In Cantonese homes, red bean soup is one of the most popular desserts at the dining table. The ingredients are simple: red bean, water, sugar, and dried tangerine peel. Here are some little known facts about red bean soup -- this simple dessert was listed in the Chinese medical “bible”, Ben Cao Gang Mu (本草纲目), as a remedy to “cool” the body and to detoxify it. It is also described in the ancient manual as an aid to eliminating water retention and preventing constipation.
Since the ingredients for this dessert are simple, for best results, use the best grade possible for each ingredient. I would normally pick red bean from Hokkaido, Japan, and cane sugar directly from Guangzhou, China. But the most important ingredient would be the dried tangerine peel.
There are various grades of peel available, with prices ranging from a few dollars to thousands of dollars per 50 grams, depending on origin and age. Dried tangerine peel is much treasured because it is believed that the older it is, the better its taste and aroma. In fact, tangerine peel is much like wine -- with age its color turns a beautiful dark golden brown, and its scent becomes robust, earthy and aromatic. The Cantonese believe it possesses medicinal value, and most Chinese medical doctors would prescribe it as part of a medicinal concoction for cough as it releases excessive phlegm in the lungs, and also as a means to improve digestion.
|This dried tangerine peel is around 30 years old|
The Cantonese on the mainland and in Hong Kong use tangerine peel often in their cooking, be it in savory dishes or sweet desserts. An effect the tangerine peel has on a dish is to purge away unpleasant smells and the taste of game meat.
These days, aged tangerine peel can be worth its weight in gold. The best are from Xinhui, a province in Guangzhou, but their existence is precarious. The expanse of orchards producing them has dwindled from 140 000 acres before the Cultural Revolution to about 700 acres in the early 90s. However, in recent years, the burgeoning demand for this ingredient has again motivated farmers to increase the area of plantations to around 2 000 acres.
When buying dried tangerine peel, always be mindful of where it came from. The most prized are those harvested in Xinhui, however the ones most commonly found in the market are from Guangxi, which are less robust in taste and fragrance.
When the peel is first harvested, it is set to dry for about three years before it is taken to the market. When storing dried tangerine peels, do not place them in airtight containers; instead allow them to “breathe” in a dry and cool environment, so that fermentation could continue to age the peel. Once a while, the peel should be taken out for sunning to get rid of fungus and bacteria.
Red Bean Dessert Soup with Dried Tangerine Peel
Red bean 250 g, soaked 2 hours and drained
Water 3 liters, preferably mineral water
Dried tangerine peel 5 g, soaked 30 mins, scrape off white pith
Rock sugar ¼ cup
Cane sugar 4 tbsp
1. Boil red bean, water and rock sugar vigorously for one hour.
2. Scoop ¾ of the red bean and push through a fine sieve. Discard all bean skin and lumps. Return the sieved bean to the pot and simmer for one hour.
3. Add dried tangerine peel and continue to simmer for another hour. The tangerine peel will start to disintegrate into the soup.
4. Add cane sugar and stir well.
5. Serve while it is hot.
Note: Groundnuts or lotus seeds are often added into this dessert for extra bite.