Fermented rice a sweet remedy
Fancy something sweet for a dull appetite? A glass of chilled red bean and jiuniang drink may just be the remedy.
Jiuniang, sweet fermented rice made with either glutinous rice or regular rice that’s also called laozao in some regions, is a traditional Chinese snack and cooking ingredient. It’s essentially cooked rice fermented into a very soft texture with delicious sweet soup.
Jiuniang is also different from the rice wine mijiu. It contains much less alcohol which would be cooked off when it’s heated to make dishes and beverages, so even the younger ones can enjoy some sweet fermented glutinous rice.
Across China, sweet fermented cereals are enjoyed as a treat or used to make specialty snacks, like the glutinous rice popular in the Yangtze River Delta and the fermented oats in the great northwest.
Though jiuniang and similar fermented treats contain little alcohol, you should still be cautious about their overall effect on health (they do contain lots of sugar) and avoid driving when consuming large portions of uncooked jiuniang.
Jiuniang, a comfort food
Chinese wines are brewed with jiuqu, the wine fermentation starter, and jiuniang as a product containing alcohol is made of sweet jiuqu.
The process of making sweet fermented rice starts from steaming glutinous rice or rice, using less water than is required to make rice the staple so that the rice is fully cooked but the texture remains quite hard. When the cooked glutinous rice is chilled completely, it is put into a sieve to wash off the sticky residue. This step is not necessary when using rice.
Next, the rice is layered in a large container with sweet jiuqu spread between each layer. Add jiuqu and warm water to the top layer also. The jiuqu and water can be mixed into the rice directly at a proportion of two grams of jiuqu for every 500 grams of rice as well to save trouble. Then, press down the rice firmly and drill a hole in the middle so that the rice wine can pop out.
The container can then be covered and placed in a warm place for 48 hours to ferment. The temperature should be below 40 degrees Celsius, and the natural fermentation is faster in summer.
Freshly made jiuniang is sold at most rice cake stalls in the fresh markets by weight. Vendors would always add a spoon of the sweet soup and it can be enjoyed as a dessert directly. Sweet osmanthus sugar or honey is an authentic topping to boost the flavor of the sweet fermented rice, which has the delicate fragrance of rice wine, natural sweetness of the cereal and pleasant sourness that would cheer the appetite or cleanse the palate after enjoying rich-, intense-flavored dishes.
There are also many ways to make simple jiuniang desserts, such as the all-time classic, small glutinous rice balls in sweet fermented rice soup. Both ingredients can be purchased in packaged form. Simply bring a small pot of water to the boil and cook the small glutinous rice balls (without filling) with some rock sugar until they float to the surface. Cook for another minute and add several tablespoons of jiuniang, simmer for another 30 seconds and the dish is ready. The dessert is usually served hot, and sprinkling osmanthus sugar is an extra step to make it fancier and more fragrant.
The key to making delicious jiuniang desserts such as this recipe is to add the sweet fermented rice in the later steps, cooking it for longer would make it become sourer and lose the unique flavor.
Another classic combination that can be served as a cold dessert is red bean soup with sweet fermented rice, which is as simple as cooking red bean soup in a pressure cooker, season with sugar and let it chill, add a few spoons of fresh jiuniang and mix well to serve. The consistency of the soup is flexible, you can either make a fulfilling dessert with more solid cooked red beans, or a beverage to drink from a straw by adding more of the red bean soup.
Egg and laozao milk soup is a nourishing classic in some parts of China, including Gansu Province. It’s typically served hot in water to warm up the body. A unique step in making this dish is the one gram of baking soda added in the milk during cooking, which prevents the sweet fermented rice and egg from coagulating. The egg is poured into the soup to create egg drops after the sweet fermented rice is added into the milk. Additional toppings include toasted nuts and sesame seeds.
Sweet fermented rice cake is a traditional snack in the region south of the Yangtze River. It’s a sweet, light and fluffy treat made of flour and sweet fermented rice. The cakes are usually small, round and baked in pans, creating a beautiful golden hue in the middle. The fermented rice cake can act as yeast to leaven the dough, which is the secret of achieving that airy texture. But on colder days a small amount of yeast may be added to help with the process and save time.
Some fermented rice cakes also have fillings such as red bean paste, brown sugar or sesame seeds.
Because of its ability to help the dough to rise, sweet fermented rice is also used in Western-style baking to make baked goods like toast and bagels.
Coffee and milk tea shops are also incorporating jiuniang in their beverages to add natural sweetness.
Although fermented sweet rice is generally eaten sweet, it can also make some savory dishes more flavorful.
In Chongqing, the signature spicy hotpot often adds sweet fermented rice in the base mixture alongside chilis, peppercorns and lots of other spices and sauces. The sweetness from the fermented rice can act as a binding agent to blend different flavors together and improve the overall experience.
In braised meat dishes, adding sweet fermented rice instead of sugar can not only add sweetness, but also substitute other wine or liquor required by the recipes.
In the great northwest, especially when you travel to Lanzhou in Gansu Province, a must-try local treat is tianpeizi, which is a sweet and sour soup made of fermented oats.
High-quality oats (in their original form, not the pressed oats in muesli) are soaked in water for a few hours and then pounded by a stone hammer to remove the husk. The process of fermenting the oats is similar to that of rice: steam, cool and mix with water and jiuqu.
Tianpeizi is served by adding water to create a sweet and sour beverage with chewy bits of oats. It’s especially popular in summer to tone down the heat, and locals would eat it as afternoon snack or dessert after meals.