Monday, December 21, 2015

Winter Solstice soup

Winter Solstice is finally here, the time when the nights are longest and the days shortest. Today (December 21) is the Winter Solstice according to our Western calendar, but the Chinese lunar calendar says that Dõngz 冬至 (literally, “winter is here,” which is a step up from the Stark clan’s motto of “winter is coming”) is tomorrow. Maybe that’s because China is, after all about half a world away or something.

In many ways, this is my favorite holiday of the year. I think it has to do with hope – hope that the days will soon grow longer, that the trees will start to explode with green shoots, and that the earth’s surface will begin to crumble as seeds sprout and the growing season gets underway.
Homemade rice pearls

And so, before our planet starts to tip the other way and welcome more of the sun’s rays, it’s time to celebrate the joys of winter. Chief among them in my book is hot, filling, nourishing foods. The Chinese do soups better than anyone else, I think. Part of the reason for my saying this is that sweet soups and cold soups are just as important throughout the culture as savory and hot ones.

Just about every Han Chinese cuisine has a deep weakness for sweet soups. And I cannot for the life of me figure out why this isn’t the case in every other great food tradition. Yes, we have our hot chocolate and coffee and milky teas, but no matter how good they are, they don’t have the body and variety and the wonderful textures of a gently sweet soup that soothes a chilled body and is just so satisfying.

Cut up the dough and then roll
In my family, this is the soup we come back to again and again whenever it’s cold out. It also contains those soft rice-paste balls called yuanzi in Chinese, something my husband starts clamoring for this time of year. That’s because Winter Solstice is almost always celebrated with these little pillows in Han Chinese cuisines, either plain like this or stuffed with a sweet nut or bean paste. (Here is a recipe from a Muslim part of China that is highly recommended, too.)

In the future I’ll show you how to make the stuffed ones, but right now with the holidays coming up, no one has time for something that fussy. Instead, I really want you to try this, so I’m making it absolutely as simple as possible. And, if the week really is getting out of hand, do know that you can go an even simpler route and simply buy a can of red bean paste (chunky, if at all possible), dilute it to taste with water, thicken it with a cornstarch slurry, and toss in some frozen rice balls. It’s been done before and it’s better than nothing.

Soak the beans until easily pierced
However, the following recipe is hundreds of times better. For one thing, the texture of the beans becomes really silky when they are soaked overnight and then cooked until they simply explode out of what seems like simple exhaustion.

I use a pressure cooker to speed things up, but a regular pan on the stove will work, too. Then, instead of regular sugar, I add some sweetened condensed milk, which adds another layer of satiny richness without making this soup too sweet.

Finally, rice balls get tossed in. These are easy to put together and kids love to make them, as it’s sort of like edible Play-Doh. So, seriously consider using child labor here and freeze the extra rice balls, as they store well.

Happy holidays!

Sweet red bean soup with rice pearls
Hóngdòu yuánzi tāng 紅豆圓子湯
North China
Makes around 2 quarts and serves 6 to 8 generously

Red bean soup:
1½ cups dried small red beans (like adzuki)
Here's your beans
Water, as needed
About ¼ to ½ cup sweetened condensed milk, store-bought or homemade

Rice pearls:
½ cup sticky rice flour (aka sweet rice flour or glutinous rice flour)
¼ cup cool water
2 cups boiling water

1. The night before you plan to make the soup, pick over the beans just in case some pebbles or detritus are hiding in there. Rinse the beans and then soak them in cool water for at least 8 hours by covering them with the water by a couple of inches so that they have room to expand. If they are fresh, the beans will be swollen in the morning and you will be able to pierce them with your fingernail.

2. Drain off the water and place the beans in either a pressure cooker or a regular quart pan. Cover the beans with fresh water by a couple of inches. If you’re using a pressure cooker, lock on the lid, bring the pan to a boil over high heat, and then lower the heat to maintain an even high pressure; cook the beans this way for about 30 minutes, or until they are very soft. If you are using a regular pan, bring the uncovered pan to a full boil before reducing the heat for a lively simmer, and then cook the beans until they too are extremely soft and broken, which will take at least an hour or two, depending upon the freshness and size of the beans, as well as the heat of your stove. (Accurate cooking times for dried beans are one of the hardest things to give with any confidence, so you will have to use your own judgment here. Sorry.)
Stir the water into the rice flour

3. Once the beans are done, check their texture: They need to be very creamy and soft for this recipe to work, so simmer them longer if need be. Also, adjust the thickness of the soup by adding more boiling water, if you like. I prefer this particular soup a bit on the thin side, which means that I end up with about 2 quarts soup, but there’s plenty of wiggle room here. Finally, stir in as much of the sweetened condensed milk as you like. (This soup can be made ahead of time up to this point and either refrigerated or frozen.)

Mix into a soft dough
4. To make the rice pearls, begin by placing the rice flour in a medium mixing bowl. Mix the water into the flour to form a soft dough. Place the dough on a smooth surface and knead it briefly. Roll the dough out into a long rope about ½-inch thick and then break off or cut the rope into around 36 pieces. Roll each piece into a small ball, and wet your hands as you shape them if the dough feels a bit dry or the balls look like they are cracking. (These can be made ahead of time and frozen; see Tips.)

5. Just before serving, bring the 2 cups water to a boil in a medium saucepan and then add the rice pearls in loose handfuls so that they do not stick together; stir after each addition to help separate the little balls. As soon as the water comes to a boil again and the pearls rise to the surface, drain off the water and add the pearls to the red bean soup. Serve immediately so that the rice pearls do not soften.


The rice pearls can be made ahead of time and frozen on a pan lined with plastic wrap. As soon as the rice pearls are hard, place them in a freezer bag and store for up to a couple of months. If the balls looked cracked or if the bag is full of ice crystals, discard and make a new batch.
Korean sticky rice flour
About the only things I’d caution you here is that, first, you get fresh beans from a busy store, as they cook much, much, much faster that way and will give you a marvelously silky texture, while old beans will remain old beans no matter what you do. Second, make sure your sticky rice flour is fresh, too, as there’s nothing in here than can cover a musty flavor. If the package is already opened, smell it and then take a tiny taste of the flour: It should have no aroma or taste other than that of rice. And third, use either homemade sweetened condensed milk or organic canned. There are so few ingredients in here that they all need to shine.

Stop! This is regular rice flour
Mochiko Sweet Rice Flour is by standby brand for the sticky rice flour, but others can be good, too. Korea and Thailand have some good ones, for example. 

Sometimes, though, the Thai brands can be hard to figure out. If you read Chinese, look for the characters nuòmǐ 糯米 (sticky rice) on the bag. If it says zhānmǐ 粘米, that is regular rice flour (like ground sushi rice) - don't use that here.


  1. Simple recipe that impressed my Chinese family and friends. Effort is just needed when making the rice pearl/rice dumplings. Who knew sweetened condensed milk and red beans could pair up so nicely. In the back of my head, I thought maybe I might need to add sugar to this recipe. It's just the right side of sweetness. Sugar is definitely not needed!