Michelle, or Shel as everyone calls her, is a stunner. She’s the only one that got our Canadian father’s fair skin and hazel eyes. Unlike some of us Shel actually attended public school in Taiwan, which meant that her superior Chinese qualified her to be the tone correctional officer in our house. It might not seem like such a big deal to use the second tone instead of the third, but when incorrect usage can change a sentence from “I caught a cold” (wo-3rd gan-3rd mao-4th) to “I fucked a cat” (wo-3rd gan-4th mao-1st) you begin to see the benefits of having someone to double-check that you are raising, dipping and dropping your voice in all the right places.
In Taiwan a favorite activity for all of us siblings after a long day of school, work and what-have-you was to head down to the local night market for some entertainment. We spent hours trying to catch tiny turtles or goldfish with a quickly disintegrating “net” of tissue paper, popping colorful water balloons with darts— and of course enjoying the tasty street food. Sweet potato fries, dusted in a secret blend of spices were ridiculously addictive and Shel’s (if not everyone’s) favorite. The “secret blend” was likely a mix of 40% spices and 60% MSG, but whatever the ingredients were it was 100% epicurean crack.
These particular night market fry-stalls were set up with a dizzying array of par-cooked items neatly arranged in front. And a large oil-filled wok sizzling behind, waiting. We would grab a little plastic basket from where it was stacked on the side and begin to peruse the options— squid, chicken, fish cakes, tofu, mushrooms and vegetables— anxiously snapping our metal serving tongs together while we made up our minds. Some nights we’d buy a mix bag, adding a little calamari (cut into strips rather than rings), chicken, or maybe green beans. But we never skipped the sweet potatoes.
Replicating this dish is a challenge in part because I can’t be 100% sure what was in the secret spice blend, but mainly because I don’t want to use MSG. However, with high quality spices (buy them as fresh as you can; I get mine from The Spice & Tea Exchange in Georgetown), sweet potatoes, garlic and Thai basil this snack is pretty spectacular—even without the controversial flavor enhancer.
3 sweet potatoes (I use the Japanese or Korean variety)
4 cloves garlic
10 Thai basil leaves
1 tsp. fried shallots * see Cook’s Note
½ tsp. garlic powder
½ tsp. onion powder
1 tsp. white pepper
1 tsp. salt
- Cut the sweet potatoes into ½ inch thick fries.
- The trick to really great fries—crisp with a fluffy center—is to blanch them in 300°– 325° oil till just cooked through but not golden. If you’re using a deep pan rather than an actual fryer, stir occasionally to prevent the sugary fries from sinking to the bottom and browning.
- Remove with a spider (or your preferred straining device) onto paper towels. Thoroughly drain and set aside until you’re ready for the final step.
- For the seasoning, place 1 tsp. of fried shallots into a spice blender. Pulse to a fine powder. In a small bowl mix together the shallot (don’t stress getting every last bit out of the tiny blender), garlic powder, onion powder, white pepper & salt.
- Bring the oil back up, this time to 350°– 375°. Add the par-cooked fries taking care not to overcrowd the pan. Stir gently to ensure even cooking. 30 seconds before the fries are completely ready crush the garlic cloves, leaving the skins on, and toss them into the oil. Just before removing the garlic and fries throw in the basil. (Step back, this will cause the oil to splatter violently)
- Drain everything on paper towels. Remove the papery skins and mince the garlic. Dust generously with the spice blend, adding extra salt if needed. Toss and enjoy immediately.
Cooks Note: Fried shallots are common in Chinese cooking and are readily available at your local Asian grocery store. If you have and/or prefer to use shallot powder instead that would work too.