January 23, 2012

Sweet potato dessert soup

Happy Chinese New Year!

With the holiday in mind, I thought this was an opportune time to post another entry under Chinese dessert "soups."  There are many varieties of Asian dessert soups (called "tong shui") and this is probably the easiest one I know how to make. 
I'll tell you something.  As a kid, I always associated Chinese New Year with obligatory visits to distant, far-flung relatives.  It was like we had a hit-list that needed to be checked off before we could breath a sigh of relief, slump back on the couch, and say, "we're done!"  It's not really like that for me now.  It's been simplified; we focus on our near and dear, and have yet another excuse to get together and...eat!  There are family meals (I should say, feasts) with tons of savory foods and sweets lying around to usher in a sweet New Year.  My mother has this covered flower-shaped candy holder with compartments in it that she'd take out during the New Year to fill with candies and edible seeds (yes, like red melon seeds to symbolize good things like growth and life).  Along with boxes of chocolates we'd give and receive as gifts during the New Year, that candy holder was the part I looked forward to most as a child and I always lobbied (successfully) for more chocolates in the box.

But back to dessert soups.  There are so many, including the kind with little round glutinous rice balls swimming in their sweet soup for Chinese New Year.  I wish I knew how to make more of them since I can think of a dozen right off the top of my head that I've enjoyed.  My sister used to take us to Chinese dessert houses to have them.  I have her to thank for teaching me how to make the taro tapioca dessert soup that I love and my husband is forever grateful I learned to make his favorite, mango sago dessert, this past summer (we'll be making plenty of that cold treat throughout the summer).  But this sweet potato dessert soup is seriously easy to put together; I don't even remember being taught how to make it.  It takes just four ingredients (including the water!) and cooks up in less than half an hour.  It's sweet but balanced by some spice from fresh ginger. 
In the wintertime, this hot soup takes part in my comfort food lineup, without the need for a special holiday to enjoy them.  My favorite part is the soup itself and I like plenty of ginger to give it some pep.  I wish I could get the little one more interested in these Asian desserts but thus far, he is far more into things with frosting.  I convinced him to have a bit of this since he likes sweet potatoes.  He complied and ate some but wasn't exactly chomping for more.  I'm hoping he'll come around to appreciate these types of things when he's older. 

Before I start, I want to clarify that when I say "sweet potatoes", I should probably be saying "yams."   I'm pretty confused on this matter but my understanding is that what we typically refer to or buy as "sweet potatoes" in the supermarket are really yams, meaning the softer, orange variety of the root vegetable.  But "yam dessert soup" just sounds wrong to me and I always think of them as sweet potatoes so I'm sticking with it.  All you need to remember is to use the orange variety, which is softer and less starchy.

Like I mentioned earlier, this dessert soup needs just 4 ingredients: water, fresh ginger, sweet potatoes, and sugar in the form of Chinese brown sugar slabs (I think also referred to as raw sugar slabs or raw slab cane sugar but they are essentially brown sugar bars).  You can find these very inexpensive bars of sugar in any Asian food market.

To make enough for about 4 servings, start with 4 cups of cold water in a medium (say 3-quart size) pot.  Take about 2 inches of fresh ginger, peel it with the side of a spoon, and slice it into about 4 pieces.  Lightly crush the pieces a bit to speed up the process of infusing the flavor into the water.  Drop the ginger into the cold water.  If you prefer a more subtle ginger flavor, you can adjust the amount down a bit because this amount gives a distinct spice that I like.
I always buy sweet potatoes when I hit the supermarket every week.  For this recipe, I use 3 of them.  Peel and chop them into large chunks, roughly an inch or so in size.
Add the sweet potato chunks into the water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.  When the mixture comes to a boil, continue to cook with the lid slightly ajar so some steam can escape and it won't boil over.  Cook, stirring once or twice, until the sweet potato pieces are softened.  This takes about 10-15 minutes.  Check on their doneness with a fork. 
At this point, we add the sweetener in the form of the brown sugar slabs I mentioned earlier.  You can see a sample of what it looks like in the photo below.  I added about 2/3 of one rectangular-shaped bar but you can adjust this to your liking.  Start with half a bar and work your way up.  You'll need to use a meat mallet or a heavy can to crack the piece of sugar. 
Stir in the sugar until fully melted.  Taste to make sure it's to your liking in terms of sweetness and the soup is ready to be served immediately, nice and piping hot.


Sweet potato dessert soup

- Approximately 4 servings -

4 cups cold water
Fresh ginger, 2-inches in length
3 sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into 1-inch chunks
1 bar of Chinese brown sugar (may be labeled "candy pieces")

Peel ginger with the a spoon.  Slice into 4 pieces on the diagonal and crush pieces lightly with the spoon.  Place water in a medium-size pot and add the ginger pieces and sweet potato chunks.

Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat.  When it comes to a boil, continue to cook with the lid slightly ajar.  Cook, stirring just once or twice, for 10-15 minutes until the sweet potatoes are soft.  Add 1/2 the bar of sugar to the pot and stir until melted.  Taste and adjust with more sugar, as needed. 

Serve hot.

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