friend, a regular there, if steamed tapioca was making a comeback.

The chap told me that the steamed tapioca there had found a loyal following, especially among foreign workers. A packet of steamed tapioca was more filling than regular breakfast items and much cheaper, too.

Another poor man's fare, sweet potatoes, are enjoying a revival with city folk, especially the health-conscious.

Rebranded as "wholesome, healthy snacks", roasted potatoes are selling like hot cakes at kiosks in shopping malls, especially at the one near my home. Last Thursday, curiosity and hunger got the better of me after a round of marketing there.

The growling in my stomach turned into piteous pleading at the scent of roasted sweet potatoes.

I headed for the stall, picked a yellow-skinned sweet potato slightly bigger than my fist and asked the foreigner manning the stall for the price. After putting the tuber on the electronic scale, he said, "RM7.50."

When I complained that it was expensive, he told me his sweet potatoes cost RM1.80 per 100g, the reason being they were imported from Japan. My appetite left me, and I, apologising, left the stall.

While roasted sweet potato may be a more salubrious snack than burger and fries, the indulgence would not be healthy for my wallet.

I would be literally paying through the nose if I had succumbed to the scent of nostalgia that evening. On top of that, I would be a "han choo thow" (or potatohead in Hokkien).

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