Lotus Seed Soup 莲子爽
My family loves 糖水 tung shuei dessert soups. Be it a bowl of 绿豆汤 green bean soup to relieve the heat when the weather gets too unbearably hot for comfort, or 番薯姜汤 sweet potatoes in ginger syrup to warm the constitution on the cooler days, my mother never failed to whip up something for us to enjoy all year round. It can be as simple boiling red beans or green beans in a sugary concoction, or something that requires more ingredients and hence more work, like Lok Mei Tung 六味汤, better known as Cheng Tng 清汤 in Singapore. One of my mother’s favorites is Lotus Seed Soup 莲子羹, or more accurately since it has its roots in Teochew cuisine, Noi Jee Suãn 莲子爽, with an accentuation of the nasal tone on the last word. Despite liking it so much, my mother doesn’t make it often, partially owing to the laborious traditional procedure of preparing it, and of course lotus seeds ain’t no cheap commodity to start with. I guess that’s why its slowly diappearing from our neighbourhood chinese dessert soup stalls as well. Nonetheless, once a while she prepared it, but we as kids didn’t appreciate it much. We prefer Tao Suãn 豆爽 mung bean soup instead, as it comes with 油条 youtiao aka dough fritters which is good for dunking into the sugary soup or simply on its own. So Noi Ji Suãn is more of a treat for my mother to pamper and reward herself!
The traditional method of cooking Noi Ji Suãn involves quite a few steps, many of which are abandoned and replaced with easier shortcuts. A portion of the sugar used for this dessert is meant to be caramelised, lending the starchy broth its unique amberish coloration, likening in Tao Suãn, and extended to savory dishes like 潮式卤水鸭 Teochew-styled Braised Duck as well where the caramel is used to brown the bird. Nowadays, Chinese brown sugar slabs (片糖) are used in place of the caramel for desserts while savory dishes are simply added with 酱油 dark soy sauce or 晒油 caramel sauce for the same purpose. However, what the caramel made in situ provides is not just color, but also a very slight hint of smoky flavour. But making caramel aint the easiest thing to do. As it is still primarily a dessert, any instance of burnt sugar which impacts even the slightest bitterness has to be discarded and the caramel remade. Not an easy feat if you ask me. Hence, I have no objections to the use of substitutes like chinese brown sugar or even some gula melaka or gula jawa. These alternatives, being essentially varieties of unrefined sugar, also impart their own sense of rawness and thus adding more flavour and dimension to the dessert.
In the past, dried lotus seeds come intact with their brown paper-like membranes, not unlike chestnuts, which have to be removed by scalding and sitting the seeds in very hot water. Thankfully, the lotus seeds available nowadays are already processed with their membranes removed, making them much easier to work with. Even then, the traditional way of handling lotus seeds is two-fold. After their membranes are removed, the lotus seeds are then first gently boiled until they soften slightly, afterwhich they are steamed. This supposedly preserves the flavours of the seeds better and allows them to retain their much-desired powdery texture, than just boiling them in syrup continually. This is of course a slight variation to how split mung beans are prepared for Tao Suãn. In the case of the latter, the mung beans are left to soak for a couple of hours, preferably overnight for the beans to soak up water and often before they are steamed. This method of preparation, albeit being easy and direct cannot be replicated for lotus seeds as water at room temperature has an uncanny effect on them, causing them to “seize up” mysteriously and become virtually heat impenetrable. Anyone who’s attempted to rinse lotus seeds with running tap water would know that the seeds henceafter, become fiendishly difficult to cook, remaining mostly frigid and stone-like for hours despite constant boiling. But boiling water has an entirely different effect on the lotus seeds. Throw in dried lotus seeds into a pot of boiling water and the torrid shock they receive causes them to yield and soften within 10 min, a drastic difference from the “cold water treatment” which makes the seeds stay hard for hours at ends. Even if the lotus seeds require rinsing, it needs to be done with very hot water very quickly over a colander or wire sieve before being thrown into a pot of boiling liquids. So no matter what you do, NEVER rinse the lotus seeds in tap water.
Lotus Seed Soup 莲子爽 (serves 4 -5)
200g dried lotus seeds
a bunch of pandan leaves, washed and tied into a knot
sugar as required for sweetness (preferably rock sugar)
2 tbsp brown sugar (optional. If used cut back on rock sugar
2-3 tbsp sweet potato starch with 2 tbsp water
(1) With dry hands, check each lotus seed and remove the developing sprout from within if any, by prying open the halves with a small knife.
(2) In a pot, add suffficient water to immerse the seeds completely and bring to a boil under high heat.
(3) While the water is still boiling hot, gently slide in the lotus seeds. Allow the water to return to a boil before setting to low heat and let the seeds sit lid on for 10 min or so.
(4) Check that the seeds have soften considerably. It should be easily compressed with the back of a spoon but not soft enough to be eaten yet.
(5) Transfer the seeds with soaking water to a large bowl.
(6) Using the same pot, add more water and bring to a boil again under high heat.
(7) Once the water is boiling again, add knotted pandan leaves.
(8a) If homemade caramelised sugar is used, then substitute a tbsp of rock sugar by weight with caster sugar in a deep saucepan and heat without stirring, allow the sugar to melt and subsequently caramelised. Once the sugar begins to yellow, take the saucepan off the flame, allowing residual heat to cook it further albeit more slowly thus allowing more control. Once the melted sugar develops a slight amber coloration, pour a bowl of water over the sugar and stir gently to dissolve. Be very careful as the sugar is very hot. Thus a deep saucepan to catch the splattering liquids is absolutely necessary. Check the taste of the brown syrup, it should NOT taste bitter, or otherwise the caramelisation needs to be redone.
(8b) If caramelisation of sugar is skipped, simply add brown sugar e.g. chinese brown sugar or palm sugar, sufficient to achieve the desired coloration. Usually 1-2 tbsp should be enough. Check the syrup for taste and add rock sugar to achieve the desired level of sweetness.
(9) Drain the lotus seeds from their soaking liquids and pour them into the pot of brown syrup. Return the contents to a boil before allowing the pot to simmer at low heat with lid on for another 10-20 min.
(10) Pick a lotus seed from the sweet broth and check for texture. It should have softened further and could be compressed easily with a finger. Some prefer lotus seeds to be completely mushy while others prefer more bite. So adjust the boil to your liking for texture.
(11) Stir sweet potato starch in water to form a slurry suspension and drizzle over pot while stirring constantly and watch as the soupy broth thickens slightly. Avoid stirring the pot too much from this point onwards.
(12) Serve immediately when hot.
As one can see, I’d chosen a mixture of old and new methods. I kept to the caramelisation process, even though it meant I only managed to obtain the “correct” caramelised sugar on the second try. I’d browned the caramel too much the first time round making the syrup slightly bitter. I’d thrown out the steaming method, which supposedly meant less nutritious seeds, but I guess I could spare with that teeny amount of nutrients for now.
Remember to remove the developing sprout from within the lotus seeds as they are bitter and would affect the taste of the dessert soup. However, do not discard them and they have terrific medicinal effects to relieve “heatiness from the heart”. Simply steep 2-5g of it in a cup of just boiled water for 5-10 min with lid on and the “lotus seed sprout tea” is ready for consumption. It’s probably not going to be very enjoyable given the bitterness it imparts, but as long as it is good for you!
I’m submitting this post to Aspiring Bakers #20: Asian dessert buffet! (June 2012) hosted by Moon of Food Playground. Truth be told, I found the instructions kinda bewildering that “no baked desserts” despite being an “Aspiring Bakers” event. Oh well, whatever that tastes good right? :)