As a kid, you don't much care for the stories your parents tell--about walking home in the snow, or the meaning behind trick-or-treating. But at some point in life, you realize that what they have to say can be interesting. My moment came during a recent family dinner, when my folks explained to my young cousins the story of a traditional Chinese celebration dish, Eight-Treasure Rice Pudding.
The dessert is a mound of sticky rice bejeweled with eight kinds of dried fruits and filled with red bean paste, which is a staple in Chinese and Japanese sweets. As the family story goes, the dish supposedly originated when a Chinese king was overthrown. Eight knights were commended for their bravery in battle, and a chef created a rice dessert with eight "treasures," or fruits, honoring each of the heroes.
Today, this rice pudding continues to add a sweet finish to meals, especially at festivities for Lunar New Year and other anniversaries. These marathon multi-course dinners often have two or three desserts. The rice pudding usually is served first.
In the San Gabriel Valley, it regularly appears on menus at Harbor Village, Happy Family and other Chinese restaurants, where several generations of families gather around tables to eat. At Din Tai Fung, a bustling dumpling house in Arcadia, owner Frank Yang says the dish is a top seller, "especially for family reunions."
Not only does the rice pudding satisfy your sweet tooth, but the number eight also is considered lucky in Chinese culture because it sounds similar to the Chinese word for prosperity and good fortune. As such, people of Chinese descent often look for ways to integrate the number into everyday life--phone numbers, license plates and, yes, even foods.
The consistency of the dessert actually bears little resemblance to pudding; it has more of a chewy texture, thanks to the glutinous rice. And the sticky grains and red bean paste are really the only constants in the recipe. "With the eight fruits, you can do some adjustments," Yang says. Din Tai Fung uses dates, but since they are harder to find in Taiwan, they're usually not in the overseas version. "You can use any preserved fruit you like, and you don't always have to use eight different kinds," he adds.
Personally, I'm not about to alter the number of treasures in my rice pudding. After all, I chose my cellphone number because it began with the number eight.
Eight-Treasure Rice Pudding
(Adapted from a recipe by Frank and Joanne Yang, Din Tai Fung)
1 cup glutinous rice (also called sticky or sweet rice)
1/4 cup hot water
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons vegetable shortening
1/2 cup of various dried fruits such as golden raisins, papayas, apricots, pineapple, cranberries, mangoes and peaches
4 whole red maraschino cherries
1/3 cup sweet red bean paste (available at most Chinese or Japanese markets)
1/2 cup water
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved into 1 1/2 tablespoons water
Rinse and cook rice according to package instructions, omitting the use of salt. Once rice is done, add the hot water, sugar and vegetable shortening, and mix well. Set aside.
Chop any large pieces of dried fruits into 1/2-inch pieces. Set aside. Place one cherry in the center of four 8-ounce ceramic rice or soup bowls. Arrange other dried fruits in a design of your choice--for instance, in rays around the circle, forming a flower-like design.
Add a layer of the rice mixture (about 1/8 of the batch) to each bowl, being careful not to disrupt the design. Divide the red bean paste equally and flatten slightly in your hands. Lay on top of the rice in the bowl. Fill the bowls with equal amounts of the remaining rice mixture. Press to pack tightly, forming a flat surface.
Place bowls on a rack in a large pot or steamer. Steam over boiling water for 30 minutes.
For simple syrup, combine the water and sugar in a small saucepan. Add the lemon juice and bring to a boil. When the sugar has dissolved, stir in the cornstarch mixture. When it thickens slightly and the water is clear again, remove from heat.
Flip bowls onto individual serving plates to remove pudding. Pour hot syrup over and serve hot.
Ginny Chien last wrote for the magazine about a collector of rubber ducks.