Monday, August 20, 2012

Bai Mu Er -- A Refreshing Summer Classic


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.



Ingredients:

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.



Optional:

Diced fruit.


(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.)

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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.


Directions:



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.

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 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.)

24 comments:

  1. Hello:
    What wonderful summer food which really does look totally exotic and, from all that you say, tastes delicious. The addition of the plums does indeed add colour giving the whole dish a very festive appearance.

    Needless to say we have not heard of Bai mu-er but, reading your instructions, it would seem that even we, who have no ability at all when it comes to cooking, might be able to give it a go. In any event, the receipt is not too complicated to translate and to give to Tímea, our cook, for her to try.

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    1. I understand that there is a big Chinese population in Hungary, so bai mu-er and other Chinese ingredients should be easy to obtain. This really is simple--Soak, Boil, and Sweeten, so you should really give it a try.

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  2. Parnassus -
    I love this! My Mom used to make it all the time. She is older now and does not cook as much. She also made a cold and sweet tofu and ginger soup / dessert. Also, I love Chinese bubble drinks / tea. Is that popular in Taiwan?
    Thanks for sharing this!
    Loi

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    1. Hi Loi, There is nothing like Mother's cooking--even basic dishes like these are incredibly good. Does she live near you?

      It seems that every third storefront in Taipei sells bubble tea, with the big tapioca-like balls in it. I also like a similar drink made with basil seeds called fen-yuan. Have you had that? I might post on it in the near future.

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    2. I've never heard of the basil seed drinks.....very interesting. Do post that for us.
      Thanks!!

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    3. I'll try to get to it soon. I want to show two kinds of fen-yuan in the post, and I have to seek out the small type.

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  3. This is completely unknown to me, but if I come across some Bai mu-er then I will certainly give it a try. Is it really a fungus and where does it come from or grow? I shall watch out for it if I am passing by a Chinese store.

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    1. Hi Rosemary, Yes, it is an actual fungus, and comes in white and black varieties. The white is usually prepared sweet, and the dark kind savory. As I mentioned above, that typical mushroom flavor is not present, and the mu-er soaks up the surrounding flavors. I believe it grows in the wild on dead trees, but the kind you buy has been cultivated.

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  4. Is it the same as "agar" - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agar ?
    Sounds similar. We used it to make jelly, and to eat it before lunch or dinner, as an appetite suppressant.

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  5. Hi Columnist, They both have a translucent-white appearance, but bai mu-er is a real fungus, while agar is a gelatin-like substance that comes from algae. Bai mu-er will get softer but never really disintegrate, and does not thicken the water it is cooked in.

    My friend used to make a salad from strips of soaked agar--maybe I'll pick up a package.

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  6. Parnassus, this sounds like a project I will absolutely have to try! I must confess that I have a well-earned reputation as a non-cook, so concocting something that is both simple and exotic could burnish that tarnished reputation. We have a number of Asian markets in Tampa Bay, so I'll look for bai mu-er.

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  7. Hi Mark, I say go for it. The first time is always a little confusing because of the uncertainties of preparing a new dish. Now when I make it I don't even bother to measuring anything, just play it "by ear*" and it comes out perfect each time.

    *"mu-er" literally means "wood ear" in Chinese. Bai means white.

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  8. That looks lovely. We do have a good Asian market--maybe I'll get ambitious and try it.
    You live in Taiwan?

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  9. Hi Jen, Yes, I live in Taipei City. That is why I like to try the special foods that this area has to offer. Bai mu er is so easy and good that even if I moved back to Ohio, I would still make it often.

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  10. Hello , thank you for your kind comment and for your visit . I am looking now to your post .
    Have a nice evening
    Olympia

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    1. Hello Olympia, Thanks for checking out Road to Parnassus. I try to feature the unusual things I have run across after moving to a new country.

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  11. I have had that and thought it was just delicious... until you translated it for me. :) One Taiwanese food I love, and can't find anywhere else, is stinky tofu. It is so good. And I finally found a place that serves "do-hua" (that chilled sweetened tofu) near me here in Aomori; what a summer treat!

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    1. Hi Ann, It's amazing how often they choose the worst possible name for translating foods. Stinky tofu and dou-hua are available everywhere here, with peanut-flavored dou-hua being the universal favorite. I love the texture of dou-hua; jelled but just barely past the liquid stage. It reminds me of Junket, although I don't think anyone makes that anymore.

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  12. Jim, are the red plums in your photo this red throughout naturally? Or has something been done to them? It's a gorgeous dessert, for sure, I would love to present something like this to guests after a nice Asian meal. Thank you!

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    1. Hello Barbara, Yes, these are red all through, about an inch or so wide, and incredibly addictive. Asian pears also combine beautifully with bai mu er; they are almost always available, and give the dish an elegant white-on-white appearance. Quite often, I just have the bai mu er plain, and it is wonderful that way too.

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  13. Operation Bai Mu Er currently underway. Company coming tomorrow....

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    1. Hi Barbara, Good luck; I am sure that it will be a succès fou.

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  14. Hi Jim, it was met with great curiosity and a sense of culinary adventure by my guests. I'll write a post about it soon! Thanks so much!!

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    1. Hi Barbara, I can't wait to find out the details!

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