No Snow, But Some White Rabbits.

Dear Reader,

It has been a month. I have not forgotten you. I have, in the interim, accepted a new job, subbed five Chinese classes every day for three weeks, and driven all over the place to get from one gig to the other. Now that the dust of November has settled, let’s get back to the pressing matter of Chinese candy.

White Rabbit

A package of White Rabbit milk candies.

Eventually, I would love to feature “real food” at Chinese Checkout, but White Rabbit milk candy takes precedence. Like haw flakes, White Rabbits are the stuff of childhood. There are lots of milk candies in Asian supermarkets, but when it comes to White Rabbits, accept no substitutions. Since 1959, The Shanghai confectioner Guanshengyuan had been rolling out these creamy, chewy, Tootsie Rolly (/toffee-like) candies. According to an anonymous source quoted all over the Chinese Internet, the trademark leaping rabbit “symbolically jumps deep into the heart of the people.”1 Of course, there’s an uncuddly part of this story, too. Remember all that melamine found in Chinese dairy products a few years back? Yeah, White Rabbits were tainted, too. Not anymore, though! And I’m happy to report that I have eaten lots of these over the years, and have had no side effects as of yet.

White Rabbit, Unwrapped

White Rabbit, unwrapped.

Like some other Asian candies,  White Rabbits are wrapped in rice paper to keep them from sticking to the outer wrapper. Don’t try to peel it off. The rice paper will melt on your tongue. If you’re still unsure what to do with these, or even where to get them, look in your front yard for a giant talking rabbit with a five o’ clock shadow. He’ll show you how it’s done.

1. Just Google this phrase: 商標是一隻跳躍狀的白兔,形象深入民心.

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Saqima: The Chinese Rice Krispie Treat

Eggy, melting and just a touch sweet: that’s the perfect saqima. First made by the Manchu for sacrificial offerings, they brought the pastry south when they conquered China in the 17th century. It became a popular snack food on the streets of late imperial Beijing. Now saqimas are eaten everywhere in the Chinese speaking world, including Rockville, Maryland.

 

Saqima.

Buffalo brand saqima.

 

It may look like a rice krispie treat, but a saqima is actually made with noodles rolled in wheat flour, soaked in egg, then fried and sweetened with sugar crystals or honey. It is a soft, greasy square of goodness. I bought the saqimas studded with raisins, but as you can see there are all kinds of novel flavors, like taro (the purple ones) and green tea (the green). Wikipedia tells me the original deal was made with a Manchurian wild berry known as “dog breast”. It’s probably for the best that that’s been phased out.

 

Taro, green tea, raisin, and plain saqima.

Taro, green tea, raisin, and plain saqima.

 

Sadly, I can’t recommend this Taiwanese Buffalo brand I picked up. The saqima clumped and lost its sweetness after the first bite, unlike the buttery taste I remember. If I find a better brand, I’ll let you know. Better yet, tell me if you have a favorite.

Haw Haw Haw

 

Buying hawthorn skewers in Hohhot, China.

Buying hawthorn skewers in Hohhot, China.

 

Haw candies are the food of nostalgia. The Chinese hawthorn, a tree fruit which ripens in late autumn, gets pounded, frozen, and stretched into dozens of different confections. People wax longingly about the paper rolls of haw flakes their parents gave them as kids, or the hawthorn skewers coated in caramelized sugar sold on wintry Beijing and Shanghai streets. I, too, miss those skewers, and I was way over five when I had my first.

There’s plenty of good haw candies stateside. I picked up a variety the other week, and only now have the time to introduce them to you. (Not that I didn’t dig in before.) All of the candies have a melt-in-your-mouth texture, and don’t cling to teeth the way gummies or Fruit Roll-Ups do.

 

Haw flakes, unwrapped.

Haw flakes, unwrapped.

 

 

Haw flakes, wrapped.

Haw flakes, wrapped.

 

Haw flakes are thin discs of hawthorn and sugar. They often come in colorful paper rolls, but I couldn’t find those last week. These are also a bit bigger than they usually come. You could easily eat an entire package by yourself, so beware.

 

Haw roll, unwrapped.

Haw roll, unwrapped.

 

The haw rolls are my personal favorite. They are thicker than the flakes, and have a round, warm mouth feel. They’re almost like Fruit Leather, but less chewy. These are bite-sized, unlike a long ones I usually find. I prefer them bigger, so I can savor them for longer. I’ve unrolled them before, but you can just bite right into it as-is.

 

Hawburger, wrapped.

Hawburger, wrapped.

 

This was my first encounter with “hawburgers”. Don’t let the name scare you. They are triple-decker sandwiches of flake and roll. They have a deliciously thick bite. I ate two just writing this post. In fact, you should really watch out with all of these candies, because the touch of tart and sweet make it hard have just one.

Checkout Takeout: Uncle Liu’s Hot Pot

It was a busy weekend, so my next entry on haw candies (such as these) has yet to be posted. In the meantime, my review of Uncle Liu’s Hot Pot in Falls Church appears in today’s Metrocurean (here). Check it out, and check back here in a few days for more grocery adventures.

Mid-Autumn Festival Traditions

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival, everyone!

What are you doing for the holiday? And, more importantly, what will you be cooking and/or eating?

I celebrated my first Moon (Mid-Autumn) Festival in my freshman year of college. A dormmate invited the hall to a bench outside the building to light paper lanterns and eat mooncakes. She also made a little shrine for her grandmother: a black-and-white photo of a young, curly-haired woman leaned on the back of the bench. My dormmate held pink sticks of incense and knelt before the photo. She bowed three times and placed the incense in a holder next to her grandmother. “The Moon Festival is a family holiday,” our dormmate explained. “It is meant to be shared.” And so she shared with us the cakes, the lanterns, the full moon, and her grandmother.

Since then I have had a few Mid-Autumn feasts, where I first learned, among other things, how to fry a shrimp cracker. I will be at a Moon Festival potluck on Friday, where I hope to get inspired for future posts. (Hint: some more sweet treats will be mentioned here soon.)

Feel free to post in either English or Chinese. I’ll translate any Chinese comments.

Mooncakes

Welcome to Chinese Checkout, a guide to the cooking ingredients, snacks, and desserts in Chinese grocery stores. Occasionally we’ll venture into restaurants, but the main point is to show you what things are, how to use them, and how they came to be.

It’s almost the Mid-Autumn Festival, one of the biggest Chinese holidays. Falling around the autumnal equinox, it’s a celebration of the harvest and a time for visiting family and friends to pray to your ancestors and gaze at the full moon. It’s also time to eat mooncakes.

 

Wing Wah Brand mooncakes

Wing Wah Brand mooncakes.

 

Mooncakes are made in all sorts of ways, but the Cantonese-style lotus seed paste cakes populate most grocery store shelves. I bought a box of Wing Wah Brand cakes from Hong Kong to bring to my friends. After all, they’re meant to be given as gifts and shared.

 

Lotus seed paste mooncake.

Lotus seed paste mooncake.

 

I sampled a larger mooncake that I’d bought for the house. The crust is paper-thin and hard to taste against the creamy, dense lotus seed paste. The paste is much less sweet than what we Americans are used to. There’s just enough sugar to balance the nutty smoothness of the paste. The “moon” inside is a salted duck egg, flaky and savory. As a kid, I only ate the yolk of hard-boiled eggs, so the “moon” appeals to me. Not everyone likes it, though, and not every mooncake has a “moon” inside.

 

“Hundred fruits" Shanghai-style mooncakes.

"Hundred fruits" Shanghai-style mooncakes.

 

I also found Shanghai-style mooncakes at my local store. (Oddly, they are also made in Hong Kong. Guess Hong Kong has the market cornered.) When I asked the woman at checkout about them, she simply said, “Shanghai people like these.” I asked if she liked them. “No,” she smiled.

The Shanghai-style mooncake is flaky, falling apart into a sweet powder in your mouth. Definitely not meant for divvying up. It’s made with peanut oil instead of the more typical lard, but it’s just as delicious and not at all peanuty. I’m not sure the manufacturer was completely truthful about the ingredients, though. The box lists olive kernels, but I could swear those are chopped walnuts in there. As for the orange fruit bits, I’m tempted to say papaya, but they’re so small it’s hard to tell. Still, I like these mystery mooncakes.

 

“Hundred fruits" Shanghai-style mooncakes.

"Hundred fruits" Shanghai-style mooncakes.

 

When you buy mooncakes in tins, you may say a beautiful woman painted on the top. She is Chang’e, the goddess of the moon. Chang’e was once earth-bound, living with her husband, the archer Houyi, who descended with her to the realm of men. Hou’yi shot down the nine extra suns to keep the earth from burning up. As a reward he was given an immortality pill. But Chang’e got to it first, and it caused her to levitate. She flew to the moon, where she lives to this day.

You may also see rabbits hopping along your tin. They recall the Moon Rabbit, also called the Jade Rabbit, who lives in the moon with Chang’e, where he pounds herbs to make the elixir of immortality. You can see the Jade Rabbit in this Wednesday’s full moon.