Monday, November 23, 2015

Longan tea with fresh ginger

Winter in Chinese cooking calls for warm things, and that is what today’s recipe is all about. Whenever we get the chills or feel like a cold is coming on, or even if we just want to warm up our toes, I make a pot of Longan Tea. 

This is the traditional Chinese way of using food as homemade medicine – chicken soup is Mom's penicillin the world over, it seems. Today's recipe is like that, but also much simpler and very, very tasty. Both the fruit and the ginger in this recipe are considered warming and good for the blood, and so new mothers are encouraged to enjoy bowls of it and other nutritious meals during their month of recovery. This wonderful custom is called "a month of sitting" (zuòyuèzi 坐月子) because folks like her mother, mother-in-law, aunties, and other female relatives are supposed to wait on her hand and foot.

The fleshy & aromatic fresh fruit
The main ingredient in this recipe is the dried fruit known as longan, which is sort of a corruption of the Cantonese name for this fruit, lung4 ngaan5 眼. In Mandarin, it’s called lóngyăn, which literally means “dragon eyes.” (Why don’t we have such cool names for our fruit in English?) In North China, this tropical fruit has traditionally only been available dried, and there they are sold as guìyuán 桂圓.

Longans are sold fresh at the end of summer and mark the end of the lychee season. They look a bit like lychees (or litchis) in that they have a white flesh, hard brown pit, a thin leathery shell, grow in clusters, and come from the tropics. But the flavor, texture, and moisture content are completely different. While lychees are really fleshy, juicy, and have a light, almost sparkling juice, longans have a thinner, drier flesh that is deeply perfumed.


Fresh longans
Unlike lychees, longans are almost always sold dried, and they are beloved throughout most of China. In a way they are much like raisins or dried prunes, as their rich flavor is used to season many dishes. They are especially popular in winter sweets, like this sweet soup and such other cold-weather delights as Twelfth Month Congee.

I adore this dried fruit, and when I can find packages of this year's freshly dried longans, I snack on them as is or mixed with other dried fruits, like wolfberries, raisins, and so forth. I sometimes even add walnuts or almonds to lend a bit of crunch. Think of this as Chinese trail mix.

Fresh lychees
You can find pitted longans in the dried fruit aisle of most Chinese supermarkets, as well as at herbal medicine and dry goods stores. Look for bags with plump brown balls that are as soft as raisins when you press them. Older ones will be hard - and that's okay for recipes like today's - but make sure that there's no insect damage or droppings by checking out the detritus at the bottom of the bag. Store these in a closed jar in the pantry, or even freeze the bag if you want to keep them for a longer time. I've also seen these compressed into little squares when they have been processed in Southeast Asia - these are perfectly fine, especially after they've been allowed to plump up in some hot water.

The mercury around here has finally decided to drop a bit, so I've pulled out my jar of dried longans from last year. They are a bit dry and shriveled, but again, since they're going to be popped into boiling water, their condition at this point doesn't matter a whole lot. 

This kind of thin, simple soup is called a "tea" in Chinese, and you actually can enjoy it as such by straining out the solids. But I'm a sucker for those plump fruits and so always serve this steaming hot in small soup bowls, either at breakfast or as a midnight snack. Adjust the amount of ginger and sugar in here to suit your palate. The following recipe is my personal favorite, but tinker with it to make it your own. For new moms I'd add some dried red dates to up the nutritional factor even more. 


Longan tea with fresh ginger
Lóngyǎn jiāng chá 龍眼薑茶 or guìyuán jiāng chá 桂圓薑茶
All over China
Makes around 8 servings

1 cup (or so) dried pitted and peeled longans
8 cups water
1 tablespoon finely shredded peeled ginger
Brown sugar, agave syrup, or honey to taste, optional

Ginger and dried longans
1. Rinse the longans in a sieve and place them in a medium saucepan. Cover them with the water and bring it to a full boil. 

2. Reduce the heat to low, add the ginger, and slowly simmer the longans for about 30 minutes. Taste and add some sweetener, if you like. Serve this hot, although you can store it in the fridge for a couple of days before serving - as with almost all soups, it tastes even better that way.

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