Monday, July 6, 2015

Beat the heat with this luxurious chilled soup

Hainan gets short shrift as a cuisine, even in China. And I agree, this is not as an extensive a cuisine as that of its big brother to the west, Guangdong. 

However, this tropical island perched off of the southernmost coast of China near Viet Nam is home to some delicious dishes that - like the foods of Guangxi and Guizhou on China's southern border - blur the lines between Chinese and Southeast Asian cuisine. Called Qióng cài 瓊菜, the signature of this cuisine that just about everyone has heard of, if not tasted, is Hainan Chicken, which is so popular in Singapore that it is pretty close to the national dish.

The fishing grounds around Hainan have traditionally been the source of much of this island's cuisine, and it has become especially famous among local cognoscenti for its crustacean dishes. Salt and Pepper Shrimp, Shrimp Steamed with Garlic, Hainan Shrimp Balls, and Steamed Lobster all are perfectly delicious and have that tropical character characteristic of this relatively unknown province.

The titles of some of its dishes can harbor something even more delectable than the first image that pops into your mind. Take, for example, Four Treasure Hainan Bean Curd. There's actually no bean curd in there, as it is a delicate custard created out of egg whites, coconut milk, and stock. The smooth texture of this delicate creation is studded with tiny fresh shrimp, crab roe, and bits of fresh calamari for the most comforting approach possible to seafood.

The easy ingredients
But it's that coconut milk that characterizes Hainan the most, as far as I'm concerned. And nothing else - other than the lovely pandan leaves that scent many of its sweets - provides such a sensual link between the tastes of China and Viet Nam.

Coconut milk is a big deal here because this is China's very own Hawai'i. Coconut palms cover the island and are used in a plethora of savory and sweet dishes. My own favorite for countless years has been Sweet Coconut Tapioca Soup. If you are not a fan of tapioca, I completely understand. In my book, tapioca puddings were things to be dreaded as a child, sickly sweet and of questionable solidity, almost as bad as instant pudding but somehow even scarier.

Chinese tapioca is different. Often labeled as "sago" since the main ingredient in tapioca comes from the sago palm, Chinese and Southeast Asian tapiocas are perfectly round pearls that keep their lovely shape as they swell, and they therefore retain their chewy texture rather than leaking it out into their surroundings. (And a quick note here for all the Chinese-language students out there: the Chinese name for tapioca - ximi - actually is short for Xīgòng mǐ 西貢米, or Saigon rice, showing that this did indeed make its way into China via Viet Nam.)

One of the most refreshing tapioca recipes has to be this one. It is just perfect for this time of year when the weather is hot and the melons are truly ripe and fragrant. You can use any type of melon you like, or you could even use a mixture of them (green honeydew, orange cantaloupe, red and yellow watermelon, for example) to make this a riot of color.

Melon matchsticks
My own twist on this is that in addition to the coconut milk, I add a dash of coconut rum to really give the flavor an extra jolt. Since there is only ¼ cup of rum to 10 cups of soup, that works out to, um, let me calculate that... just a little bit per bowl. However, if you want, you can omit the rum and serve it the traditional way.

Chill the soup for a couple of hours before serving, and thin it out with some ice water if it seems too thick. There's plenty here for seconds and leftovers, which is the way I like it!

Sweet coconut tapioca soup 
Yēzhī xīmǐ lù  椰汁西米露
Makes about 10 cups soup

3 cups water, divided
1 cup Chinese tiny tapioca pearls (ximi, or sago)
½ cup sugar (rock, white, sugar substitute, or agave nectar to taste)
1 cup ice water
1 (19 ounce) can good quality coconut milk
3 cups melon cut into matchsticks (see note below), or a 2½-pound slice of melon
¼ cup coconut rum, optional
More ice water, as needed
Ice cubes and mint sprigs, optional

1. Bring 2 cups water to a boil in a 3-quart saucepan. Stir in the tapioca pearls, and keep on stirring until the water comes to a boil again. Lower the heat to medium-low and simmer the tapioca, stirring occasionally, until the tapioca has swelled and the mixture is very thick. Add the remaining 1 cup water to the tapioca, which will "shock" the pearls and turn them translucent with little white centers. Bring the pot to a boil again then remove from the heat.

2. Stir the sugar into the tapioca until the sugar has melted. Add the cup of ice water to further shock the tapioca and loosen up the pearls, and then stir in the coconut milk, melon matchsticks, and rum, if desired. 

Those tapioca pearls
3. Pour the soup into a covered container and chill for a few hours before serving. If the soup is too thick, thin it by stirring in some iced water until the desired consistency is achieved. On really hot days, float an ice cube or two in the soup, garnish with some mint, and get ready to feel refreshed.

Note: To slice the melon into matchsticks, cut the melon into wedges about an inch wide on the outer (rind) edge. Trim off the rind and then slice the melon wedge into long sheets about an eighth of an inch thick. Finally, cut widthwise across the the sheets to form matchsticks that are more or less an inch long and an eighth of an inch on the other two sides.

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