But this simple fruit has been transformed by some sublimely talented chefs in the northern province of Shandong into a truly remarkable treat: the hollowed out pears are stuffed with fruits, nuts, and sometimes even the lacy white jelly fungus called "snow ear" (xue'er). These are then seasoned with sugar and steamed until the flesh becomes meltingly soft.
|A perfect dessert in its own right|
Even today, unadorned fruit is considered a healthy and delicious ending for just about any dinner. But special occasions warrant special dispensations, and that is the time that chefs work their magic on fruits and nuts and sugar and flour.
|Lemon zest adds, well, zest|
Inside the pears is some of that lacy white jelly fungus. There really is no equivalent in the West. It doesn't have a taste of its own, but it is beloved in China for its slightly gelatinous texture, a mouth feel that gently slides over the tongue. It is there to set off the crunch of the northern and southern apricot kernels, the slight tartness of the goqi berries, the gentle sweetness of the jujubes (Chinese dates), and the aroma of the pear that acts as the most wonderful cup imaginable.
|Lacy white "snow ear"|
While I certainly enjoy the simple rock sugar syrup that is usually called for here, I have played around with it a bit and found that ginger warms up the flavors and adds just the right hint of spice. Boiling the sugar and honey down into a caramel deepens the flavors and provides a suggestion of bitterness that makes the sweetness sparkle. And when all of the ingredients have been sprinkled into the pears, I add a spoonful of Korean jujube jam, which is sweet and fruity and melds perfectly with its companions.
This dish can be made ahead of time and refrigerated. Then, all you have to do is steam the pears again until they are heated through. Nothing else is needed except for some good tea. It is a light, delicious, and welcome end to even the most complicated banquet, and the fact that few people have ever tasted it outside of China makes this even more of a delight.
Sweet stuffed Asian pears
Babao liguan 八寶黎罐
|Ready for stuffing|
2 heads white jelly fungus (xue'er; see Tips)
2 cups filtered water
¼ cup rock sugar
2 tablespoons flavorful honey
½ teaspoon sea salt
3 slices ginger
8 crisp, yellow skinned Asian pears, preferably yali pears (see Tips)
4 pitted jujubes (Chinese dates)
3 tablespoons or more goqi berries
3 tablespoons or more northern apricot kernels (see Tips)
|Stuffed for the steamer|
8 tablespoons or more Korean jujube jam (see Tips)
1. Peel the lemon with a zester, or use a potato peeler to trim off only the yellow zest before slicing it into very thin julienne. Cut the lemon in half; squeeze one half into a bowl with about 4 cups of water, and reserve the other half.
2. Rinse the white fungus and place it in a heatproof bowl. Cover it with hot water for about 5 minutes to soften it, and then trim away the hard, yellowish base. Break apart the fungus into little petals.
3. Bring the water to a boil and add the rock sugar, honey, salt, and plumped up white fungus to the water, as well as the zest and the juice from the reserved half lemon. Reduce the heat and simmer until the sauce begins to thicken. Strain out the white jelly fungus and zest into a heatproof bowl and discard the ginger. Rapidly boil down the syrup until it bubbles furiously, and then turn it into caramel by continuing to heat it to a golden brown -- watch it carefully, as it goes from syrup to caramel very quickly, and you don't want it to burn. Pour the caramel over the fungus.
5. Drain the pear cups and place them right-side up on a rimmed heatproof plate that fits easily into your steamer. Divide the jujubes, goqi berries, and apricot kernels among the pears, pour in the caramelized white fungus and syrup, and top with the jam. The stuffing should almost come to the top of each pear; if not, add a bit more of the dried fruit, almond kernels, and jam. Place the plate in the steamer and steam the pears over medium heat for an hour, adding more water to the steamer as needed. Cool the pears to room temperature and then set them into small heatproof bowls. Drain the liquid in the plate into a saucepan and reduce it over high heat until thick; pour this into the pears.
6. About 15 minutes before serving, steam the pears again over medium heat until they are heated through. Serve them on small saucers in their individual cups with small spoons.
White jelly fungus has a much prettier name in Chinese: xue'er 雪耳 or "snow ear." Just like their cousins, wood ear mushrooms, these grow on dead wood as ear-like protuberances, hence the Chinese name. Buy large ones that are not too white, as this usually means they have been bleached. Chinese herbal shops often have the best offerings, as they are fresh, heavy for their size, and in large heads, rather than crumbles. Soak the heads in hot water until soft, and then cut away the brownish centers. Then, break the heads into smallish petals.
Toast has never been a big deal in East Asia, so it might come as a bit of a shock to find that jujubes, or Chinese dates, are popular ingredients for jam. But North China and Korea like to mix this jam -- as well as marmalade -- into boiling water to form a fragrant sweet tea, much like the Russians do. In fact, this might be where they got the idea! Jujube jam can be found in larger Chinese markets, as well as Korean stores. A good substitute is apricot or plum jam.