Monday, September 3, 2018

Chilled tapioca pearl and strawberry tamales

Yes, I know. Chinese tamales are as to the Dragon Boat Festival as peppermint candies are to Christmas. But still, just as with those candies, we can – and should – be allowed to enjoy them whenever we want, holiday or not.

Today's sweet tamales are a divine treat for both the dog days of summer and the sweaty beginnings of autumn. 

This is a new and delightful Taiwanese spin on traditional Chinese tamales, which are almost invariably made with sticky rice. 

Instead, we use tiny pearl tapioca (which are different from Western tapioca, btw), and they gum up perfectly here to form bouncy little pillows that are insanely good when they are cold. While still hot, though, the tapioca is too soft and messy to even unwrap, so have patience for that brief chilling process, although I have been known (ahem) to sneak one or three while they are just slightly warm. I only have so much willpower.
Ready to wrap

Another twist is my very own: instead of red bean paste, I’ve used strawberry jam and toasted walnuts. I mean, I like sweet bean paste to a certain extent, but it can get rather monotonous, especially if you are a Chinese food junkie. 

But strawberry jam? It’s absolutely perfect here. That luscious fruitiness bordered with just an edge of tartness makes these refreshing on a hot day. Plus, the jam fools around with the tapioca as it cooks, winding its way into some of the centermost pearls and rendering them even lighter and gooier.

The other little lagniappe in here is toasted walnuts. I like my sweets to have as many interesting textures as possible, and walnuts really fit the bill. They ground the jam and turn this into a very sophisticated dessert or afternoon snack. And by toasting them I get rid of any resident tannins and make them both mellow and more deeply flavored.

Serve these up while the weather is still exhaustingly hot. 
Fluff-up pearl tapioca

Chilled tapioca pearl and strawberry tamales
Xīgŭmĭ căoméi bīngzòng 西谷米草莓冰粽
Makes 10 or so

1 cup | 200 g tiny tapioca pearls (the Chinese ones, not Western tapioca)
Cool water, as needed
10 dried bamboo leaves for wrapping
Very hot water, as needed
1 tablespoon neutral oil, like canola
2 teaspoons agave syrup or honey
10 tablespoons | 300 g strawberry jam
¼ cup | 25 g toasted walnuts, broken
Kitchen twine

1. Place the tapioca pearls in a medium work bowl and cover with cold tap water by about 1 inch | 2 cm. Let the tapioca soak until it swells up, about 20 minutes. Drain the tapioca well and toss with the oil and agave syrup or honey. Divide it into 10 portions.

Incipient deliciousness
2. While the tapioca is soaking, place the dried bamboo leaves in a large bowl and cover with very hot tap water. When they are soft and pliable, rinse and wipe them off, and then cut off the stem ends.

3. Have kitchen string ready, as well as a large steamer of any kind. (I usually use a kettle with a steamer insert.)

4. Working on one at a time, fold a leaf with the smooth dark side on the inside into a cone, as shown here. Be sure that you have that little fold on the bottom, since that is key to keeping the tapioca tucked away. 

5. Place half of a portion of the prepared tapioca in the bottom of the cone, add a tablespoon of the jam and a sprinkling of the walnuts, and then cover the filling with the rest of the tapioca. Fold the leaf over to enclose the tapioca and lightly wrap kitchen twine around the center. Be sure not to wrap these tightly, as the leaf will explode as the tapioca expands, and you will have a big mess on your hands. Repeat with the rest of the leaves, tapioca, and filling until you have 10 or so tamales. (Don’t worry if you have more or less than 10. They’ll still taste good.)

'Sago rice'
6. When the water under your steamer is boiling, place the tamales in there and reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Steam the tamales for around 30 minutes, checking and refilling the steamer with boiling water as needed. Remove the tamales, bring them to room temperature, and refrigerate in a plastic bag. To serve, simply unwrap and enjoy. 

Note for all the language nerds out there: Tapioca pearls are traditionally called Xīgòngmĭ 西貢米 (Saigon rice), but recently I've seen this being rendered as xīgŭmĭ 西谷米 (I'm guessing that's a transliteration of 'sago' rice). Either one is correct. 


  1. Any suggestions for alternatives to bamboo leaves? Do they impart flavor or are they holders? This otherwise sounds doable in Massachusetts! (Although I might go for red bean paste since I don’t get to eat it that often. How about bean paste and walnuts?)

    1. Good questions. Yes, they do scent the rice, and they also are the perfect containers for these tamales, since they are just the right size and they allow you to fold the tamales into the traditional little bundle shape. That being said, you could also use Mexican tamale wrappers, or even fresh corn husks, instead of bamboo leaves.

      If you don't live near a Chinese market, Amazon offers dried bamboo leaves, but they are of course much more expensive that way.

      Bean paste and walnuts would be terrific!