I'VE had an extraordinary childhood: have definitely experienced a way of life which may have even been unfamiliar to my peers then. A part of it includes food. From growing it, getting our supply from growers in the neighbourhood and to cooking, there was plenty of good food around. A common crop in the house garden was the tapioca or cassava. We had planted like 50 of those all year round, back to back. Till now, I still couldn't figure why we did that because after harvesting what's needed for us, some neighbours and friends, we still had extras. My dad and grandma (maternal) were crazy about this root. Their sentiment, I think, wasn't something that stemmed from its lovely flavours. Rather, it was more deep-rooted than that. Both dad and grandma had lived through the dreadful Japanese occupation era in Malaya (Dec 1941 to Aug 1945) during which time, food supply was scarce. Staple rice was out of the question. People's lives depended mainly on tapioca because it grew easily, all year round, with minimal effort. It had kept them alive from starvation.
So there was that sentiment. My dad who hardly ever gets upset with me, got visibly upset whenever I expressed dislike over food made from tapioca. He'd swiftly and constantly remind me of how it had kept them alive during the era. I didn't make much of it then but now thinking back, I know better. My grandma, on the other hand, was a bit lax about that. There were several ways we ate them. We start by washing and boiling the roots. The soft root was then made into traditional Malay cakes (kueh), eaten with tea. For a more savoury option, the boiled and cubed root was fried with spices, curry leaves and Asian anchovies as a meal of its own. It can be fried into fritters, cooked to porridge or simply eaten with sugar and freshly grated coconut (which we also grew in the huge backyard next to the pineapple plot).
As a kid though, I couldn't identify with the clean flavours of tapioca. It generally felt a bit bland and sometimes even dry for my liking. Of course, I feel differently about it now. What I actually really did like then were sweet potatoes. We didn't grow any of those but we got them, also locally grown, easily from the market. They can be cooked in almost the same ways we do with tapioca. I like them simply boiled, fried into sweet fritters or made into Malay tea cakes. One such tea cake which I enjoy very much is Keria or sweet potato doughnuts! The inside is a bit dense but soft. The outside is coated with crunchy crystalised sugar. My grandma cooked them at home but we could also easily buy them at the market in the mornings and evenings. These days, they're more of a treat than anything for me. I've cut out all processed sugar from my diet for almost three years now.
|A batch of Keria which we shared with my British neighbours downstairs|
I haven't made them in such a long time. Not since around the time my grandma was alive. In Doha, these are hard to find unless there's a Malaysian food bazaar at the embassy. After more than a decade, I made a batch today, thinking of my wonderful childhood, our large kitchen and all the good times we had in that quarter of house.
600g sweet potatoes (about two medium-sized ones, boiled and peeled)
1.5 to 2 cups flour
some oil ( I use a combination of coconut and grape seed oils)
1/2 cup sugar and a little water to glaze
Mash the sweet potatoes and add flour bit by bit. Mix well. Also add salt.
It may be sticky. Use a bit of plain flour to coat the fingers, pinch a small ball of off the mixture to shape into a10cm long cylinder. Join both ends, and fry till golden on both sides.
Combine sugar and water in a wok over medium fire. Mix till it thickens and add all of the fried doughnuts. Coat well and let it cool to enjoy.