In­fus­ing food with the sweet scent of au­tumn

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI - By XU JUNQIAN in Shang­hai

Ma Youx­i­ang per­forms his job at a very slow pace. But no one’s com­plain­ing be­cause, iron­i­cally, his lan­guid move­ments are the most ef­fi­cient and safe way of do­ing what he does.

“Bees don’t like noise or dis­tur­bance. They be­come ag­gres­sive mostly be­cause they are an­noyed by hu­man be­ings,” said the 59-year-old.

Ma has been a bee­keeper for al­most 40 years and he has got­ten stung so many times that his skin no longer swells af­ter an irate bee de­cides to sink its barbed stinger into his flesh.

He keeps about 60 boxes of bees at a moun­tain­ous farm in Suzhou, East China’s Jiangsu province. Each box con­tains be­tween 10,000 to 40,000 bees that pro­duce around 50 kilo­grams of honey each sea­son.

At Ma’s home­town of Xis­han, the bees gather nec­tar from lo­quat flow­ers which bloom in au­tumn and the ex­tracted honey is sold at prices rang­ing from 40 to 100 yuan ($6 to 15) per kg. The price is largely de­pen­dent on fac­tors that could af­fect the pro­duc­tiv­ity of the bees, such as rain­fall and sun­shine.

Dozens of kilo­me­ters away from Ma’s farm, chef Zhao Bangyin from Shang Palace, the Chi­nese restau­rant in Shangri-La Suzhou, is busy blend­ing this honey with freshly picked os­man­thus flow­ers. The end prod­uct is known as os­man­thus-scented honey, or os­man­thus syrup.

Honey made from the nec­tar of os­man­thus flow­ers is avail­able on the mar­ket but it is dif­fi­cult to pro­cure be­cause there is a low sup­ply.

Ac­cord­ing to Ma, honey that doesn’t have too strong a fla­vor or scent that could over­whelm the el­e­gant scent of the flower is used to cre­ate os­man­thus syrup, a pop­u­lar in­gre­di­ent that al­most all housewives in the area stock in their kitchens.

In Qidu, a ru­ral town in Suzhou that bor­ders the neigh­bor­ing province of Zhe­jiang, it is a tra­di­tion for grey-haired grannies to make os­man­thus syrup at the be­gin­ning of each au­tumn be­fore in­fus­ing it in tea or us­ing it as a dessert dress­ing. The syrup is used pri­mar­ily to treat chil­dren and distin­guished guests.

The os­man­thus, known for hav­ing a del­i­cate, el­e­gant scent, is a pop­u­lar flower that is of­ten used in Chi­nese cui­sine. Of the many hy­brids listed, about 80 per­cent are na­tive to the south­ern re­gions of China, with some ap­pear­ing in South­east Asia and a few in South Asia.

There are two vari­ants of os­man­thus in China. One has golden flow­ers while the other has red, and it is al­ways the for­mer, which is more fra­grant, that makes its way to the din­ner ta­bles.

At Shangri-La Suzhou, the flower will be tak­ing cen­ter stage on the menu this au­tumn. Zhao, a vet­eran chef with 29 years of culi­nary ex­pe­ri­ence, is cre­at­ing an en­tire menu of 10 dishes fea­tur­ing the os­man­thus.

“Os­man­thus has never had a lead­ing role on the din­ing ta­ble. It’s al­ways a fla­vor­ing agent,” said the 44-year-old.

Zhao said that he was in­spired to cre­ate this spe­cial menu be­cause the hairy crabs, an au­tumn del­i­cacy, have had a bad sea­son this year. Heavy rain­fall and drought in many parts of eastern China this sum­mer have re­sulted in a low pro­duc­tion of lean crus­taceans.

“In China, au­tumn del­i­ca­cies are char­ac­ter­ized by their rich fla­vors, and peo­ple be­lieved that this would pre­pare them for the harsh win­ter to come. That’s why we have the say­ing ‘to gain some au­tumn calo­ries’,” said Zhao.

“But look­ing at how lean the hairy crabs are this year, we will have to make up in other ways.”

Apart from com­monly seen dishes such as lo­tus roots sug­ared with os­man­thus syrup or sticky rice balls and os­man­thus in fer­mented rice wine, Zhao’s unique menu will also fea­ture hairy crabs that are steamed with os­man­thus in­fused wa­ter, veg­eta­bles fried with the flower, and a bar of crys­tal jelly made from os­man­thus syrup.

Zhao isn’t the only chef who has de­cided to in­cor­po­rate the flower into his dishes.

In Shang­hai, the mas­sively pop­u­lar pop-up ice cream store Bonus Gelato will be mak­ing an­other ap­pear­ance this au­tumn, this time with fla­vors such as os­man­thus rice wine.

Lo­cated along the Bund, Le Reve, a patis­serie by ac­claimed French chef Pas­cal Mo­lines, has made os­man­thus mac­a­roons its sig­na­ture cre­ation.

“For many Chi­nese, the scent of os­man­thus is the de­fin­i­tive aroma of au­tumn,” said Zhao.

“Though we are grad­u­ally drift­ing away from na­ture be­cause of ur­ban­iza­tion, fol­low­ing the culi­nary tra­di­tion of our an­ces­tors — to eat sea­son­ally and re­spect what na­ture gifts us — has and should be some­thing em­bed­ded in the DNA of us Chi­nese.”

XU JUNQIAN / CHINA DAILY

The early morn­ing is an ideal time to col­lect and process gor­gon seeds.

PHOTOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

A bee­keeper pre­pares to ex­tract honey from bee hives.

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