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Snow Frog: Trailing This Rare Delicacy

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Unusual Ingredients

Fall Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(3) page(s): 11 and 12

Frogs were mentioned as one of the many animal foods of ancient China. Much later, in the Qing Dynasty (1611 - 1911 CE), restaurants were famous for serving them; they were very popular. There is one particular frog, the snow frog, also known as the Chinese forest frog, the white frog, and the winter frog that is still a mystery to some while to others, they wonder if it really is a frog.

In several Chinese supermarkets, when trying to find a special part of this frog, and having the written characters in hand in case my pronunciation was not understood, the common response was: “Hasma, what is that; is it animal or a vegetable?” On one occasion, an elderly passer-by replied in Chinese then in flawless English, “That is a snow fungus, and you will find it in the freezer aisle.” It was a week-end day and the aisles were crowded. Several folk nearby stayed and listened as she replied to a query from someone in the crowd, “Can you describe it in detail to this American woman?” She did, and as I left that aisle, one middle-aged Chinese man came over and said, “Thank you for asking that Grandmother, I heard my own describe having eaten hasma and I never knew what she was talking about.”

Hasma is variously described as frog fat, frog eggs, frog roe, or the frog’s reproductive glands. This rare food is from a particular member of the frog family, not the common frog, though it is common in Jinlin and some northern regions. It is, as this very old lady described, “A frog that they catch close to winter usually before or during the first snow because it goes into hibernation after mid-autumn. Because they do, they need lots of nutrients, especially fats, to tide them through and prepare the females to lay lots of eggs.” She went on to advise that, “These white bellied frogs mate and have their fertilized eggs ready come spring.”

She told me and all in the gathering crowd that the Chinese like to catch the females, string then together through their mouths, and dry them for later use. When they have dried somewhat, she said that they skin them and peel off the fat surrounding their ovaries and oviducts. She also educated us all saying, “Some people call hasma frog fat, others call it frog ovaries, still others refer to it as frog cream or frog oil.” She continued, “All are wrong as hasma is moist, has many hormones, and a high lipid content, but really it is a combination of fat and part of the reproductive area.” And then she disappeared even before I or my supermarket classmates could say thanks.

I later learned that after partially drying the frogs, people remove this granular fatty substance and then prepare them for use or sale. I also learned that this is a difficult and time-consuming task going the way of many labor intensive processes. Today, they are gathered, frozen or dried, and sometimes dried and then frozen. They are available in this supermarket but more often at herbal vendors, and they cost a lot. Their price is hefty because they are in short supply.

After this exploratory experience, I called around to find people who had eaten them. Wanted someone or ones to advise me before I defrosted the packet I had purchased. I learned that the best ones, should you be lucky enough to have a choice, should look fatty, are glossy, have large sections, and look grainy with white membranes. If reddish brown, I was told not to buy them, but no one knew why except that someone else had mentioned that fact to them. They and others said that after purchasing, if frozen, to defrost them an hour or two in the refrigerator. If they are dry, then to soak them overnight in tepid water. After either of these, soak them again for an hour or two in fresh tepid water. They will expand quite a bit, sometimes ten or twenty times their volume.

Later I did find out about them in several books, often listed as snow jelly or winter frog. One of these had a recipe for fully rehydrated snow fat using nine ounces of what I assume was reconstituted dried hasma. One would need to be rather wealthy, as an eighth of an ounce in one herbal store cost twenty-five dollars. One gentleman I spoke to, who would rather go nameless, recalled eating them more than a dozen years ago in Taipei. He could not recall the name of the main dish, but did emphatically say they are the glands and not frog fat.

Helen Chen told me that she, too, had eaten them in Taipei. She said it was in a Hunanese restaurant and that they were served in a sweet soup at the end of a meal. The next day, I told that to Flushing’s Full Ho Seafood Restaurant owner, Mr. Chuang. He had his chef prepare them as a main course. At my query as to where to buy them, he offered to purchase some for me and did so going to his brother’s herb store around the corner.

The package in the supermarket was the same as those sold in the herb store. They were called: Genuine China Snow Jelly. The packet said: Vacuum packed for freshness. It was ice cold and labeled: Store in the freezer cabinet. This item listed but one ingredient: Rhireiel, and it cost eighteen dollars for but a few tablespoons worth of material. The weight was smudged so could not read it, but another package bought later, it said thirty-eight grams (not much more than a couple of small paper clips).

The Chinese believe that frog reduces internal heat, detoxifies, and eliminates water in the body. When they bake frogs and reduce them to ash, they use the ash externally to heal carbuncles. Fresh-cooked and eaten, they like them to correct weakness. They say that women should eat them after childbirth, but not before, because their offspring will develop allergies if consumed when pregnant. They also say that anyone with a red face and swollen neck should eat frog because they provide relief for these conditions.

Chinese cookbooks provide many recipes for whole frog, frog legs, frog in soups--which is considered excellent for convalescents, and frog in a plethora of other ways, all main dishes. Bruce Cost’s book, Asian Ingredients, speaks about the Chinese, particularly the Cantonese, eating large live bullfrogs, Rana catesbeiana. Other books tell stories about litigations over frogs or even a famous soup served during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE) made with taro root, bamboo shoots, and whole live frogs. One such tale speaks of these very frogs clutching the vegetables in agonizing postures.

Southern Chinese call frogs ‘chickens of the rice fields’ and some have been fooled into eating them because they were called 'quail meat.' People from Fujian and Chekiang and in central Yangtze regions adore frogs as do the Cantonese; and they have no need to call them anything but frogs, So do those in Sichuan known for frog cultivation. The same is true in Taiwan. Frogs are favorites for some and hated by others. One Chinese history book says that frogs are not the only food some folks detest. Other hated foods, all animal, are wild dogs, black oxen, goats with single horns, horse liver, and any meat a dog will not eat.

A lot is known about frogs, but little known about this frog snow fungus that I bought. What is it? Yes, the woman in the supermarket was right, hasma is from the snow frog and it is the reproductive gland of this forest frog. Specifically, it is the oviduct of Rana temporaria cheninensis, family Ranidae. So says the Atlas of the Chinese Materia Medica Pharmacopoeia of 1995. They show it dried and say it is good to replenish kidney essence, nourish yin, and moisten the lung. They suggest using it for “listlessness cardiac papitation, insomnia and night sweating in debility or in convalescence; hemoptysis in phthisis.” You do not have to read a materia medica to enjoy frog ovaries. Hasma is a rare treat, and a delicious one, too. Do have a dish with it. To enable that, here are three recipes with hasma. Two have long been a part of Chinese cookery, a third a newer rendition.
Red Dates and Hasma
1/2 Tablespoon defrosted and soaked hasma
1 slice fresh ginger
12 almonds, skins removed
4 pitted dried red dates
1 Tablespoon clear/white rock sugar
1. Soak hasma for two hours in fresh warm tap water, then drain and rinse well. If the pieces are large, cut them into smaller sections.
2. Bring two cups of cold water to the boil, add the hasma with the ginger and simmer for ten minutes, drain and set aside reserving the liquid.
3. Put the hasma, its soaking liquid, and all else but the sugar into a bowl with a tight fitting cover. Add two more cups of water and cover. Put in the steamer and steam over boiling water for two hours, then add the sugar, and steam another half hour.
Serve hot or warm
Stir-fried Snow Frog with Egg White
1 ounce defrosted and soaked hasma
2 cups chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon corn oil
5 egg whites
5 ounces water or non-fat milk
1 and 1/2 Tablespoons cornstarch
2 ounces crab meat, all cartilage removed
1 Tablespoon finely minced Smithfield ham or coriander
1. Soak hasma in two cups of warm water for an hour, rinse, drain, and discard the soaking liquid, and cut into smaller pieces.
2. Re-soak the hasma in the stock for an hour, then simmer together for half an hour, and drain. The stock can be reserved and used for other purposes.
3. Beat egg whites until almost stiff. Mix water or milk with the cornstarch then fold into egg whites, and finally gently fold in the crab meat and the hasma.
4. Heat oil and discard any that does not coat the pan, then fry the egg white mixture until it is the consistency of soft scrambled eggs.
5. Transfer this to a pre-warmed serving dish, garnish with ham or coriander, and serve.
Green and White Cold Soup
i ounce defrosted and soaked hasma
1 large ripe avocado
4 cups of two-percent milk
2 Tablespoons honey
1. Soak hasma in warm water for an hour, then refrigerate tightly covered, overnight. Drain and cut into small pieces.
2. Peel, discard the pit, and mash the avocado. Heat the honey for fifteen seconds in a microwave, then mix and refrigerate overnight.
3. Add drained hasma and serve.

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