I had a supply issue on my hands, and let’s be honest – a skills shortage, too. In all my years, I’ve never learned to make the Chinese dessert known as snow fungus sweet soup. It’s something that Mum has always made.
We’d eat it piping hot in winter and straight from the fridge in summer. As a kid, I liked it because it was sweet, and because the soft snow fungus jiggled pleasingly on my soup spoon.
As an adult, I didn’t appreciate how much a bowl of Mum’s snow fungus sweet soup could restore and nourish me in a way that cooking and eating by myself often doesn’t – until I started to crave it.
I’m not a food scientist, but I think Mum’s secret ingredient is love, and as an extension of that, time (not to be confused with thyme).
Lately, I’d been spending very little time cooking, because I'd been working long hours and eating by myself. Maybe it was time to stop eating tuna fish sandwiches for dinner and make an effort to cook things that restored and nourished, even if it was just for myself.
Making a dish from memory
I decided to try and make the sweet soup without asking Mum for instructions, and without reading a recipe online.
I wanted a creative stretch – to see how much attention I’d actually paid when I lived at home, and determine how faithfully I could get the dessert to be like Mum’s version.
After all, the recipe is partly in the name of the dish: snow fungus sweet soup in Chinese (雪耳糖水) is snow fungus sugar water. I’d picked an easy dish to try to recreate; it’s not like I was making Peking duck with simply the name as a clue.
At the last minute, I decided to add three apples into my sweet soup, simply because I had some. It’s common to make this dessert with apples, or pears, or pawpaw, so it’s not like I had completely gone rogue.
I start by soaking the snow fungus in warm water. After ten minutes or so, it expands from dried yellow coral-like clusters to become soft bouncy frills, so I drain the water and give the frills a rinse.
There are some hard orange and brownish ends on the fungus, which I never remembered eating, so I cut them away.
I halve ten red dates and removed their pits, then give them a rinse. I cut the apples into quarters.
I fill a large pot with about two litres of water and then add everything except for the goji berries. I remember Mum saying not to add goji berries to soups until about five minutes before the soup’s ready, otherwise they’ll overcook.
I bring the pot to a boil on high heat and then bring it down to a simmer. I remember as a child that the pot would just sit there simmering unattended, so I give it some time.
After 30 minutes, the apples are starting to soften. The snow fungus is already tender, but I figure it’s probably robust enough to simmer for longer. Some people like their snow fungus with a bit of crunch, but I like mine soft, so I leave the pot to simmer for another 20 minutes.
I try the soup. I can taste some sweetness already from the apples and the red dates. I add a piece of brown slab sugar (which is the wrong sugar, I should have bought rock sugar!) and let it dissolve. I try the soup again and decide to add another half slab of sugar. Then I add the goji berries.
I ladle some into a bowl - the same bowls we use at my parents’ place - and take a cautious sip from my spoon. It’s sweet and fragrant from the ginger and red dates.
It’s not Mum’s snow fungus sweet soup - the brown sugar gives it a slight caramel taste - but it is a snow fungus sweet soup. And the delight of making it for the first time is its own restorative nourishment.
Snow fungus sweet soup
Serves four to six
- 50 g dried snow fungus
- 10 red dates, halved with pits removed
- 1 tbsp Chinese almonds (also known as south apricot kernels)
- Fruit, optional
- 120 g rock sugar, or to taste
- 1 piece of ginger (around 4 cm x 1 cm in size), peeled
- 2 tbsp goji berries
- Soak the dried snow fungus in warm water for ten minutes until soft.
- Remove the snow fungus from water and use scissors to cut away any orange and brown bits that are hard. Cut the snow fungus into smaller pieces so they are easy to eat.
- Rinse red dates and Chinese almonds.
- Add 2 litres water, snow fungus, red dates, Chinese almonds (and fruit, if using) to a large pot on high heat and bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer for 30 minutes. If adding fruit, you may need to let it simmer for more than 30 minutes, until the fruit is soft.
- Add rock sugar to taste.
- Add goji berries and simmer for five minutes. Remove from heat.
- Ladle into bowls and serve while hot.
• If you prefer your snow fungus to maintain a bit of crunch, reduce the simmering time to 20 minutes. All ingredients can be purchased at an Asian supermarket.
You can serve this soup warm but I prefer to serve it chilled with a few ice cubes in it. Destination Flavour China
"This sweet Vietnamese soup is one of my favourite soups of its kind. In most Asian cultures, there is no real concept of an after-dinner dessert as sweets are usually snacks eaten throughout the day. Beans and lentils combined with coconut and pandan are recurring combinations in nearly all Asian sweet foods. Although served warm, this clear sweet soup, infused with pandan, coconut and the subtle flavour of water chestnut, combined with the mung beans, is a lovely refreshing way to end a meal." Christina Yeow, Poh & Co.
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