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by Irving Beilin Chang

Fruits, Desserts, and Other Sweet Foods

Winter Volume: 2002 Issue: 9(4) page(s): 7 and 8

Osmanthus fragrans, according to R. Stiffler in his recent garden article in the Virginian-Pilot published on March 10th this year, is sometimes called 'false holly' or 'holly tree olive.' He says that a friend of his who is president of a large design company in Chesapeake has a hedge of this plant and that he often needs to prune it. If he did not, it would grow ten to fifteen feet tall.

When I was in Wuhan, China, I remember some plants that were more than twenty feet tall. Here in Virginia Beach, we have five of these as bushes around our house. I have been trimming them back to keep them from growing too tall. In this manner, when they bloom, they are the right height for me to pick the flowers, and pick them I certainly do as they bloom beautifully between December through March. Last spring, we had a good supply of these guihua blossoms, as they are called in Chinese, so I decided to use them to make some syrup. It came out very well. Below is a recipe for making it, and one then for using the syrup. I am sure you can develop others.

For those who do not have access to fresh osmanthus trees and their bounty, find samples of the flowers sold pre-prepared in large Chinese supermarkets or in Asian grocery stores. My cupboard has two such varieties. One is a three and a half ounce jar from Taiwan, it’s English name 'Cassia Jam.' It is a thick syrup which also contains some salt, probably to aid in its preservation. I do not find it too sweet. Another is in a bottle, with six ounces total contents, of the osmanthus flowers. They are suspended in an alcoholic solution. The flowers have both a slightly sweet and a slightly salty flavor. When tasting this, I note the alcohol content is not very high. This item is distributed by the Kam Kuo Corporation of New York City, a large supermarket there, and it is available in many cities. It’s container gives its English name as 'Sweetened Laurel Bloom.'

Before sharing the recipes, just want to tell you that the Chinese use the flowers, which they say are thought to be warm, and they use the fruits and the roots in herbal medicine. They often preserve the fruits in a brine similar to the way done for olives. Chinese Traditional Medicine (TCM) recommends the fruits for reducing gastric pain using them in a decoction. The flowers they use for toothache and amenorrhea, also as a decoction. In the same way, they use the roots to reduce symptoms of rheumatism. Chinese manufacturers large and small also use the flowers in cakes and candies, and for making teas and wines.

Your editor advises that a few times she used one of the TCM recipes, just because she liked its taste. Doing so she boils a handful of flowers with lychee fruit and some yellow sugar cubes. This sugar is not completely refined and it is found in Chinese markets as odd shaped cubes in plastic bags. As the TCM recipe dictates, she once consumed this mixture while drinking wine, as was recommended, but she prefers it without. She tells us that her source says it is recommended for a stomach ache.

She also tells us that in Hangzhou there are temples that have these evergreen trees in front of them; and that in the Palace Museum in Beijing there is a famous painting by Emperor Huizong of the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279 CE) which has a potted plant called ‘mountain osmanthus’ in its center that has very sparse leaves and only few branches. This one beautifully pruned tree has tiny pale flowers.

Also in the Chinese city of Hangzhou, she said there was and may still be a festival when people gather to celebrate and appreciate the osmanthus. At this gathering, many dishes using parts of this evergreen shrub can be tasted and people enjoy its aromatic leaves and flowers. Some are lucky enough to be given samples of osmanthus perfume, sold widely in China. At one such festival, tales were told about eating this guifruit and becoming immortal. One tale was illustrated with a carving of an immortal’s stomach as found on a rubbing of a tile from Sichuan. The story said that this tile was made during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 220 CE). It showed a bird-like animal with its belly filled with a toad and an osmanthus tree. I am sure that the tile is real because Chinese magazines have printed pictures of this rubbing. If all the tales are true, we know not.

Now to the recipes for guihua syrup that my wife Wonona and I developed from our many osmanthus flowers.
Osmanthus Syrup
2 cups dark corn syrup
2 ounces fresh osmanthus flowers, washed and drained
1. Pour the corn syrup into a heavy bottom quart or larger sauce pan and put the flowers in it. Bring to the boil and quickly reduce the heat and simmer them, stirring frequently, for fifteen minutes. Should the water from the flowers have diluted the syrup, you may need to simmer longer until the syrup is very thick.
2. Filter the syrup through a very fine mesh screen to remove all the flowers, then bottle hot or cold. This is excellent served with pancakes and similar foods.
Lotus Root with Osmanthus
1 cup sticky (sweet or glutinous) rice
2 sections fresh lotus root
1/4 cup homemade osmanthus syrup or purchased cassia jam
1 Tablespoons sugar
dash salt, optional
1. Soak rice in cold water for one hour.
2. Cut off ends of each section of the lotus root exposing the holes. Stuff the rice into the holes gently pushing it in, a chopstick works well, until it is completely stuffed. Do this from either end of each section.
3. Next, peel each section and cut them into quarter-inch slices. Put the slices in a deep plate and steam for one hour.
4. Take a small sauce pan and mix sugar and syrup and the salt, if using it, and one or two tablespoons of water and heat until the sugar is dissolved. Pour this over the lotus root slices and serve.
Lotus Root Soup with Osmanthus
1 section lotus root
1 piece silver tree-fungus
20 wolfberry seeds
1 Tablespoon osmanthus syrup (or cassia jam)
1 small piece Chinese white rock sugar (about one tablespoon)
2 Tablespoons rice wine
1. Peel and slice lotus root into very thin slices.
2. Soak silver tree-fungus in warm water for one hour. Cut away and hard edges or centers, and tear it into about eight pieces.
3. Blanch wolfberry seeds.
4. Bring six cups water to boil, then add all the ingredients and simmer for fifteen minutes, then serve.
Sweet Rice Dumplings
1 cups glutinous rice, soaked overnight in cold water
1/2 cup red bean paste
2 Tablespoons osmanthus syrup (or cassia jam)
16 to 24 bamboo leaves, simmered for half an hour
string to tie the dumplings
1. Mix bean paste and osmathus syrup and divide it into eight parts.
2. Bend a leaf about one-third of the way up and put one tablespoon rice in that hollow, then one of the bean paste parts, then another tablespoon of rice on top of that. Fold that leaf around the rice into a pyramid shape, then use another bamboo leaf in another direction around that. Until the knack is mastered, the use of three leaves per package helps, but those familiar with the technique only use two. Then tie with string. Continue until the eight angular shaped dumplings are made and tied.
3. Drop them into a large pot of boiling water, reduce the heat so that the water is kept just under the boiling point. Cook the dumplings for an hour, turn off the heat, and allow them to cool in the pot of water for another two hours. Then serve.

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