Sweet and Sour Dried Fruit Tea

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Wu Li Edited by Scott Ed­ward Bray Pho­tos by Zhang Xin

Guozi­gan, made of dried per­sim­mons, apri­cots and lo­tus root slices, is a pop­u­lar Bei­jing snack sure to sat­isfy your taste buds.

Iced guozi­gan (dried fruit tea) used to be very pop­u­lar among Bei­jingers. Once avail­able year­round, this clas­sic folk snack re­minds the el­derly of their un­for­get­table child­hood with its nos­tal­gic flavour.

In the old days, ven­dors were fre­quently seen trav­el­ling from street to street in Bei­jing. With their two-wheeled hand­carts, both sides of their wooden pan­els painted with the words “Hon­est deals for el­derly and chil­dren” and “No bar­gain­ing”, the ven­dors would beat their bingzhan’er, also known as bing­wan’er (“iced goods bowls”), to at­tract po­ten­tial cus­tomers. Made of brass and pol­ished smooth, those “iced goods bowls” were car­ried used as in­stru­ments to help drive sales af­ter the 1930s. Holding a bowl in one hand be­tween the mid­dle and the ring fin­gers while sup­port­ing the bowl with the lit­tle fin­ger from be­neath, street ven­dors would beat one bowl against an­other to make a clear and rhyth­mi­cal clang­ing sound.

Once that noise reached the streets, chil­dren liv­ing nearby would rush out of their houses with pocket money given to them by their moth­ers to buy snacks or toys from ped­dlers. And although their coin was lim­ited, each child wished that they could buy ev­ery­thing the ven­dor had. With its glass cab­i­nets filled to the brim, the hand­cart boasted var­i­ous snacks: sun­flower and melon seeds, crispy broad beans, sour ju­jube pow­der, a wide va­ri­ety of can­dies, peanut cakes, pre­served prunes, and iced crab ap­ples in win­ter. With its porce­lain jars filled with jel­lied hawthorn dried fruit tea, syrup of plum and apri­cot... The goods were enough to daz­zle kids– de­spite see­ing the same the ven­dors

trav­el­ling through their streets three to four times in a sin­gle day, they couldn't re­sist the temp­ta­tion of go­ing back to look at what the hand­carts had to of­fer.

As recorded in the Bei­jing tuyu cid­ian, dic­tionary of local Bei­jing ex­pres­sions, “Dried fruit tea is a sweet and sour snack pre­pared mainly with dried per­sim­mons and pre­served apri­cots. By first soak­ing them in warm boiled wa­ter and then adding fresh lo­tus root slices, it serves as a cool sum­mer snack in old Bei­jing.” While it's com­mon to see cold drinks and sweets in sum­mer, what makes dried fruit tea spe­cial is that it was en­joyed even dur­ing cold win­ters. In those by­gone days, it sim­ply wasn't pos­si­ble to have such fresh fruits as litchi, wa­ter­melon or peach year round –the only fruit to be found in the mar­ket for nearly three months fol­low­ing the win­ter sol­stice were sweet- coated haws and dried per­mis­sions. Pre­served apri­cots, per­sim­mons, fresh lo­tus roots and raisins be­came spe­cial treats dur­ing the cold sea­son.

Even in the Dream of the Red Cham­ber, the maid Hua Xiren is de­scribed en­joy­ing fruit tea with her sis­ters dur­ing her home vis­its. A con­coc­tion usu­ally pre­pared with dried per­sim­mons picked in early win­ter, fruit tea is also punc­tu­ated by pre­served apri­cots, dried grapes, fresh lo­tus root slices and other pre­served fruits. A big pot of warm fruit tea is a spe­cial treat for both young and old on Chi­nese New Year.

The steps to pre­pare dried fruit tea are sim­ple, yet de­mand skill. Any im­proper han­dling will cause dis­col­oration, and ruin the flavour and along with the snack's nutri­tion. Gourmet Tang Lusun re­lates in Beip­ing de tian­shi ( “sweet foods of old Bei­jing “), “In terms of prepa­ra­tion, dried fruit tea is rather sim­ple, no more dif­fi­cult than soak­ing dried apri­cots, peaches and per­sim­mons to­gether in warm boiled wa­ter. That, in fact, in­volves pro­fes­sional skill. The dried fruit tea is not merely liq­uid; it must be per­fect in its thick­ness. Af­ter it has boiled, the mix­ture is iced in the fridge. And when served with tender and crisp fresh lo­tus root slices, cold fruit tea can't taste bet­ter. It is in­deed a most po­etic sum­mer snack.” Ac­cord­ing to Liu Ye­qiu, a scholar of mod­ern his­tory, “The dried per­sim­mons and apri­cots are first soaked in wa­ter. The per­sim­mons are then shred­ded and boiled to­gether with the apri­cots. Once this mix­ture be­comes soft enough, add slices of lo­tus root . Fi­nally put it in a porce­lain pot and ice it. The per­sim­mons and apri­cots to­gether give the tea a sweet­ness and sour­ness while the lo­tus root slices cre­ate a re­fresh­ing crispi­ness and per­fect hard­ness as well.”

Which is more au­then­tic, soak­ing or boil­ing? As recorded in Ji­etoux­i­ang­wei jin ling­shi (“street snacks“) by Wang Xifu, a food ex­pert and in­her­i­tor of im­pe­rial cook­ing, “In the early years, dried fruit tea in Bei­jing was usu­ally pre­pared with dried white or red apri­cots. As for the dried per­sim­mons, big­ger ones are pre­ferred. To make dried fruit tea: First, clean the dried apri­cots and soak them in boiled wa­ter for a short while to main­tain their fresh­ness. The dried per­sim­mons must be shred­ded by hand, then boiled and soaked for a short while un­til they be­come soft and sticky. The pre­pared apri­cots are then mixed with the boiled per­sim­mons. Af­ter this white sugar, os­man­thus blos­soms and lo­tus root slices are added and the prod­uct is fin­ished, to be put in a pot and iced for sale.”

The process of soak­ing and boil­ing to­gether make dried fruit tea a de­li­cious snack – and do take care to shred the per­sim­mons by hand rather than by knife. Some­times, mak­ing an ideal taste is hard. Ac­cord­ing to Wang Xifu, “Pre­served fruits in the mar­ket are pro­duced by soak­ing long-term in a sugar so­lu­tion. Dur­ing this process, the nat­u­ral juice breaks down and the nat­u­ral taste is lost. The sweet­ness comes mostly from the added sugar or flavours, en­tirely dif­fer­ent from a nat­u­ral fruit sweet­ness.” And on the sub­ject of the dried fruit tea, Wang Xifu re­lated an anec­dote, “In spite of be­ing a snack, dried fruit tea was once quite famous in old Bei­jing. Re­fined schol­ars and men of let­ters alike be­came fre­quent cus­tomers for street ven­dors. To match the so­cial sta­tus of these cus­tomers, some ven­dors used higher qual­ity con­tain­ers, some of which were au­then­tic blue-and-white or mul­ti­coloured porce­lain pots pro­duced dur­ing the Kangxi pe­riod (1662–1723) or Tongzhi pe­riod (1862–1875). For that rea­son, some an­tique deal­ers also fre­quented the street ven­dor stalls–some of whom made huge prof­its from those pots.”

Tak­ing this all into ac­count, it's easy to see that dried fruit tea was a pop­u­lar snack in old Bei­jing – and, nat­u­rally, it was later in­tro­duced into the palace. Af­ter be­com­ing an of­fi­cial im­pe­rial snack, it went through an over­all “up­grade.” The dried per­sim­mons were re­quired to be from the famous “Geng” brand from the Geng County, Shan­dong Prov­ince; the dried apri­cots the big, nat­u­rally ripen­ing red ones from the West­ern and North­ern Hills; the rock sugar from Tai­wan, the os­man­thus blos­soms from Hangzhou and the lo­tus roots from Baiyang Lake. The mix­ture of fruits had to be boiled and soaked in the wa­ter from Jade Spring Hill and the fin­ished snack placed in a porce­lain con­tainer em­bla­zoned with an aus­pi­cious dragon and bat de­sign. From the in­gre­di­ents right to the con­tainer the hum­ble folk snack was given a com­pre­hen­sive im­pe­rial “up­grade.”

Nowa­days, with ever greater amounts of peo­ple at­tracted to West­ern food, some of China's tra­di­tional snacks are fad­ing out of ev­ery­day life in China. But they re­main in minds of the el­derly, which al­lows these snacks to pass down to the next gen­er­a­tions. Re­gard­less of the chang­ing times, some cul­tural ele­ments never dis­ap­pear. Just like dried fruit tea, while no longer a ne­ces­sity, one can still find it in some­one's fridge. And as an old man speaks of how pleas­ant it sounded when he, as a lit­tle boy, heard the clang­ing of the brass bowls in the hand of a street ven­dor, the pride across his face is un­de­ni­able.

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