Sunday, November 21, 2010

Yin yang sweet sesame soup

A bunch of old friends came over last night for dinner, and as I was in the midst of my love affair with Jiangsu cuisine, there was no doubt about where the recipes would come from, only which of the thousands of recipes would be on the menu. 

I did know for certain that Yin Yang Sweet Sesame Soup would be served, as it's a showstopper, and it's also perfect for cold weather, something we've been having lots of lately.

This is a soup unlike anything you've probably ever tried because it's thick and creamy, slightly sweet, smooth as silk, and deliciously redolent of roasted sesame. And if that and the impossibly beautiful design aren't enough to convince you, how about this: it's super easy!

Yes, there are a lot of steps to this, but that is mainly to make each part of the recipe clear. Read it through a couple of times and you will see how deceptively simple this really is.

Northern and eastern China possess a nice selection of creamy sweet soups made out of an assortment of nuts or seeds, thickened with toasted rice, and sweetened with a light hand. Served for breakfast, they warm the toes and ready the soul for a day at the office. In the afternoon, they wake you up and make you - if not deliriously happy to go back - at least energized enough to resume work. And after a huge dinner, the soup as a dessert trickles down and nestles in between the food in your stomach, providing a last bit of heat to help the digestion. Or so is my belief.

The Chinese name for this is Taiji hu, because taiji is the name for this type of yin-yang pattern, and hu is a thick, sweet soup. One thing you should always notice - and this is a detail that even some Chinese folks get wrong - is the direction of the paisleys: they should go in a counter-clockwise direction, as in the Buddhist swastikas (卍, pronounced wan) that adorn temples and decorate things like tiles and often appear as fretwork.

But I've gone off on a tangent. 

Here, have some soup.


Yin yang sweet sesame soup
Yinyang hu  陰陽糊 
Jiangsu
Serves 12 or more

1/2 cup raw sticky (or glutinous or sweet) rice
3/4 cup raw white sesame seeds (see note below)
3/4 cup raw black sesame seeds
3 egg-sized pieces of rock sugar, or white sugar to taste
8 cups filtered water
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in 1/4 cup filtered water
1/4 cup cream or half-and-half
1. You can start this recipe up to three days ahead of time, as the two soups can be cooked and then rest in the refrigerator up to the last minute. 

2. Everything needs to be toasted first, so get out your wok but don't add any oil. The rice and sesame seeds will all need to be dry-fried separately and will need three small dry bowls to hold them. 

3. Heat up a wok over medium-high heat until a drop of water immediate evaporates with a sizzle as soon as it hits the pan. Dry-fry the rice by putting the unwashed, uncooked rice in the wok (again, no oil should be added), and then stir the rice while it cooks. As soon as it turns an opaque white and then a light gold, remove the rice to one of the bowls.

4. Do the same thing next with the white sesame seeds, cooking them until they start to pop, smell delicious, and are a light gold, and then removing them to another bowl. Finally, dry-fry the black sesame seeds in the same way until they start to pop and smell good, and place them in the third bowl.

5. If you're using rock sugar (and you should, since it doesn't leave a sour aftertaste), boil 2 cups of the water and dissolve the sugar in it. If not dissolve about 1/4 cup of sugar in 2 cups of boiling water; you can add more sugar to taste later on. Prepare two 1-quart, heatproof, covered containers.

6. Place half of the toasted rice and all of the white sesame seeds in a blender with 3 cups of the water. Blend on high speed until you're left with a thin, silky batter. Pour the batter into a quart saucepan and stir it over medium-high heat until it starts to bubble and thicken.

7. Add half of the sugar water, 1/8 teaspoon salt, and half of the cornstarch slurry to the white sesame soup, continue to stir it over the medium-high heat until it bubbles around the edge, and then lower the heat to medium and stir the soup until it turns glossy and there's no taste of cornstarch left; add all of the cream and pour the soup into one of the containers. Taste again and add more sugar if desired. Cool to room temperature, cover, and refrigerate.

9. Repeat this step with the black sesame seeds, using the rest of the sugar water, salt, and cornstarch slurry; don't add any cream to the black sesame soup, though, as it will turn the soup a disappointing gray.

10. While the soup is chilling, select a 1- to 2-quart serving bowl (use the larger size, of course, if you're serving more than 6 people); it needs to have fairly straight sides, as it will be hard to fit the mold in later on if the sides are sloped. Tear off about a foot of heavy foil and fold it up twice width-wise so that you have a firm 3-inch wide strip of foil. Look at the picture at the top of this post and make a reverse S shape with the foil, folding it and cutting it as needed so that it fits pretty snugly into the top 3 inches of your serving bowl. 

11. Before you make your final serving preparations, place a small bowl and soup spoon on the dining table for each of your guests so that you can serve them later on. Go into the kitchen and close the door so that you can keep your secrets, well, secret.

12. Heat each soup up separately on the stove or in the microwave. They will be thick, so take care that they don't boil over or scorch. Put a ladle in each container and place them next to your serving bowl. Ladle in a bit of each soup in the bottom third of the bowl; it doesn't matter if they run together at this point, and no one will see them. 

13. Hold the S form in the bowl with one hand and start gently ladling in white sesame soup on one side and black sesame soup on the other. Alternate this on each side so that the levels remain equal and the soup isn't tempted to run around. When you reach about an inch from the top of the bowl, smoothly pull the S form out; the soups will stay magically in place because they are of equal thickness. Place about a tablespoon of the white soup in the thickest part of the black paisley and a tablespoon of the black soup in the thickest part of the white paisley, and smooth out each dot into a nice little circle. 

14. Gently carry the soup to the dining table with as much flourish as you can muster. Allow your guests to admire your handiwork, take photos, pose with with the soup, etc., before you serve them. 


Note: Quality sesame seeds are really important here. Taste them, if you can, before you buy them, as old sesame seeds will carry their stale flavor over into the soup. Also, cheap seeds will often have bits of gravel or sand in them, so spend a little more and buy either a good Japanese brand or the best that your health food has to offer. If you can only buy them already toasted, that's all right. Just toast them lightly again to bring out their flavor, but keep a close eye on them so that they don't burn.




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