Who doesn't love mashed potatoes? Imagine biting into a deliciously smooth and savory bite of mashed potatoes. Now imagine that wonderfully creamy bite with a slight crunch! In China's southern Yunnan province, Nate and I encountered these tasty tater tot-like fried mashed potato balls (傣味香辣土豆球, dai wei xiang la tu dou qiu). The insides are mashed potato-soft and the outside is just the right amount of crunch. It's a dish made by the Dai minority who largely populate the picturesque Xishuangbanna territory of Yunnan that borders Myanmar (Burma) in the South of China. The Dai peoples have a lot of similarities to the Thai and their fantastic Southeast Asian cuisine is largely unknown and under-appreciated in the world. Some of their other fantastic dishes can be found in our book, including Dai Pineapple Rice, and Grilled Banana Leaf Fish. These are dishes that are really rewarding to make because they are ones you can't find elsewhere and leave your guests asking for the recipe every time.
The trick to getting these tater balls to come out perfectly is to first heat the potato dough in a pan until it clumps and then let the dough chill in the refrigerator until it's cold. If you skip this step, you run the risk of the balls falling apart while you're frying them.
Now that you have the perfect mashed potato ball, it's time to make the delicious dipping sauce. The main ingredient is Asian fish sauce (you can buy fish sauce at any Asian market and most specialty grocery stores). Fish sauce is a thin amber-colored liquid made by fermenting fish with salt and it smells like you would think fermented fish smells--bad. However, when fish sauce is combined with other ingredients, the smell goes away and it enhances the flavors of the other ingredients much like MSG does. When I'm cooking, I like to add a dash of it to things like spaghetti bolognaise sauce or soups to give them an added richness and an umami flavor.
The simple, yet exotic jungle flavors in this dish with just the right amount of spice are something that I crave on a hot summer day . . . or a cold day that I wish was a hot summer day!
Potato Balls with Spicy Chinese Dipping Sauce Recipe
MAKES ABOUT 40 BALLS
6 fresh small red chiles, seeded and thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup sugar
Juice of 1 lime
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup Asian fish sauce
1 1/2 pounds baking potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon salt
Oil, for deep-frying
1. To make the dipping sauce, combine the chiles, garlic, sugar, lime juice, water, and Asian fish sauce in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature.
2. Place the potatoes in a saucepan and add enough water to cover them. Bring to a boil and cook for 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are cooked through and fork-tender. Drain the potatoes well and place them in a large mixing bowl. Use a potato masher to mash the potatoes until smooth. Slowly stir in the butter, water, flour, egg, and salt and mix until smooth.
3. Heat up the potato mixture in a large saucepan or wok over medium heat. Stir constantly for about 3 minutes or until the dough begins to clump, and then remove from the heat and let cool in the refridgerator until cold. Grease your hands with a little oil and form a tablespoon of the potato dough into a ball. Repeat with the remaining potato dough.
4. Heat 2 inches of oil in a wok over medium heat until a small piece of potato dough turns golden brown in 30 seconds. Fry about 10 of the balls for about 2 minutes, or until they are golden brown and crispy. Make sure to turn the balls over while cooking so that they brown on all sides. Use a wire strainer to transfer the balls to paper towels to drain. Repeat with the remaining balls. Serve the piping-hot potato balls with a side of the dipping sauce.