This summer has been a hot one everywhere; returning to Taiwan has been like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. On sweltering days, I like to prepare a cooling batch of bai mu-er, and I would like to share this very easy recipe.
|Bai mu-er with red plums.|
This lightly sweet drink or soup is very common in Taiwan, and can be purchased from street vendors everywhere. If it is less common where you live, its dramatic and elegant appearance will make your reputation as an exotic chef.
Don't be put off by its unfortunate English name of "white fungus". There is no mushroom-y or earthy taste whatsoever; instead expect one of the greatest textures you’ll ever encounter. This soup/drink is supposed to have special health effects for hot summer days, and it certainly is very refreshing.
Bai mu-er, or white fungus (白木耳)—about 1-2 oz. (can be bought in an Asian store)
Water, about 8 cups.
Rock sugar or regular sugar, 1/2 cup.
(Bai mu-er is frequently combined with lotus seeds, but these can be very tricky to cook, so I won't include them in this version.)
Caution: Like dried apricots, bai mu-er is preserved with sulfur, so don't open the package and smell it right away. Let it air a while first.
|Dried bai mu-er, enough here for 8 batches.|
Take one or two ounces (a couple of handfuls) of dried bai mu-er, and soak for a few minutes. It will get much bigger, so use a large pot. Replace the water, and soak for about 15 minutes. When it softens, drain, then pinch off any dark or imperfect areas, and break up larger pieces (think spoon-sized).
|Soaked and drained, the color is already much lighter.|
Now boil about eight cups of fresh water in a large pot, and add the drained bai mu-er. Boil for a few minutes, then drain and add fresh water. Cook for about 20 minutes or so; if it seems too firm, boil a little longer. Add the sugar.
Allow to cool, then adjust the sweetness adding sugar or water. It is perfectly delicious at this stage, but you can add cut-up fruit to make it fancier and more festive. The bai mu-er has almost no flavor of its own, and combines well with most kinds of fruit--plums are among my favorites, both for flavor and looks. My local friend Wen swears by fresh pineapple.
These red-fleshed plums have a sweet-tart flavor, and the red juice tinges the clear soup a light rosy hue.
Sliced bananas are very good in bai mu-er, but they are used in so many Asian sweet soups that I like to save them for other occasions, or else everything starts tasting the same. Coconut milk is very good, but alters the appearance of the soup, eliminating the beautiful transparency.
Bai mu-er is one of the simplest and most forgiving of recipes. I have described the process in much detail because this ingredient may not be familiar to some of my readers.
|I often enjoy it just plain like this.|
Bai mu-er makes one of the most beautiful of desserts, yet it is simple to prepare, and it quickly becomes a favorite comfort food. Some like bai mu-er hot, especially in winter, but I always prefer it ice-cold, in a bowl or a glass, even adding shaved ice or ice cubes. The incredible combination of textures and delicate flavors will have you addicted in no time.
(All photos by the author.)