Five Spice Taro Rice (aka Yam Rice in Malaysia)

Taro root (wu tao in Cantonese and keladi in Malay) is probably not the friendliest looking vegetable in town. It has an irregular shape with dark shaggy brown skin that is an irritant to our skin and its flesh is mildly toxic when consumed raw. Yet, we eat it and we love it. It is regularly available in Asian grocery stores and farmers markets here in the San Francisco Bay Area, which tells me that there's a healthy demand for it. I personally think it deserves a little spotlight, which is why I've picked it as the featured vegetable of this week's Spring Discovery series. 

Peel off that rough exterior (wear gloves if you have to) and you have a pale speckled or light purple/gray flesh that can be steamed, boiled, stewed, stir-fried, mashed and deep-fried much like a potato. In Asian food, taro root makes appearances not only in savory dishes but also in dim sum, pastries, desserts, and even drinks. It has a unique texture that's soft and creamy yet dry and powdery. Its use is versatile and makes for a delightful substitution in any recipes that call for starchy root vegetables. 

In Malaysia, taro root is commonly used to make a savory steamed cake called wu tau goh (which is very similar to the turnip cake recipe I shared) and included in a coconut-based sweet soup called bubur cha cha. If you've never cooked with taro root before, this fragrant rice is an excellent introduction. 

This vegetarian recipe is my spin on the taro rice often enjoyed in Malaysia with the Hakka dish yong tau foo (assorted vegetables stuffed with fish paste) that's usually cooked with ground meat and dried shrimp. The omission of meat in this recipe makes the presence of taro root more prominent and allows you to fully appreciate it. Making it is as easy as clicking a button on your rice cooker but it will also come together effortlessly on the stovetop and I've provided instructions for both methods. 

Taro rice is called yam rice in Malaysia but for the sake of today's main ingredient, let's set something straight: although the word is loosely used, yam is not taro and yam is not sweet potato. A while ago, when I was exploring the world of root vegetables here, I came across an article with the funny headline 'I Yam Not Taro'. From it l learned that I have been incorrectly calling taro yam and when I tried looking for yam in the stores during my first year in America, I was given sweet potato. (You can read about that experience here.)

Allow me to explain the conundrum. The confusion, it appears, is twofold. In Malaysia, we incorrectly call taro yam when in fact they are both completely different vegetables. In America, sweet potatoes are often incorrectly labeled as yam due to a naming irregularity that goes way back in history. The bottom line is all three of these delicious roots are not the same and it certainly helps to understand their differences. I hope you'll get to know taro root better through this simple recipe. 

This post is part of the on-going Spring Discovery series and this year's focus is on Asian vegetables. You may also be interested to find out more about Asian greens like bok choy, gai lan and choy sum here. Happy cooking!

Five Spice Taro Rice
A convenient dish that comes together easily in the rice cooker or on the stovetop, this dish features the unique texture of taro root and fragrant flavors of Chinese five spice powder. Enjoy it on its own or as a side with lightly cooked Asian greens. Serves 5 to 6.

3 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 shallots, finely sliced
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
6 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in water for at least 2 hours, drained and thinly sliced
250g taro root (about 2-3 small ones), peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes

1/4 cup soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon five spice powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 cups jasmine rice, rinsed and drained

Chopped green onions, for garnish

In a pan, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over medium-high heat. Add 1 of the sliced shallots and fry until it's golden. Then quickly remove from heat and set aside.  

In the same pan, heat the remaining oil over medium-high heat. Add garlic and shallots, and lightly fry until fragrant. Stir in the mushrooms and cubed taro root, followed by soy sauce, five spice powder, salt, white pepper, and sesame oil. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the taro root is partially cooked, about 3 minutes. Add the rice and stir to mix well. 

OPTION 1: Cooking with Rice Cooker
Pour the rice mixture into the rice cooker. Add 2-1/2 cups of water and stir to mix. Cover and turn on the rice cooker. When it's done cooking, without removing the cover, let the rice rest for 5 to 10 minutes undisturbed. 

OPTION 2: Cooking on Stovetop
You will have needed to start the cooking process in a deep pan or transfer the mixture into one. Add 2-1/2 cups of water and stir to mix. Cover and bring to a boil. Then turn the heat down and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes or until the liquid is absorbed. 

Remove the cover and add some of the chopped green onions. Fluff the rice with a fork. Serve warm with more chopped green onions and fried shallots on top.