Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Chilled sour plum infusion with osmanthus blossoms

My first glass of Chilled Sour Plum Infusion, or suanmei tang, came my way on a ridiculously hot, sultry late summer afternoon in Taipei, the kind of day that the Chinese call qiu laohu, or autumn tiger.

It was so hot out that even the cicadas had forgotten how to trill, and for some stupid reason I was walking down the street and finding it increasingly difficult to breathe and keep my eyes open at the same time.

The sidewalks were practically vibrating in the heat, and even the normally bustling downtown street corners were empty of all but the bravest hawkers. I desperately needed somewhere dark and cool to hide and something dark and cool to drink.

Passing by a sweets shop, I noticed someone downing a big glass of reddish liquid with absolute relish, the beads of condensation mingling with the sweat on his hands. Ah, I thought, that is exactly what I need.

Mr. Yao using an old style scale
I swung the door open and was greeted by a blast of cold air and shouts of welcome. My red face, bedraggled look, and soggy clothes must have been more than a bit scary, because as soon as a stepped inside, a wide-eyed shop girl said, "Help yourself" and pointed to a refrigerated case on the other side of the shop, which was crammed with icy homemade foods and drinks.

Sticking my head as far into the refrigerator as physically possible, I asked, "What's this?" and held up a sealed plastic glass of whatever the other person had been enjoying. "Suanmei tang," said the shop girl, adding, "It's our own secret recipe."

I thought, "Sour plums? Those insanely puckery boluses? In a drink? Yuck." But then was not the time to be picky. So I summoned up my few remaining synapses and forged ahead with my line of questioning: "Is it really, really tart?" "No, it's sweet, but it's made with sour plums. It's really, really good." "Ring her up, then," I mumbled, as I handed over a few coins and prepared for my first foray into the strange-sounding but persuasively cold and wet beverage.

Whacking a straw into the plastic cover, I sucked down a mouthful and swallowed before even tasting it, scared to even let it hit my taste buds. I was just too thirsty and hot. But halfway through the glass the flavors started to filter up through my nose and echo down my throat. Oh yes, she was right... it was good. It was better than good -- it was amazing, refreshing, and crazily delicious!

Plums, hawthorn, licorice & jamaica
Icy cold without any ice cubes to dilute the complex flavors, there were scents of fruit and flower in the darkly amber liquid along with an underlying taste of something woody. Sweet and salty and sour, it was unlike anything I had ever tasted. Completely sophisticated and amazingly refreshing. And boy, was it addictive.

I drank a second glass a bit more slowly, lingering over the perfume that filled my mouth and nose with each sip and finally started to feel ever-so-slightly human again.

Hm, a secret recipe, I thought. Why is there always a secret recipe involved?

I definitely tasted licorice root, and knew for a fact that sour plums were involved, so I wandered a few storefronts down to a herbalist's shop that also was very thoughtfully air conditioned and asked the guy in charge if I could get the makings for suanmei tang. "Of course!" he said cheerfully, and wrapped up a bunch of deliriously scented herbs that he graciously identified. He even told me how much sugar and water to use. Not much of a secret after all, I'm afraid...

So sour you don't want to eat as is. Honest.
Almost any good Chinese supermarket will have the fixings for this traditional Beijing-style drink and will even have it prepared as a concentrate in a bottle, but your best bet is always a herbalist shop where the ingredients are at their best. The plums, hawthorn fruits, licorice root, and osmanthus blossoms will all be wonderfully fresh and aromatic that way, but you can usually only find the osmanthus blossom syrup in busy Chinese supermarkets. 

If you can find an unsprayed sweet osmanthus (Osmanthus fragrans, which some people refer to as "sweet olive") bush in your area, it's not at all hard to collect the blossoms in autumn when they bloom and then add them to a thick sugar syrup to create your very own guihua jiang.

The following recipe makes a concentrate that is easy to store in the refrigerator for a few days during the hot summer months. 

Chilled sour plum infusion with osmanthus blossoms 
Guihua suanmei tang 桂花酸梅湯 
Makes 4 cups infusion

3 or 4 sour dried black plums (suanmei)
Small handful sliced dried hawthorn fruits (shanzha pian)
Small handful sliced dried licorice root (gancao)
Small handful dried jamaica flowers (luoshenhua), optional
4 cups filtered water
2 hunks of rock sugar (the size of walnuts), or to taste; or, use agave syrup to taste 
Sliced hawthorn, also sour
2 tablespoons dried osmanthus blossoms (guihua) plus ¼ teaspoon sea salt, or 2 tablespoons osmanthus blossom syrup (guihua jiang)

1. Place the plums, hawthorn fruits, licorice root, and optional jamaica flowers in a sieve and rinse them well under running water. Shake them dry and place them in a 2-quart saucepan. Pour 4 cups filtered water over the dry ingredients and let them soak for at least an hour to plump them up.

2. Bring the pot to a full boil, and then lower the heat to a gentle simmer for about 1 hour. Add the rock sugar and optional salt, and simmer the infusion until the sugar melts; taste and add more if you want. Add either the osmanthus blossoms and salt or osmanthus syrup to the hot infusion so that the flavors can steep together, and then let the infusion come to room temperature.  

3. Chill it overnight to allow the flavors to develop. Strain and add enough ice water to make 4 cups, or to taste. Serve icy cold without any ice.


I'm incredibly proprietary and proud of this recipe because if you look around online, there aren't any good suanmei tang recipes in English or even in Chinese!

Jamaica and licorice

Once you get the basics down, feel free to improvise. Some people like cured Cantonese tangerine peel (chenpi) in here (get that at a Chinese herbalist's, too), and it's definitely delicious. But if you do that, take the jamaica flowers out. The reason is that each of these ingredients needs room to maneuver in the liquid, and if there are too many, they just jostle with each other and eventually cancel each other out to a large extent. At least, that's been my experience.

A Western but lovely twist is to use chilled carbonated water to top off the glasses at the end.

I keep on saying "without any ice." There's a reason for that: ice dilutes the drink. You don't want that here. At all. Trust me. Chill the heck out of the infusion, serve it in small glasses if the weather is sweltering, and keep the infusion at the ready in a thermos or a covered pitcher. There is a definite WOW factor to this drink that is impossible to describe. It's definitely not lemonade or ice tea. Once diluted, the magic just fizzles.

Dried and syrupy osmanthus
Use rock sugar and rock sugar only here, rather than white sugar. Regular sugar turns sour in the mouth, while rock sugar stays sweet. I don't know why. But it's night and day, really.

If you have a garden, and you live in a temperate climate, consider growing some Chinese plants like Osmanthus fragrans and Chinese jujubes (Chinese dates) and so forth. It's amazing the number of Chinese plants that can be grown here in California, for example. Check with your local garden center or university. Plus, you get the added delight of the divine scent of Osmanthus in full bloom, which the Chinese held as one of the most refined of all floral aromas. Smell it fresh and you'll understand.