February 24th, 2013. Home-food and glutinous rice balls.
Feast. Glutinous rice balls (湯圓, tāng yuán). White asparagus. Steamed striped bass with glue berries. Starfruit. Sugar apple.
My arrival in Taiwan was right after Chinese New Year’s. The traditions of New Years dictates that glutinous rice balls are to be consumed during the Lantern Festival (元宵節, yuán xiāo jié), which marks the official end of the 15 days of New Years celebration (and the subsequent beginning of the new lunar month). The 15th is usually the day when this occurs; the moon is full, Chinese folk hang up their lanterns, eat glutinous rice balls, play cards, and generally just kick back. The glutinous rice balls are consumed as a metaphorical symbol for “family union” and/or “newfound togetherness.” The theme was particularly fitting, since I hadn’t seen my (extended) family for quite some time. Knowing the history of such a practice surely brought more meaning to the consumption of these delicious morsels, although I have to say, if it involved food, I was probably there.
My first glutinous rice ball encounter occurred when my mother and I took an afternoon trip to a Nei Hu specialty shop to check out their various glutinous rice ball offerings. Right outside the shop, there were workers preparing fresh rice balls; I inconspicuously took a video of them, since the preparation methods were very peculiar to me.
So, when one thinks of a ball of glutinous rice and the fact that it has a filling, several deductions can be made.
1. The filling should be equal on all “sides,” since it is a sphere. 2. The filling shouldn’t fall out. 3. There should be a good filling to wrapper ratio.
The simplest explanation for how these things were made, in my mind, was wrapping a thick glutinous rice wrapping around a filling. Sounds simple enough, right? But two problems arise.
1. One would achieve an uneven looking sort of ball, as folding a wrapper over a filling usually results in something like a potsticker. Even a well formed dumpling (bottom to top) is not a perfect sphere. 2. Good luck finding a glutinous rice wrapper that actually forms a sheet and is pliable. Glutinous rice powder does not come in sheets. Only post-heating does it turn gooey and translucent, by then, it will have taken whatever shape it was previously in.
After shooting the video of the man making it in front of the store, it became apparent to me that the development of the ball had to start from the filling. If glutinous rice was attached evenly to all sides, and g-rice was essentially a dry powder, then the formation of a g-rice ball could be akin to forming a snowball. To me, that means an even amount of glutinous rice had to stick itself to the filling, over and over again, until a consistent sphere was formed. Therefore, since the powder was dry, adhesive would present itself as anything that contained moisture. So in all essentially, g-rice balls were formed by having:
A. Filling (and it’s natural moisture).
D. Repeat B & C until desired/appropriate thickness.
In summary, glutinous rice powder is tossed first with spheres of filling. Water is occasionally sprinkled in to create an adhesive between glutinous rice molecules, and the process continues until a sizeable sphere has been achieved.
Anyway…the various flavors they had at this nifty shop included black sesame paste (the friggin’ best), red bean, green bean, and random combinations of ginger, herbs, peanuts, and sugar. Movin’ on.
Apparently fresh white asparagus in Taiwan is fairly common. I’ve ever only seen canned white asparagus in the States, so technically, its flavors are “preserved” on some sort of basis. Something about “canned” just makes the whole experience go flaccid, since you lose the crunch and crispness of fresh white asparagus.
Traditional steamed fish is “clean steamed” (清烝, qīng zhēng, double boiled), set aside to rest, and then flavored with hot-scallion and ginger-infused oil (fresh scallion and ginger pan fried in some oil, then poured over the fish). In this case, my mother prepared this beautiful striped bass with exactly that method, with a dash of soy sauce and “glue berries,” which sort of reminded me of capers in brine.
Starfruit is fairly obvious, once cut. If left whole, the fruit sort of looks like a big ol’ piece of origami. It’s got a high oxalic acid content despite the fact that the fruit itself contains a large amount of beneficial compounds. According to this article, there is a high pesticide count on starfruit, which makes me wonder how safe it is to consume on a frequent basis. The starfruit business in Taiwan hit rock bottom when there were reported cases of kidney failure, which may be related to the high oxalic acid content; frequent instances of kidney failure were usually correlated with increased consumption of carambola, which is essentially, isolated starfruit juice. The same phenomenon may not occur with the ingestion of the whole fruit- fiber and all.
On a more positive note in the same article, Chen Chia-hsin, a resident starfruit farmer in Taiwan, claims that his starfruit is perhaps some of the safest to consume, as he employs “net house farming” with the use of paper bag covers to ward off insects, thereby eliminating the need for pesticides. Furthermore, the “controlled environment” allows him to grow the crop year round instead of just autumn and winter.
The last piece of fruit is technically called a sugar apple, but the way it ripens, tastes, and smells reminds me of a sugary, less astringent, Hawaiian pineapple. Letting it sit around ripens the fruit by ethylene gas (so brown paper bags would work nicely here), but once the hideous green monstrosity is sliced open, it’s white fleshy innards will tempt you like no other. Oh, and there’s some serious black seeds, so watch yourself.