In Xi'an there's a local specialty that I have thought about constantly since I left: it's a small cake made from a dried persimmon (shizibing 柿子饼), stuffed with nuts, and then shallow fried, so that the flesh was chewy and sticky. It was a orange-gold color, and the filling that we preferred was the “five benevolences” (wuren 五仁), which is typically composed of almonds, walnuts, sesame seeds, peanuts and sunflower seeds. The stand that we returned to time and time again also added a heady rose (and I think possibly osmanthus). Beyond my love of eating things that are golden, which feels like consuming sunshine, this filling was particularly exotic, not unlike imbibing perfume, and provided a small reminder of Xi'an's history as a node on the Silk Road.
Rosewater was used in ninth and tenth century China, to wash hands and to drink in cooling concoctions. In a masterpiece of sinology, The Golden Peaches of Samarkand, Edward Schafer describes a completely fabulous use of rosewater during the Five Dynasties period (907-960):
Twenty or thirty years before the Cham embassy [in 958], the sovereigns of Later T'ang had a fantastically expensive artificial garden laid out in one of the great royal halls. Mountains and hills were made of aloeswood, rivers and lakes of rose water and storax, trees of clove and an an unidentified aromatic, walls and battlements of frankincense, buildings of rosewood and sanders, and carved human figures of sandalwood. The whole made a miniature city, over whose main gate was a signboard reading, “Nation of Magical Scents.”
For the dumplings (yuanxiao 元宵 or tangyuan 汤圆) traditionally eaten during the Lantern Festival, or the first full moon of the Chinese New Year season, I came up with the slightly hare-brained idea to make my own sweet glutinous rice dumplings, stuffed with a filling inspired by that trip. Almost everything I did was a lesson in how NOT to
make tangyuan. I'm not going to provide a recipe for the glutinous rice wrapper, other than pointing in the direction of some wiser, and more skilled people. I'll provide a couple hints, though. DON'T just add regular room temperature water and knead until it feels like a dough. DO add half hot water to the dough, mix, then add cold water. DON'T add too much water, then compensate with more flour, then add more water, then…. you get the picture. We had a near psychological meltdown wrapping ours and, afraid they would burst apart in roiling water, steamed the little dumplings instead of boiling them.
The filling, however, was so perfectly delicious, and ridiculously easy, that I think it's worth sharing. Fragrant with rosewater and orange peel, just barely sweetened, it was helped along by the freshly ground black sesame paste I bought from a woman who grinds it herself at the Sanyuanli Market. At the end they were perfumey and luscious, covered with a sprinkle of white and black sesame seeds. Next time, I'll take a tip from the commentators at Chowhound and add little shards of rock sugar, which melt inside as the dumplings are either steamed or boiled and gush out when bitten into, creating liquid sugary nutty goodness.
Tangyuan Filling, enough for two dozen dumplings
- toasted walnuts, 3/4 cup
- pistachios, 1/2 cup
- white sesame seeds, 1/4 cup
- brown sugar, about 2 tablespoons (or use the rock sugar, smashed into small shards)
- black sesame paste, 1/2 cup
- rosewater, 1/4 cup
- zest of one orange, just the very top layer
In your mortar and pestle, or food processor, grind the walnuts, pistachios, sesame seeds, and sugar together. I like it still a bit chunky; you can make it finer as you wish. Add the black sesame paste and rosewater and mix thoroughly. I shaved the zest over at the very end, and folded it together.