Monday, August 6, 2012

Beijing's watermelon soup

Hello all, back again to posting after a long hiatus while I was writing up and illustrating what I hope will be some interesting stuff for the upcoming Lucky Peach issue on Chinatown!

Today (and the next post's) topic is just perfect for these dog days of summer: watermelon. 

Now, you might assume that when you finish connecting the dots between Chinese cuisine and watermelon, you are going to find yourself either in the tropical south or the deserts in the far west. But after looking at all of my tattered old cookbooks from China, I've come to realize that while watermelon is enjoyed all over the country -- and Xinjiang really does produce some great melons and grapes -- the watermelon is beloved as an ingredient in one place and one place only: the far north.

I know, bizarre. But today's recipe for a slightly thickened and chilled watermelon soup has elegance written all over it, with its gentle sprinkle of dried osmanthus flowers and a dollop of syrup made from those same blossoms adding a depth and fragrance to the mix. It has refined simplicity that is the hallmark of some of the palace's best desserts, so I wouldn't be surprised if it in fact had is origins in the imperial kitchens.

Round and ripe
Traditionally, the watermelon is juiced before being cooked with agar and some water to slightly thicken the mixture, with a bit of sugar to heighten the flavor. But I've found that this is truly excellent if the watermelon is left raw and only enough sugar is added to make the melon flavor pop. Of course, you can cook it, if you prefer.

Nowadays, when excellent varieties of watermelon are available seedless, making this dish is even easier. And if you have a blender, then this dish can be put together with very little effort indeed. (I got a ten-pound melon for this picture on the right, and it had enough flesh and juice to make about double this recipe. )

The only relatively unusual ingredients are the dried blossoms and the osmanthus syrup. As I've noted elsewhere, you can usually buy dried osmanthus in Chinese herbal shops (and in some good Chinese tea stores), while the syrup will be on the shelves of a well-stocked Chinese grocery store. In case you can't find these, don't worry, as the soup will still be terrific; just add a tiny bit of salt to cut the sweet edge.

Fit for an empress
If you are feeling particularly creative, you could make this into a Yin Yang Soup, using red and yellow watermelons instead of the hot nutty soups of winter; just be sure to chill the soups well so that they are thick enough to hold their shape without bleeding into the other color.

Chilled watermelon soup 
Xigua lao 西瓜烙 
Makes about 7 cups and serves 6 to 8

2 packets (5 tablespoons) gelatin or powdered agar
2 to 4 tablespoons sugar
1 cup boiling filtered water
5 to 6 pound ripe seedless watermelon of any color, chilled
2 tablespoons osmanthus syrup (guihua jiang), or a bit of sea salt to taste
Dried osmanthus flowers for garnish, optional
Chill the soup

1. Mix the gelatin and 2 tablespoons sugar together in an 8-cup heatproof bowl. (Mixing them helps cut down on the gelatin lumping when it hits hot water.) Pour in the boiling water and immediately stir the gelatin with a small whisk until both the sugar and gelatin are completely dissolved. 

2. Wash the melon and pat dry. Cut it open and scoop out enough of the flesh into a blender to make 6 cups of loose watermelon puree. Pour the puree into the bowl, add the syrup or salt, and stir thoroughly. Taste and add more sugar, if needed. Cover the bowl and chill; stir the soup occasionally with a whisk as it chills to keep the soup smooth.

3. To serve, ladle the soup into individual bowls and sprinkle with the dried osmanthus flowers.

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