A bowl of silky smooth congee brings out the crunchy crispness of youtiao. - Photos RAYMOND OOI/The Star
The youtiao revised – or how to drive the 'devil' out of 'oil fried devil'.
THE youtiao, a traditional breakfast food, is a common sight at morning markets.
In Cantonese, youtiao goes by the curious name of yau char kwai, or “oil fried devil”. Perhaps it’s because the long dough fritters look like the skeletal remains of human limbs.
It is also known as Chinese crullers, Chinese baguette/ficelle, fried breadsticks, fried twisted dough, and rope or chopstick cake. The Malays call it cakoi, and enjoy the saltish fried bread dipped into sweetened kopi O.
Youtiao is one of those things that most of us are never really motivated to learn how to make.
But it is part of our culinary heritage and we should all know how to make it.
Traditionally, youtiao is prepared using a cocktail of chemicals – something called alum, and ammonium bicarbonate – to give it its characteristic crust and airy texture.
Ammonia has an evil, pungent smell – perhaps it was from this that the devil in the name came about – and it is classified as a hazardous substance as it can affect you when breathed in, irritating the nose and respiratory system, and skin and eyes.
In the kitchen, it is used as a leavening agent to make dough rise and give it a crisp texture. Before the days of baking powder and baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), ammonium bicarbonate (baking ammonia) was used as a rising agent. The alkaline substance also occurs naturally in the body and it is gotten rid of through urination.
In small quantities, it is deemed harmless and the tiny amount needed to make youtiao is safe. (The FDA allows up to 3% in baked goods.) While it has been linked to cancer and flu treatment, it isn’t necessarily healthy, nor unhealthy.
And is alum safe for consumption? The alum used to give food a crunchy texture is potassium alum, and the type used in baking powder is sodium aluminium sulfate. While it is approved as a food additive by the FDA, it is toxic in large doses. Aluminium can cause the degeneration of the nervous system and lead to an increased risk of certain cancers and Alzheimer’s Disease.
It is always a good practice to reduce reliance on dodgy chemicals to improve food texture. So you may be motivated to make your own youtiao following the recipe here which uses baking powder and baking soda as rising agents.
“The air bubbles made by baking soda are smaller, but sufficient,” says culinary instructor and cookbook author Catherine Lau. “This recipe does make a crispy youtiao, but the crunch does not last as long as youtiao made using alum.”
And oh, there really is an old devil that lives in the cruller – two devils, in fact. Legend has it that the youtiao was created when a group of denizens who were venting their anger against a couple of traitors created dough effigies of them (made with nasty ingredients like alum and ammonium) and extracted social justice by frying them in hot oil. They just didn’t reckon on liking the taste so much.
Divine ways to enjoy
Oil Fried Devil
1. Dipped into thick soy milk
2. Dipped into Kopi O
3. Drizzled with condensed milk
4. Drizzled with mayonnaise
5. Drizzled with mayonnaise and ketchup/wasabi/chilli sauce
6. Spread with Kaya
7. Spread with Sambal
8. Topped with Sardine
Catherine Lau teaches at the Catherine Lau Culinary Centre in Subang Jaya. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tel. 016-221 5718.
Chinese crullers: Two recipes plus how to use them