Recipe: chinese fermented sweet rice (jiu niang)
We are two weeks away from the Lunar New Year, which I’ve always known as Chinese New Year. If you are wondering what to make for a party or for your own celebratory dinner, I refer you to my Chinese New Year recipe round up from last year to help give you a few ideas.
I consider myself a very lucky girl. I’ve always been pretty happy (except in graduate school – sheesh) and a little silly and very much loved by my family. It’s that love which anchored me from an early age. Wherever I went and whatever I did as a kid, I had a warm fuzzy feeling in my heart. I know now that much of that warm fuzzy was because of Grandma, who was always there for me. We had our routine: a daily walk around the neighborhood, making her bed together every morning (good habits!), putting my hair into cute little pigtails, emptying the sand from my saddle shoes when I got home from school, folding laundry together while watching cartoons. This kind and gentle matriarch would create special Chinese treats from scratch in our 1970s southern Virginia kitchen while I sat on the counter next to her, pretending to be the neighbor’s dog. These memories are so vivid in my mind. I told my friend over the weekend that Grandma has been gone for almost four years and yet I still feel her presence in my heart. She is just that much a part of me.
Last November, when my parents were in Boulder, Mom told me she was going to make jiu niang or Chinese fermented sweet rice. This was one of Grandma’s specialties that I used to sneak spoonfuls of from the refrigerator – that sweet rice porridge floating in rice wine with the slight fizzy tang of fermentation. She would turn it into a hot sweet soup for celebrations or to help kick a cold, flu, or tummy ache. I loved it so much. You can buy it pre-made in Asian grocery stores, but it’s expensive for a pretty small quantity. “Come down and learn how to make it,” Mom commanded. She had been trying for a few years to reproduce Grandma’s recipe, but with mixed results. Now, Mom had finally mastered it with consistency and it meant a lot to her because she too loved, cherished, and missed her mother. It wasn’t something I could put off. Mom and Dad were flying back to Virginia in a few days and as I get older I know not to take time for granted. “Okay, Mom. How about Saturday?”
start with good quality sweet rice
and chinese rice wine yeast
It’s just two ingredients, but you need to get the right two ingredients. You can’t use sushi rice, brown rice, jasmine rice, wild rice, long grain rice, medium grain rice, black rice, whatever rice that isn’t sweet rice – you must use sweet rice. Sweet rice is also known as glutinous rice, which contains no gluten, it’s just really sticky. I’ve shopped around for sweet rice and have seen some bagged varieties with grains that look longish, almost like medium grains. My advice is to get the good stuff. Premium sweet rice resembles short, fat, pearly, oblong grains. As for the Chinese rice wine yeast – it’s jiu qu (see Wikipedia) – a fermentation starter. This one can be tough to find even if you know what you are looking for. It always seems to be tucked away in some random little bin or corner of Asian grocery stores. Luckily for me, Mom had already found them at Pacific Ocean Market in Broomfield, so she told me where to look (by the refrigerated canned drinks at the front near the cashiers). If you can’t find it or if the employees in the store act like your Chinese is just THAT BAD, you can order it from Amazon – but you have to order a dozen and they’re four times as much as what I paid (I paid $.79 for two balls).
2.5 pounds of sweet rice (uncooked) and a ball of chinese rice wine yeast
crush the yeast ball with a mortar and pestle
turn it into a powder
In essence the process is as follows: cook the rice, cool the rice, mix the rice with the yeast, cover and store in a warm place for 24 hours. If all goes according to plan, the sweet rice will begin to ferment and produce rice wine, which is like a sweeter version of sake. The number one enemy of this recipe is grease of any kind. Much in the way that the slightest presence of grease can put the kibosh on whipping egg whites into meringue, any amount of grease will result in a giant batch of molded rice. To avoid such a major downer (sweet rice ain’t cheap!), be sure to thoroughly wash all utensils and equipment – anything that the rice and yeast will touch – with soap and very hot water. I washed it all: strainers, rice cooker bowl, multiple bowls (for rinsing and mixing), mortar and pestle, the sink, the counters. I set clean dish towels out on my work surfaces.
rinse and drain the rice three times
drain the rice
cook the rice
my rice cooker has a sweet rice setting
After soaking the rice overnight, Mom steamed her rice in batches using a big steam basket lined with a double layer of cheese cloth and steamer (remember, all of these components must be super clean). That’s the traditional way to do it. You have to work in batches. I have the instructions listed in the recipe. I went with a more modern method as outlined in this great tutorial. I used my rice cooker and didn’t need to soak the rice beforehand. My grains wound up being a little softer than the grains my mom had steamed. I think in the future I’ll use less water (I followed the Zojirushi guidelines), but they were still fine to use. This quantity of rice required three batches in my rice cooker. Once the rice is done, run it under cold water until it is no longer warm to the touch. The goal is to stop the cooking process. Strain the rice and place it in a large, wide, clean bowl. All of the rinsing and cooking and more rinsing requires a good bit of water, just FYI.
rinse in cold water
strain the rice
When all of the rice has been processed and placed in a large bowl, it’s time to add the yeast. Sprinkle half of the powdered yeast over the rice and mix it together with your hand. Use a clean hand or use a gloved hand, whatever you prefer. Just be sure to distribute the yeast as evenly throughout the rice as possible. Sprinkle the rest of the yeast and mix it again. Pack the rice down and make a well in the center of the bowl all the way to the bottom. If all goes well, the hole should start to fill with rice wine in 24 hours. I covered my bowl with a sheet of plastic wrap and poked a couple of holes in the plastic to let gasses escape.
sprinkle yeast over the rice
mix with your hand
make a well in the center of the rice
poke holes in the plastic wrap
I went to sleep with visions of molded rice and Chinese daughter failure projected onto the backs of my eyelids. What if it didn’t work? Could I have contaminated the rice during one of the hundreds (well, not hundreds, but it was a lot) of rinse and drain sessions? The next morning I snuck down to the office to check the bowl for mold. No mold! Also, no wine. Just sticky rice staring back at me. Everyone says to store the rice in a warm place for 24 hours, but warm is relative. Our house is pretty cold and I could not find a place over 65°F. Apparently, that temperature is just too low. So I popped it into the oven and turned on the oven light which keeps the temperature at a nice 80°F (I think 75-80 is a good range). That did the trick. The next day, the hole had filled with rice wine and the rice was floating about in the bowl. I was so happy. I jumped up and down in relief and celebration with no one but myself… and Grandma. I texted my mom that it worked.
the hole filled with rice wine and then floating rice
Mom says to let the rice ferment for 2 to 3 days, while others have said up to a week. I think you’re supposed to taste the fermented sweet rice to determine if it is sweet enough and winey enough. Of course, that’s hard to gauge if you’ve never had it before. If it is satisfactory, divvy it up into glass jars, tighten the lids, and refrigerate. The flavor will continue to develop, albeit very slowly, in the refrigerator. This stuff can last in the refrigerator for several months. So what do you do with it? My dad will chop a little up and add it to the sauce for his tofu fish recipe (super delicious), but the traditional way to enjoy it is in a sweet soup. The simplest way is to heat some water, fermented sweet rice, and sugar in a pan and bring it to a boil. Other things you can add include glutinous rice balls (tang yuan) plain or filled, egg (as in egg drop soup style), and osmanthus flowers (gui hua). The osmanthus flowers can come in a sweet syrup in glass jars, but I couldn’t find any, so I settled for the dried flowers which smell like floral delicate dried apricots.
dried osmanthus blossoms
glutinous rice balls (plain and filled)
for the soup: fermented sweet rice, glutinous rice balls (plain and filled), egg, cornstarch, osmanthus flowers, sugar
Plain glutinous rice balls are pretty simple to make (mix glutinous rice flour and water together to form a silky dough, then make little balls), but you can also get them in the frozen section of Asian grocery stores. That’s where I found the filled ones too, which I love. These cook up in no time, even if frozen. I plop them into the soup just as it starts boiling. The rice balls are done when they float. Stir beaten egg into the soup to make egg flower – just like you do with egg drop soup. I can take it or leave it, but I included the egg here so you can see the different options. And I like to thicken the soup with a little cornstarch, but that’s just personal preference.
add the fermented sweet rice
some osmanthus flowers
stir a steady stream of egg into the boiling soup
thicken with corn starch
It’s just like what Grandma used to make, which is always a bit of a miracle to me. That moment when you finally achieve the magic that was created in your youth… it brings her back to me, binds me closer to my mother, makes me feel a little more connected to my heritage. That said, Jeremy is not a fan. He doesn’t like sake, which should have been my first clue. He’s never been able to muster much, if any, enthusiasm for the more traditional Chinese desserts. And that’s okay. He gets all of the creamy, chocolatey, western desserts. This recipe – this one comes from Grandma and Mom and me to you.
it looks like a bowl of floating flowers
all the goodies in one spoonful
Chinese Fermented Sweet Rice(Jiu Niang)
from my mom and grandma
2.5 lbs. (about 5 cups) quality sweet rice (also called glutinous rice – which does not contain any gluten), uncooked
1 (about 10g) Chinese rice wine yeast ball (if you can’t find it in an Asian grocery store, Amazon carries it)
Notes: I cannot stress enough how important it is to make sure all utensils, cheesecloth (if using), steamer (if using), vessels, strainers, hands, sink, mortar and pestle, etc. are absolutely clean and free of any grease. The presence of grease will cause your sweet rice to mold within 24 hours and render it inedible. So wash everything you are using carefully and thoroughly with extremely hot water before you start the process.
Prepare the rice: Rinse the rice in cold water and drain in a sieve. Repeat two more times for a total of three rinses (triple wash). You might have to do this in batches. That’s okay. There are two methods to cook the sweet rice: a steamer (traditional) or a rice cooker (modern).
To steam the rice: Soak the grains overnight (12 hours) in enough cold water to cover the rice by 2-3 inches. Drain the rice, rinse, and drain again. Fill the bottom pot of a steamer set or a large pot or wok (that fits your steamer basket) a third full of water and bring the water to a boil. Line a large steamer basket (or two) with a double layer of clean cheesecloth that extends beyond the steamer basket (you want overhang so you don’t lose any grains). Evenly spread a 1/2-inch layer of rice over the cheesecloth. Don’t pile the rice on thicker than this or the grains may not steam all the way through. You can stack 2 layers of steamer baskets at a time over the boiling water, but most likely the rice will have to cook in 2 batches. Cover the top of the steamer basket with a tight fitting lid and steam for about 20 minutes (it may take longer). Check the grains to see if they are translucent, but not mushy. You don’t want any opaque bits (uncooked) in the centers either. When the rice is cooked, place all of the cooked grains into a large strainer and rinse thoroughly in very cold water until the rice no longer feels warm (we want to stop the cooking). Place the rice in a large, wide bowl. If you are cooking the rice in batches, check the water levels in your steamer base and get the remaining uncooked rice ready for the steamer and repeat.
To cook the rice using a rice cooker: For this volume of rice, you will have to cook it in 2-3 batches. If using a modern rice cooker with a “sweet rice” setting, follow the manufacturer’s instructions for cooking the sweet rice. If using the older models of rice cookers, place 3 cups of rice and 2 1/2 cups of water in the cooker pan and set to cook. When the rice is cooked, place the cooked grains in a large strainer and rinse in very cold water until the rice is no longer warm (to stop the cooking). Place the rice in a large, wide bowl. Repeat for the subsequent batches.
Begin fermentation: Crush the yeast ball into a powder using a mortar and pestle. Sprinkle half of the yeast evenly over the rice. Using a gloved or very clean hand, mix the yeast into the rice to distribute the yeast as evenly as possible. Sprinkle the remaining half of the yeast evenly over the rice and mix again. At this stage, you can press the rice into a large clean glass jar (large – like a gallon size is what I would use) or press it down into the large bowl (that’s what I did). Mom says to use a vessel with at least 20% headspace or else when the rice wine forms, it will overflow and make a mess. With your fingers, make a well in the center of the rice all the way to the bottom of the vessel. Cover the bowl or jar tightly with plastic wrap and poke a few air holes into the top with a sharp knife. Set the vessel in a warm (75°F-80°F), dry place for 24 hours. I found that my oven with the oven light turned on worked nicely. After 24 hours, there should be liquid (rice wine) starting to accumulate in the well and no mold. If the rice has molded, you’ll have to throw it out (sorry!). If the rice has not molded, then continue to let the rice ferment for another 24-48 hours in the warm place. The rice will begin floating as more rice wine is produced. It should smell like sake and taste sweet and slightly boozy. When the flavor is to your liking, divvy up the rice and liquid among smaller jars, seal, and refrigerate. It should be good for several months. Makes 3 quarts.
Chinese Fermented Sweet Rice Soup (Jiu Niang Tang Yuan)
1 cup Chinese fermented sweet rice (jiu niang)
2-3 tbsps sugar (depending on how sweet the fermented rice is and your taste preference)
1-2 tsps osmanthus flowers, dried or in a preserve (optional)
6 cups water
1/4 cup glutinous rice balls (tang yuan)
1 egg, beaten (optional)
1 tbsp cornstarch (optional)
2 tbsps water
Place the Chinese fermented sweet rice, sugar, osmanthus flowers, and 6 cups of water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat. When the water is boiling, add the rice balls. When the rice balls float to the surface (about 3-4 minutes), stir the soup with a spoon and slowly pour the beaten egg in a steady stream into the soup. Mix the cornstarch with 2 tablespoons of water in a small bowl. When the soup returns to a boil, stir the cornstarch mixture into the pan. When the soup thickens, turn off the heat and serve. Serves 4.
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