The mountain yam is a
superfood superhero food. Hear me out. Like Clark Kent, the mountain yam goes by many names. Dioscorea opposita is Latin but it’s also known in Chinese circles as shan yao (“mountain medicine”) or in Japanese foodiedom, as nagaimo (“long yam”). Oblong with hairy skin, these “awkward parsnips” are much more than meets the eye. For one, the mountain yam was pegged by the granddaddy of Chinese herbalists Zhang Zhong-Jing more than 1,800 years ago, as the cure-all herb for “all states of deficiency”. It has the medicinal properties of strengthening the digestive system, stopping diarrhea, lowering blood sugar, moistening the body and boosting kidney energy, among other things – and it’s also a very common food. And a delicious one at that.
I picked up my fresh yam at the local Asian market, and when I got home, promptly regretted just buying one. It’s common knowledge in Chinese Herb World that soups are the best way to reap the medicinal benefits. But just like a tomato soup needs a good grilled cheese sandwich sidekick, I felt my mountain yam soup needed an addition, something with a little more crunch and substance. Upon further research, I decided to try my hand at making a simplified version of the Japanese pancake, the okonomiyaki, of which the mountain yam is a key ingredient.
Making soup AND pancakes meant that I needed to split my single yam in two. To boost up my soup, I headed to the Herby Kitchen dispensary (aka pantry) and pulled out a bag of dried mountain yam slices, a souvenir from my last foray into my mother’s kitchen. Pharmaceutically, dried mountain yam is the traditional ingredient in making soup tonics, but it’s common in the kitchen as well. Soak the dried mountain yam for at least half an hour before cooking. If you’re in a rush for time, boil the dried pieces for 10 minutes to hasten the soaking process.
Eating-wise, I’m no stranger to the mountain yam. Mild-flavored with just a touch of sweetness, the texture is similar to a potato, but less starchy. Cooking-wise, however, this was my first time handling mountain yams, and boy, did I learn something new. See those dappled spots of white in the slices above? Those are cross-sections of channels that run through the yam and produce “goo”.
Goji berries are naturals in soup, and not just because of their pretty color. Sweet in taste and neutral in their therapeutic temperature, these bursts of flavor give a boost to the blood and strengthen tired eyes.
For a soup, pork spare ribs are a natural pairing with mountain yams. Therapeutically, pork has a neutral temperature, which means that it’s neither hot or cold. This makes it an ideal ingredient for a gentle soup that doesn’t force the body in one direction or the other, but instead, nourishes tired bodies and weak immune systems. Like mountain yams, pork boosts the kidneys, the digestive organs and moistens away dryness.
Mountain yams are mucilaginous, which means they become slimy when cut. Therapeutically, this is a wonderful quality for those who eat mountain yams to soothe the mucous membranes and linings of their respiratory passages and stomach. But even those who prefer not to talk about bodily fluids and food (sorry), the slime factor really isn’t that bad. In soups, the gooeyness dissipates, and when grated (like it is above) and fried like a pancake, the frothy goo takes on the properties of a binding agent, ensuring a light, latke-like texture.
For the pancakes, I diced up thick-sliced bacon from Morscher’s, our local butcher shop. Along with a splash of green, chives also offer a boost of warmth and that helps circulate energy through the body. For cold days when bones and joints feel a little achey, add chives to your diet for a warming pick-me-up.
Chicken noodle soup may be a go-to staple on a sick day, but I’d choose this pork rib and mountain yam soup any day of the week. Here, the dried mountain yam has soaked in the fluids and expanded.
At the end of the day, not having enough fresh yam to go around was a good thing. While they’re similar in flavor, the textures showcase a world of difference. Fresh mountain yam yields in the mouth and dissolves with a creamy finish. Dried mountain yam, while softened by the soup, has a pleasant, almost crunchy bite.
In the cooking whirlwind that took place in the kitchen, I forgot to take a photo of the pancakes being fried. These golden beauties were the result. Nubbly bits of bacon stud these mountain yam pancakes and add just enough smokiness to the tender crumb. As we scooped up our bowls and bit into our pancakes, husband and I agreed that this was a duo we’d make again.
Mountain Yam Soup with Pork Spare Ribs
Makes four servings, or two very hearty bowls
1-1.5 lb pork spare ribs
1/2 stick fresh mountain yam*
1/2 cup dried mountain yam slices*
2 tablespoons goji berries, optional
5 slices ginger
8 cups water
salt to taste
2 stalks green onions
- Soak the dried mountain yam slices in water for two hours ahead of time. If you don’t have the time to wait, boil the slices in hot water for 10 minutes. This will speed up the soaking process.
- Fill a medium-sized pot with water and set it to boil. You will be blanching your spareribs in this.
- Wearing gloves, peel the fresh mountain yam. It will get slimy. Slice the root into half-moon chunks, about 1/2 inch thick.
- Prepare the spare ribs. Cut between each bone so that they are in separate pieces. When the water has boiled, blanch the ribs for 2-3 minutes, until the blood and other impurities foam up to the surface. Take the ribs out and rinse off.
- In a large soup pot, combine the ribs, dried mountain yam slices, goji berries, ginger and water. Bring to a boil, then lower to medium heat for 30 minutes.
- After 30 minutes, add the fresh mountain yam chunks, then continue to simmer for another 30 minutes to an hour, checking the water level as you go.
- Add salt to season. Spoon out into bowls.
- Cut the green onions into 1/8 inch thick slices and sprinkle as a garnish on top.
*If you don’t have dried version mountain yam slices, use one full stick of fresh mountain yam. Or alternatively, use one cup of dried mountain yam to substitute for the fresh root.
Mountain Yam Pancakes with Bacon and Chives
Makes four pancakes
Adapted from Serious Eats
3 strips bacon, diced
1 1/2 cups fresh mountain yam (roughly 1/2 a stick)
3 stalks chives (or spring onions), chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
- In a cast iron skillet or non-stick pan, brown the diced bacon over medium heat. Render the fat until the bacon becomes slightly crisp, then remove the bacon, saving the fat in the pan.
- Wearing gloves, peel the fresh mountain yam. Using a micro-plane or grater, finely grate the peeled yam into a bowl.
- Whisk the egg into the yam and add the bacon, chopped chives and salt.
- Heat the frying pan, using the fat from the bacon. Drop the batter by the spoonful, creating a small pancake about 3 inches in diameter. Fry the pancakes on both sides until crisp, about 40 seconds on each side.
- Serve it alongside the mountain yam soup, or make a dipping sauce with sesame oil and soy sauce.