Handpicked special ingredients putup the price but ensure top quality
May 11, 2018
Dessert is the perfect end to a perfect meal, but the happiness created by eggs, sugar and butter can bring guilt, especially in the summer which officially began last weekend.
Some Chinese desserts are known for being low-fat and worry-free, like sweet potato soup, papaya with white fungus and almond tofu. Cooked without butter, eggs or cream, the soup-style desserts also contain less sugar and boast health benefits.
Some traditional Chinese ingredients like peach gum or honey locust seeds have become more popular especially among women. They may sound and look peculiar, but the unique taste, texture and health benefits have won the hearts of many people, and you can find them in many Chinese restaurants.
Peach gum, or taojiao, is an ingredient secreted from the bark of peach trees. It’s also known as “tears of peach blossom” in China because of their amber crystal-like appearance.
The peach gum, sold as a dried product, has irregular shapes and sizes as well as different color tones and clarity.
It’s considered neutral in traditional Chinese medicine with properties including harmonizing the spleen and stomach, tonifying and activating the blood as well as alleviating pain. Also rich in collagen, the nourishing peach gum is considered a beauty regime by women in China.
The peach gum has minimal flavors by itself other than a hint of woody taste, so it’s always cooked with other ingredients. It’s eaten for the health benefits as well as the interesting jelly-like texture.
For beginners, peach gum is not an easy ingredient to deal with. In order for the dried drops to regain moisture, they need to be soaked in cold water for at least 12 hours, then all the impurities carefully removed from the softened gum. Together with other ingredients, peach gum needs to be stewed on a low heat for more than an hour to achieve the ideal taste.
A classic recipe is a stew of peach gum, white fungus and jujube. Both the peach gum and white fungus can thicken the soup, and the jujube adds the sweet and fruity flavors. The white fungus is a cheaper and more eco-friendly replacement of the traditional luxury ingredients like Chinese forest frog or bird’s nest.
Peach gum can also be stewed in milk with dried jujube and longan for a creamier and richer taste.
The price of peach gum varies greatly from 35 yuan (US$5.5) to more than 100 yuan per 250 grams depending on quality.
The ingredient itself is not expensive, but the manpower required to handpick it from the trees is significant, so the increased demand from the market in the recent years has motivated profit-driven sellers to use industrially processed peach gum, which can be harmful to the body.
The lower quality and processed peach gum has very irregular shapes and darker color while containing more impurities. When soaked, they won’t expand well. While the high-quality wild peach gum is more transparent, has good shapes and less impurities, the size grows greatly when soaked.
Though peach gum is a healthy ingredient from nature, one should consume it in moderation, and pregnant women should avoid this delicacy.
The karaya gum produced by the trees of the Sterculia genus is a new plant ingredient used in desserts in China. The gum is known as xueyan in Chinese, which translates into snow swallow because of its bird’s nest-like appearance.
The karaya gum is similar to peach gum that the dried gum drops expand greatly in size after being soaked in water. The difference between the two is that the peach gum is secreted by the bark, while the karaya gum is from the secretion of the pith.
With minimal taste, the karaya gum is cooked in the similar way as peach gum as well. It’s more expensive though, as natural gum costs more than 200 yuan per 500 grams.
The honey locust seeds are a special ingredient hailed from the high mountains in Yunnan and Guizhou provinces. It’s semi-transparent and has a jelly-like texture.
The seeds harvested from the wild-grown honey locust trees are quite expensive, as 500 grams of the dried product often sells for around 100 yuan. Workers need to climb the trees to harvest the seed pods, then handpick the seeds and peel off the hard shell with a knife one by one. The fresh seeds are sun-dried.
There are two types of honey locust seeds, those from the single pods, mostly produced in Yunnan, and those from the double pods, which is more common in Guizhou.
When cooked, the honey locust seeds would puff up and become sticky because of the soluble dietary fiber they contain. So if you are a fan of stickier congee, adding a little amount of honey locust seeds can help to thicken the consistency.
Before cooking honey locust seeds, the dried seeds should be soaked in water overnight. It’s commonly added in congee with rice (or glutinous rice), beans and peanuts, or stewed with peach gum, white fungus and jujube. Pressure cookers and non-stick pots are preferred when cooking the seeds.
Though the honey locust seed is rich in fiber, it’s actually high in carbohydrates and low in both protein and fat, and it doesn’t have the beauty benefits that many sellers advertise.
The lotus seeds and dried lily bulb are two all-time classic ingredients in Chinese desserts. Boasting certain health benefits such as calming the spirit, nourishing the heart and tonifying the spleen and kidney, they are also very affordable and easy to cook.
Dried lotus seeds are sold with or without the green germ in the middle, the germ is bitter in property and taste, and often brewed as tea to decrease internal heat and calm the mind.
The white lotus seeds have a slightly sweet smell and taste plus a bean-like texture. The dried seeds are soaked in water for a few hours before they are cooked in congee or white fungus soup. It’s one of the eight ingredients in labazhou, the rice porridge eaten during the Laba Festival (the eight day of the 12th lunar month).
Lotus seed paste is a popular filling for mooncakes and Chinese pastries. It’s made by grounding boiled lotus seeds into a paste and stir-frying with sugar and oil until the moisture is gone.
The lily bulb is another Chinese ingredient with medicinal properties. The small thin flakes are the edible part of the lily plant which provides protein, calcium and vitamins. It’s often eaten to relieve coughing, a dry throat and clear heat.
Both fresh and dried lily bulbs are used in Chinese cooking. The fresh lily bulbs are often stir-fried with celery and the dried bulbs stewed in congees or sweet soups.
A simple recipe for the summer is stewing the dried lily bulbs with mung beans and rock sugar. The soup can be served hot or chilled, and can even be frozen into popsicles.
It’s important to use both the lotus seeds and lily bulbs in moderation.