A savoury cake that Malaysians eat as a traditional snack, yam cake or woo thau koh is the ultimate flavour bomb.
We’re right smack into the 2nd phase of the COVID19 MCO as I write this.
Last week, I was getting bored of the usual Chinese dishes and pastas, and started fantasizing about some kopitiam food. Being Hakka, I yearned for some good old yam cake or woo thau koh (in Cantonese)/or kueh (Hokkien).
Imagine biting into soft chunks of lightly spiced yam, crispy shallots, dried prawns, roasted peanuts, scallions and chilli sauce.
Help my mouth is watering! A word of warning: making this involves a whole lot of chopping, peeling, pounding and frying, but totally worth the effort.
While yam cake is sold at many kopitiam and roadside stalls, there’s nothing quite like making your own. Most of the commercial ones comprise mostly rice flour and very little yam. This version … err, let’s say Dad calls it the “you better not sell this or you’ll go bankrupt” version, haha!
Some trivia. Dad, a World War 2 baby, told me that he ate a lot of sweet potatoes, tapioca and yam during the war because they were easy to grow. I guess that’s why tubers and root vegetables figure frequently in Hakka recipes.
What you need
Yam, rice flour and water These ingredients form your batter. I measure out these three ingredients using bowls in a ratio of 1.5: 1: 2. Some like to chop the yam into strands. Some like to blend it into oblivion so that everything’s a smooth paste. Personally, I like it slightly chunky so that I can enjoy the texture of the soft cooked yam.
Seasonings You only need salt, white pepper and five-spice powder.
Fillings and toppings Mum’s yam cake is better than everyone else’s because she adds crispy fried shallots and dried prawns inside the cake. Most people (commercial versions, at least) just scatter these condiments on top of the cake after steaming.
Other toppings Don’t forget the fried peanuts, scallions and chopped red chillis.
Key tips that will make or break your yam cake
Frying the yam Be careful not to fry the yam too long. Just cook the yam until the edges start to brown. Yam that has been over-fried at this stage will become leathery and tough. You want to achieve a consistency whereby, the yam cake is creamy yet still has bite.
Dried shrimp How much you add is really up to your preference. Some people love hae bee, so they might add more. Dried shrimp is salty, so remember to adjust the amount of salt you add according to how much of the former you add. The salt should be inversely proportional to the amount of hae bee. For example, if you add 3/4 bowl of hae bee, add 1/4 tsp salt and if you add 1/2 bowl hae bee, increase the salt to 1/2 tsp.
Parchment paper or oil? Before steaming, you’re supposed to pour the yam mixture into a tray. My mum – and all old-school cooks, I presume – rubs oil on the tray so she can easily cut the yam cake later. And she succeeds in cutting ruler-straight pieces WITHIN the tray and dislodges each piece cleanly! Not me though. So I resort to lining my steaming tray with parchment paper, then lift the entire cake out of the tray and cut it like a normal Western-style cake.
Rice flour paste In one of the steps, you need to mix the rice flour with water into a paste. Use it immediately (i.e. mix with the yam). Do not do this step ahead of time. Rice flour will separate from water if you leave it aside.
Don’t overcook the batter Another key to a soft yam cake is not to overcook the batter when you add the rice flour paste to the yam and start stirring. When you feel a slight resistance during the stirring process, the yam batter is ready.
Watch my video on how to make the best yam cake
Woo Thau Koe (Yam Cake)
- steamer, wok, pot
- 1 1/2 bowl yam diced into 1-2cm cubes (See Recipe Notes 1) (I use rice bowls)
- 1 bowl rice flour
- 2 bowls water (this includes water drained from soaking dried prawns)
- 1 tbs cornstarch or tapioca starch
- 1/2-3/4 bowl dried shrimps
- 8 shallots, chopped
- 1/2-1 tsp five-spice powder
- 1/4-1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp white pepper
- 2-3 tbsp cooking oil
- 3/4 bowl roasted peanuts, chopped
- 2 fresh red chillies, sliced thinly
- 2-3 stalks spring onion, chopped finely
- Wash dried shrimps and soak in half a bowl of water for 15 min. Drain, dry and chop shrimps. Reserve soaking water.
- Heat oil in wok and fry the shallots until golden. Remove and set aside. Using the same oil, fry shrimp until crispy. Remove and set aside.
- In the same oil, fry cubed yam for 2-3 minutes until slightly softer or until the edges start to brown slightly. Mix in half of the fried shallots and dried shrimp. Season with five spice power and salt. Leave yam in the wok to continue cooking later.
- Combine shrimp soaking water and water to make up 2 bowls of liquid. Add in rice flour and cornstarch. Stir until well mixed - rice flour has a tendency to separate from the liquid, so stir well.
- Now, add flour paste to the yam mixture in wok. Cook over very low heat, stirring until it forms a smooth paste. Watch closely as rice flour paste can get lumpy if you don't stir it enough.
- Pour mixture into an oiled or parchment-lined steaming tray. Steam over high heat for one hour. Half an hour in, check water level in case it dries out as you're steaming over high heat. If surface still looks runny/watery, steam 10-15 minutes more.
- Remove from heat and let cool for 45 minutes at least. The yam cake will harden when it cools. Before serving, sprinkle with chopped spring onions, sliced chillies, peanuts, and remaining fried shallots and dried shrimp mixture.
- Using rice bowls means that nothing is perfectly accurate in terms of weight, but some degree of variation actually doesn’t affect the final result too much. But for the record, the yam I used weighed about 400g before slicing off the skin and end bits.
Wanna try more traditional Malaysian recipes? Check out this crowd-pleasing nyonya otak-otak!