Every year our church holds two potlucks, and the weather forecast showed this past Sunday to be a warm day. I was trying to think of something that would be good for a crowd, yet easy enough to make in my barely-moved-in kitchen supplies and equipment! My friend G had requested that I make the Taro Coconut Dessert, but I thought it would be too warm for that. She has some food allergies and also tries to be vegan when possible, so I tried to also keep her in mind for the dessert.
Enter memories of mung bean soup, or lu dou tang, from childhood. My mom would make this simple lightly sweetened dessert of mung beans cooked until they were ‘sandy’, served cold. Sometimes she would add grains or seeds like lotus seeds or pearled barley, but the heart and soul was the mung bean. I thought of grass jelly as a refreshing addition to the mix, then thought of chewy mochi balls for some texture. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this soup would actually be an ode to some of my most favorite Taiwanese shaved ice fillings, in a drinkable form. (Imagine trying to make shaved ice for 100+ people and keeping it cold…good luck!) To keep it simple, I’ll call this mung bean soup. The additions are recommended, but not required; even just mung beans on their own soup taste delicious.
Ever gotten the mochi topping that ubiquitous in frozen yogurt shops?
Ever had boba milk tea, known as “bubble tea” on the east coast?
What do they have in common? If you think of the texture and taste of the mochi topping, along with the way that boba is served (chewy or QQ treat in a liquid), that is kiiinda what red bean soup with yuanzi is. I wouldn’t officially call them mochi balls, even though they are also made of glutinous (or sticky) rice flour, because I think someone in Japan would be outraged! Anyway, I’ll call them yuanzi simply because this is glutinous rice flour used in a Chinese/Taiwanese food manner. Just as rice is everywhere in Asia, sticky rice and its products are also commonly found in other Asian countries, including but not limited to Japan, Korea, and Thailand:
Note: Product of Thailand! You can buy sticky rice flour at any “Oriental” supermarket.
Yuanzi are essentially little round dumplings of deliciousness. The Taiwanese use QQ to describe the elusively “chewy” texture of boba, and yuanzi are QQ in that same manner.
What about the red bean soup? Don’t worry, it doesn’t taste anything like if you were to mush up and add sugar to kidney beans. That would probably not taste that good. These are tiny red beans, also known as adzuki beans. You can think of them as a “dessert-only bean” if you wish!
For me, the tastiest and only red bean soup worthy of drinking is that which is cooked long enough so that the red beans form a nice “sandy” and rather homogeneous texture with the soup. It will also have an intense red beany taste. Red bean soup that is not finished cooking at high enough of a temperature or is just not cooked long enough, will have a weak red beany taste, and an ever-present layer of bland water floating on top.
You can always just make red bean soup, or hong2dou4tang1, to end a Chinese meal, but yuanzi are always a nice addition. Yuanzi is probably one of the first things that I learned how to make during my childhood:
“Do you want pink ones too (要不要粉红色的)?” my mom would ask my sister and me.
“YES!!” we would answer without hesitation.
After mixing the dough together in a manner of seconds, my mom would split the dough in two and put half in another bowl. She would then take the small McCormick bottle of red food coloring out of the mirror above the sink that opened up to small shelves just big enough for some spices and jars. She would put a few drops of food coloring into one of those bowls, and rub it into the dough until the dough turned all pink. She and my sister and me would make the yuanzi together and rub them into little balls before dropping them into the red bean soup. I would see little pink and white balls float in the hot soup, then it was time to eat! Keep reading for a recipe for hong dou tang and yuanzi, plus some ideas for variations.