I come to you today with several discoveries. Firstly: Parsnip! Can you believe I had parsnip for the first time only a few weeks ago? Well, it's actually perfectly believable considering I moved to California less than 1.5 years ago from a tropical country that eats vegetables like kangkung and choy sum. Believable but perhaps not forgivable that I took so long to get to it.
In the short time since the discovery, I've eaten parsnip in all kinds of ways—raw, boiled, roasted, baked, mashed, pureed—and have yet to find a manner I dislike. It's my new favorite vegetable. If 2015 was the year of fennel for me, 2016 has started on a friendly note with parsnip. It's sweet like carrot with the texture of potato and tastes like angels touched the earth. Can you tell I'm having a vegetable crush moment?
Secondly: Yam! What I know as yam in Malaysia looks completely different from what is labeled as yam in the US. So when I went shopping for yam to make bubur cha cha, my attempt sent me on a quest as baffling as the name of the dish may sound to you. Fortunately, I was distracted by a stupendous potato with deep purple flesh, which I learned later is a variety of sweet potato containing anthoncyanin, the same pigment that gives blueberry its color.
Yam, it appears, does not even belong in the same family as sweet potato and is a completely different vegetable. The confusion comes down to a historical naming irregularity, the explanation to which you can watch in this rather entertaining video.
But wait, I also made the discovery, to my surprise, that what I know as yam in Malaysia is in fact taro! It's a question of language and its irregular application in different cultures, a topic explored in this article if you'd like to read it. Taro, it appears, is different from both sweet potato and yam, and is believed to be native to Asia. The one I'm used to seeing in my bubur cha cha has pale purple flesh with deep purple flecks. And my research points to it being the same ingredient used to make poi in Hawaii. There we go...
Phew! Now, what's this cha cha dish I'm talking about. Bubur cha cha (such a great name, don't you think?) is a rich Malaysian dessert that has a mixture of colorful root vegetables in coconut milk. "Bubur" means porridge in Malay but I can't tell you exactly where the "cha cha" comes from, except that it sounds like the word abundance in the Hokkien dialect. Which may explain why it is usually served by the Hokkien community on Chap Goh Mei, the 15th and final day of the lunar new year celebration, which also marks Chinese Valentine's Day.
The main ingredients include sweet potato, taro and black-eyed peas in pandan leaf-infused sweetened fresh coconut milk, and sometimes banana, sago pearls and tapioca jelly are added. In addition to a medley of colorful sweet potatoes, my version also features popular winter vegetables such as parsnip, kabocha and butternut squash.
It's a fantastic way to enjoy some of the crop of the season and I want this dish to be something we can have throughout winter without the artery-clogging guilt, so I made it with light coconut milk sweetened with fragrant coconut sugar. The outcome is a dessert that's rich in flavor but overall light enough to be served even for breakfast. And especially delightful as a warming supper on a cold wintery night.
Winter Vegetables in Coconut Milk (Bubur Cha Cha)
How does a warming bowl of sweet soup in the winter sound to you? A delicious way to enjoy some of the best winter root vegetables and squash, this quick and easy recipe is a lightened version of the Malaysian "tong sui" or dessert known as Bubur Cha Cha. Serves 4.
3 medium sweet potatoes (I used red, purple and Japanese)
1 medium parsnip
1 cup butternut squash
1 cup kabocha squash
1 large banana
1 can (about 400ml) light coconut milk
1/4 cup coconut sugar, or to taste
Pinch of sea salt
Cut all vegetables and banana into bite-sized cubes of about 1-inch in thickness. Steam all cubed vegetables until they are soft when pierced with a fork, about 8 to 10 minutes. For convenience, cook in the microwave by placing all cubed vegetables in a microwave-safe pot with a little water added and microwaving on high until they are soft when pierced with a fork, about 7 minutes.
Combine coconut milk, water, coconut sugar and salt in a pot and bring to a gentle boil. Add the cooked vegetables and boil for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. The soup will thicken slightly. Turn off the heat and stir in the banana pieces. Serve warm.