Friday, June 10, 2011

Suzhou's sweet date paste and pine nut tamales

Since we we're just on the subject of Chinese tamales (see this video on Zester Daily for a step-by-step guide), I thought it would be fun to look at another type from another area of China (the East rather than the South) with another flavor (sweet instead of savory) and another type of rice (glutinous rice rather than rice flour). 

And this is one that you have to try if you have even the tiniest sweet tooth in your head because it is downright delectable.

The ingredients for this inspired sweet snack are simple but balanced. The hot and moist glutinous rice not only encases the sensuous Chinese date filling and serves to balance its sweetness and deep flavors, but also absorbs some of its flavor and color so that you end up with a gorgeously hued pillow. Raw pine nuts lend a resiny counterpoint to all of these goings on and tease the tongue with their texture and exotic aroma. 

Jujubes on a tree near our home
Date paste, though, is what adds that ethereal perfume. This is a flavor of Suzhou, and it is used in a variety of pastries. Real date paste (look at the list of ingredients carefully) can be bought in cans, but if none is available, settle for sweetened red bean paste for the time being and swoop up some date paste later whenever you come upon it. Date paste can be homemade if you want, but it takes a bit of time and straining and frying and so forth. Don't get me wrong, it's totally worth the effort, but it is enough of a project to deserve a column of its own. 

My secret to an absolutely divine date paste is to combine plain old red Chinese dates (jujubes, or hongzao) with some smoky and very sour dried black plums (wumei) for that extra shimmer on the tongue. If you do find black plums - usually in a good Chinese herbalist - a small nibble will warn you they are so incredibly tart that you probably won't want to pop one into your mouth. I made that mistake once and my mouth felt like it was turning inside out. Ah well, one time for everything is my motto, or at least one of them.

Half ripened Chinese date
For the record, Chinese red dates are nothing like palm dates. These meaty little fruits grow on pretty deciduous bushes in temperate climates and taste like Granny Smith apples when they are just a pale green but still ripe enough to pick. As the skin turns from green to a mahogany, that familiar sweet flavor of Chinese dates takes over, and they can then be fully dried and stored like raisins. The absolute best variety I have tried is a smaller one called "chicken heart date" (jixin zao). These bushy trees are becoming a pretty common sight in the gardens of Asian families around here, so as with some of the other hard-to-get items like Chinese toon in a previous post, ask around and see if you can find sources near you. I've often been pleasantly surprised!

Be sure and use round glutinous rice for these tamales, as they provide it with the right texture. These are best if served hot, so give them a quick steaming just before you serve them. I like to eat them at afternoon tea rather than dessert because this really is like eating a bowl of rice - an admittedly very scrumptious bowl, but still a bowl's worth of rice. With nothing but a hot cup of tea to accompany your snack, this allows you to focus all of your attention on the seductive golden pillow sitting right in front of you.

Shanghai style food bondage
To eat them correctly, cut off or untie the string and then peel off most of the leaf so that the tamale sits daintily on top of the leaf (see that photo at the very top). Then, use your chopsticks (or a fork) to nip off bite-sized pieces. Chinese tea snacks should be slowly savored rather than gobbled, so do what I do and have one all alone before the guests arrive so that you can eat your second one with restraint and good manners.

I've tied them the way I've seen some Shanghainese tamales done - which does make a certain amount of sense, since Suzhou and Shanghai are pretty much neighbors in eastern Jiangsu province - with a decorative sort of bondage. Feel free to tie them any way you want, but be sure and use white string so that your rice isn't dyed a strange shade of turquoise or magenta. 

Double the recipe (highly recommended) and freeze any you aren't going to devour within a couple of days. They keep well in a Ziploc bag stored in the fridge and up to 3 months in the freezer. (Probably longer than that, but I've never waited long enough to know for sure.)
Date paste on top of the rice


Suzhou style sweet date paste and pine nut tamales
Sushi songzi zaoni zongzi  蘇式松子棗泥粽子
Jiangsu
Makes 16 tamales

1½ cups sweet round glutinous rice (Sho-chiku-bai brand recommended)
16 large dried bamboo leaves (zongye), plus a few extra just in case
2 tablespoons roasted sesame oil
1 cup date paste, canned or home made
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup untoasted shelled pine nuts
Lots of cotton kitchen string
Boiling water
1. Start this recipe at least a day before you want to serve the tamales. Pick over the rice for any foreign matter or stones, rinse it twice, and then soak the rice overnight with enough water to cover it by at least 2 inches. An hour or so before you want to start wrapping the tamales, drain the rice in a strainer over the sink and then clean and soak the bamboo leaves as directed in the previous recipe for Hakka tamales. Trim off the stem ends of the leaves and then cover the cleaned leaves with a moist towel.

Tamale & fave sake bottle
2. Heat the sesame oil in a wok over medium-high heat until it begins to smell fragrant, and then add the date paste, salt, and pine nuts. Stir-fry the date paste to remove any canned taste and to give it a nice creaminess, but be sure to keep on stirring it on the bottom so that it doesn't burn or overcook, and adjust the heat as necessary. As soon as the date paste is completely combined with the sesame oil and is gently bubbling, scrape it out into a small work bowl and let it cool down to room temperature. At that point, divide the date paste into 16 pieces and roll each one into a little ball.

3. If you have a slow stove, take a moment to set up about a gallon of water in a 2 gallon pot on your stove over high heat so that it has comes to a boil while you are busy wrapping the tamales. 

Cover the date paste with more rice
4. Fold a leaf as directed in the Hakka tamale recipe with the shiny side on the inside and a slight fold at the bottom to keep the rice from squirreling out. Use a Chinese soup spoon to place a scoop of the rice into the cone and place a date paste ball on top, as illustrated above. Scoop some more rice on top of the date paste so that it is completely covered. 

5. Now, here is the first secret to a great Chinese tamale that's made with rice: when you fold the leaf ends over the cone, allow about a half inch of slack in the fold (see the illustration below). In other words, don't fold the leaf ends over tightly. This will give the rice the chance to expand as it cooks and be light and fluffy. So, when you fold over the leaf ends onto the cone, shake the tamale a bit - you should hear a rattling noise, which means that you've wrapped it perfectly.

6. The second secret is that you again give the tamale a bit of slack as you tie it up. The way you do this is that you wrap the string around the tamale as gently as if you are tying a string around a baby's wrist. Make the string hold the leaves flat against the tamale and keep the tamale in its desired shape, but don't pull the string tight at any time. 

Notice the slack at the fold end
7. To wrap the string Shanghai style, loop the string lengthwise around the tamale a couple of times and then wrap it around the center in an even spiral (as shown in the illustration above). Tie the knot off and keep one string long so that you can tie 4 to 6 of the tamales together.

8. When all of the tamales have been filled and tied, lower them gently into the boiling water, cover the pot, and boil them for about 5 minutes to set their shape. Then, remove the cover, lower the heat to a simmer, and cook the tamales for about 90 minutes; add more boiling water if needed to completely submerge the tamales, and check them at 15 minute intervals just to make sure they don't need a bit more water.

9. Remove the tamales from the boiling water and drain. Eat them right away or cool down and store as suggested above.

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