Monday, August 10, 2015

Too hot out: pass the cold watermelon soup, please

When we enjoy watermelon in the States, it usually is as a cold slice on a hot day. Once in a while we might get real fancy and cut it up into a fruit salad or some Jello, or even toss it into a smoothie, but that’s about as far as we go.

In China, though, watermelon takes on all sorts of interesting guises. Some are strangely delicious, such as Manchuria’s chicken soup with watermelon, but my favorite has to be this traditional summer cooler from the nation’s capital, Beijing.

The Chinese name basically means “watermelon cream” because the melon’s juice is thickened to the consistency of, well, cream. Nowadays most online and cookbook recipes - including one I published a long time ago - will call for mixing sweetened watermelon juice with gelatin, which of course gives you watermelon gelatin, and that does not really excite me. I wanted the same thing I’d enjoyed back in Taiwan at some of the more old-fashioned Beijing restaurants and tea shops.

My criteria for this recipe were four-fold: that the watermelon juice not be cooked, it couldn’t be too sweet and drown out the natural flavor of the melon, it had to feel creamy in the mouth and silky going down the throat, and it had to be thickened with something traditionally Chinese in order to get that all-important texture.

And so, I winged it. The results are fabulous.

Get yourself a really good melon to start with. It has to be full of flavor, or else you will just end up with bland soup. But a beautiful red one for the most visual punch, and be sure to opt for seedless unless you are a masochist and don’t mind spending a lovely summer day picking seeds out of your melon. If you’re not sure how good the melons are, ask for a sample and ask the grocer or farmer to pick out a really good one.
Secret weapon: water chestnut flour

My rules for selecting melons are to first pick it up – it should be heavy for its size, which tells you it’s full of juice. The stem end should have no stem attached, but rather have a small concave place where the stem used to be, which means that the melon was picked when it was ripe. Third, thump the melon with your fingertips: it should have a sharp ping echoing though it. A deep, dull sound tells you that the melon is overripe and sandy in texture, while a really high thump lets you know that there isn’t much juice in there.

In the end, buying a watermelon is a bit of a crapshoot while you’re still on a learning curve. But take heart: If you end up with a boring melon, you can always throw it into some Jello.

Cold watermelon soup
Xīguā lào 西瓜酪
About 10 cups

4 cups cool water, divided in half
½ cup Chinese pearl tapioca
1 piece rock sugar, about the size of an egg
½ teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons water chestnut flour
¼ cup cool water
6 cups pureed red, ripe, delicious watermelon
Osmanthus syrup or local honey to taste
Ice cubes, optional
Mint leaves, optional

1. Bring 2 cups water to a full boil in a large saucepan and stir in the tapioca with a balloon whisk. Lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook the tapioca, stirring frequently with the whisk, until the pearls are almost translucent. Add the sugar and salt. Stir in the other two cups of cool water to shock the tapioca, and then carefully bring the tapioca to a boil once again, stirring often to keep the pearls from clumping up and burning.

Tapioca, sugar, & flour slurry
2. Whirl the chestnut flour in a blender to break down all of the lumps. Pour in the ¼ cup water to create a thin slurry and stir that into the tapioca. Cook the tapioca over low heat until the liquid turns translucent once again. Remove the pan from the heat.

3. Stir the watermelon into the tapioca. Taste and adjust the seasoning with more sugar, if desired. Chill the soup for a couple of hours. Pour it into individual soup bowls and garnish with a swirl of osmanthus syrup or honey. Top each serving with an ice cube and a mint leaf on really hot days.


To puree the watermelon, cut it the flesh into chunks. Add about a cup of the chunks to your blender and start to blend on low while carefully pushing down on the chunks with a silicon spatula – you want to avoid the blades, so press lightly. Once this batch of watermelon has liquefied, add another cup of the melon and puree again. You then can add the rest.

If you have seeds in the melon despite your best efforts, puree the melon lightly so that you don’t pulverize the seeds and then strain the juice before using.

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