EVERY autumn hundreds of locals flock to the valleys and hills surrounding the West Lake to enjoy a half-day leisure while breathing in the sweet scent of osmanthus, the city flower of Hangzhou, which is in full bloom from mid-September to early October.
Manjuelong Village has over 7,000 osmanthus trees, the oldest of which was planted over 200 years ago. The road that leads to the village is flanked with several family-run tea houses, which serve up delicious meals.
There are three types of osmanthus most commonly seen in Hangzhou. The gold and silver osmanthus are easily identified by their colors, but the gold variety is much more fragrant. The blossom of “red osmanthus” bear the bright colors of orange and orange-red. The flowering of osmanthus comes in three periods and is usually followed by a drop in the seasonal temperature. The last blooms could flower as late as early November if the weather stays warm.
Shanghai Daily examines some of the recipes to add a flavor of Hangzhou’s autumn to your food.
In ancient legends, Chinese people believe that Chang’e, the goddess of the moon, lives in her Guanghan Palace together with a rabbit and an osmanthus tree.
People use the term zhegui (to snap an osmanthus twig) to describe someone who has been ranked first in the Chinese imperial exams.
The eighth month in Chinese lunar calendar is a time when the exam takes place and it is therefore called the “osmanthus month.” Students generally send out osmanthus cakes to wish for good results.
The cake is made from rice flour, or glutinous rice flour, with osmanthus sprinkled on top. But if you like appetizers more than meal-related food, you could try making osmanthus jelly.
Prepare 40 grams of gelatin, rinse it with water and drip-fry for use. Pre-heat 200 grams of milk, mix it well with 20 grams of gelatin, 200 milliliters of coconut milk and 40 grams of sugar.
Mix the rest of the gelatin with 150 grams of hot water and 90 grams of osmanthus syrup. Stir it well and add 200 grams of cold water to cool it down.
Pour 100 grams of the milk mixture into a glass mold. Place it in a refrigerator and leave it for at least 30 minutes to set. Pour 100 grams of the osmanthus mixture and repeat the procedure.
A layer of milk is topped with a layer of osmanthus, until each mixture is poured three times. Put it in a fridge for another two hours and the final layer is ready. Then slice it into small cubes to serve.
Sugar osmanthus syrup
This is a basic additive that villages in Manjuelong have produced every year for centuries.
To begin with, you need to get dried osmanthus petals, which can be easily bought in supermarket. If you want to collect fresh ones from trees directly, remember that they need to be selected, cleaned and dried before use.
Prepare a canning jar. Pave a layer of osmanthus at the bottom, and then a layer of granulated sugar until the jar is full.
Press each layer firm to squeeze out the air, otherwise the osmanthus may turn black in the making.
Top the mixture with a layer of honey. Seal the jar and put it in a refrigerator. The jam is ready to serve when the sugar is fully dissolved. In most cases, it can be preserved for a year in a refrigerator.
The syrup is added to several desserts and appetizers. In Chinese sweet fermented rice for example, the fresh sweetness of osmanthus balances the slight tangy taste of rice wine. In winter it is served warm together with glutinous rice balls, goji berries and sometimes egg drops.
Just remember to add the osmanthus at the last step, otherwise the fragrance will be lost in the cooking.
Osmanthus-scented lotus root starch
If you ask a local for a specialty food in Hangzhou, they will probably name the lotus root starch. It is listed together with Longjing tea and silk as one of the top three gifts to take back home from Hangzhou.
In the mid-1990s, instant lotus root starch began to be prevalent in the local markets. But traditionally the starch is handmade.
In Sanjia Village of Yuhang District, the handcraft has been inherited for over 100 years.
The lotus roots are ground and congealed into a starch chunk.
Workers then quickly peel off a very thin layer of lotus root starch from the chunk. In this way, the rich nutrition in lotus roots can be kept in the finished product.
Serve it simply with hot water and the starch will be turned into a paste-like mush. Take a spoonful of osmanthus syrup to add flavor.
In a more extravagant version, people top up the starch with osmanthus syrup and minced chestnuts to wrap up two most perishable gifts of autumn in one bowl.
Although a native plant in the south, northerners, like people in Beijing and Tianjin, also use osmanthus in a similar dessert called chatang (茶汤), which is made from sorghum flour topped with osmanthus syrup, brown sugar and other nuts and dried fruits.
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