Sweet and Sour Dried Fruit Tea
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.