I know what you must be thinking. No, this dessert is not a joke, and yes, its name actually resembles the seemingly mindless babble of an 18-month old. Don’t let that, or its unusual appearance for that matter, put you off reading the rest of this post. It doesn’t contain anything that you wouldn’t have already tried or come across in a Southeast Asian restaurant.
With Malay/Indonesian origins, Bubor Cha Cha actually deconstructs to refer to a thick broth or porridge (bubor) consisting of minced/chopped up ingredients (cha cha). Yam and sweet potato cubes are first steamed, then added to a coconut milk soup sweetened with palm sugar and fragranced with a pandan leaf. As is the case with the majority of dishes from Southeast Asia, there are many different variations on this dish – you’d come across some versions with pieces of dough made from tapioca starch and colored a neon pink, green or orange, other versions omit the dough and include banana slices, and yet others leave out the bananas but include the dough and tapioca pearls. The Filipino version, for instance, features jackfruit in addition to bananas and tapioca pearls.
The home-made Bubor Cha Cha I grew up with was a simple one, with just the root vegetables in a coconut broth. As a kid, the colored dough was a real curiosity, especially as I’d only encounter them at dessert stalls at the hawker center. I’d gladly finish up every ounce of tapioca pearls and dough, as well as the tasty coconut broth, leaving the sorry cubes of sweet potato and yam behind. I guess you could say I was a picky eater.
Unlike the Chinese dessert soups with their purported properties that bring the body’s ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ levels back in balance, Bubor Cha Cha is simply a dessert to be enjoyed, featuring the staple offerings indigenous to Southeast Asia. After visiting Peru, I’d imagine that this dish would fit right in with Andean cuisine too, given the abundance of potatoes and yam in the region.
To ‘demystify’ this dish for those of you who have yet to encounter it, I’ve kept this version simple. All the ingredients should be available at your local Asian grocery store, so if you’re feeling adventurous, or if you’re planning on a ‘ghoulish’-looking dish for Halloween, I’d highly recommend checking out tapioca pearls and purple yams for ‘dramatic effect’.
Bubor Cha Cha (adapted from Irene’s Peranakan Recipes)
Makes 10 to 12 servings
As a side note, Irene was my mother’s cousin and it was in fact her mother who taught my grandmother the various Peranakan dishes that I grew up with. It was surreal to discover that our family recipes were now in print, but as you can imagine, highly convenient for replicating my favorites from home. This particular dessert can be served hot or cold.
11 ounces/ 300 grams purple yam, peeled and chopped into ½-inch cubes
1lb/ 450 grams sweet potato, peeled and chopped into ½-inch cubes
¼ cup dried tapioca pearls
2 cups/ 450 ml fresh or frozen coconut milk
¼ cup/ 200 ml water
½ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 pandan leaf, shredded into thin strips and knotted together
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped palm sugar
Steam the yam and sweet potato cubes for about 30 minutes or until tender. Leave aside to cool.
Prepare the tapioca pearls. Submerge the pearls in a bowl of cold water for about 15 minutes. Drain and transfer them to a saucepan filled with water. Boil the pearls, stirring constantly, until the pearls turn translucent. Drain the pearls in a fine-mesh sieve and pour cold water through the sieve. This helps to break the pearls up and prevent clumps from forming. Set aside.
In a large pot, combine ¾ cup/200 ml of coconut milk with the water, then add the palm sugar, granulated sugar, salt and pandan leaf, and bring to a boil. Add the rest of the coconut milk, the sweet potatoes and yam, and the tapioca pearls.