Overall rating: 3.3 out of 5
Ask a Chinese person what suan pan zi is and she will probably tell you it’s an abacus, an old, manual calculator. Like with most characters in the Mandarin, suan pan zi (a gnocchi-like dumpling dish made from yam) is also a dish. This is so-named because of the dumplings’ resemblance to the beads on an abacus. Usually eaten during Chinese New Year, suan pan zi is one of few hawker foods that is of Hakka origin.
However, it has not received the mainstream acceptance of other starchy hawker foods like carrot cake or the heavily-franchised chwee kueh (steamed rice flour cakes with pickled turnip). It could be that this dish is not easily found outside home kitchens — there are probably no more than five places that sell suan pan zi in the city, not all located in hawker centres.
A good example of ‘abacus beads’ can be found at Shunfu Mart Food Centre. Mei Zhen Hakka Delicacies’ suan pan zi ($3.50/$5/$6) are resilient enough they yield to the teeth without sticking and are satisfyingly chewy. Crunchy black fungus strips provide contrasting textures and dried mushroom slices and dried shrimps supply an umami kick to complete the experience.
It’s the texture of the abacus beads that separates the wheat from the chaff: these individual dumplings need to be slightly bouncy, not sticky and definitely not overly chewy. Good dumplings require special handmade dough made of steamed mashed yam that is kneaded painstakingly with rice flour and water to form enough gluten to give the dough its trademark bite. Precise portions of each ingredient are integral to attaining this pleasing texture. If that sounds like a lot of work just for one dish, it is. And Mei Zhen uses this dough for more than just abacus dumplings.
The Lakeview area stall also serves a mean soon kueh (steamed half-moon shaped dumplings generally filled with turnips, carrots and black fungus) that utilises this dough. Although soon kueh isn’t Hakka in origin, the thinly-rolled yam dough makes excellent skin. The snack is stuffed with the same clean bites of savoury turnip and black fungus that you find in other good soon kuehs but the skin is chewier. The end product is a soon kueh unlike any other I’ve ever eaten. I highly recommend you to try it at least once.
These small eats represent an oft-ignored portion of our Singaporean culinary heritage, and it’s hard to fathom why; these dishes can more than hold their own against other starchy breakfast favourites with their clean simple flavours that hearken back to cleaner simpler times. If you’re in the area one morning and you’re keen to try something different, try this.
Mei Zhen Hakka Delicacies | Address: #02-26 Shunfu Mart Food Centre, Blk 320 Shunfu Road | Tel: 97932189 | Opening hours: Wed–Sun 7.30am–2pm