Chinatown + Snow Fungus Soup for a Sweet Lunar New Year

There's a joke among Malaysians that we'll travel far and wide for food, and that includes speed driving across town for that special plate of char kway teow during our workday lunch break or making a road trip out of an intense desire for laksa on the island of Penang. That habit is a persistent one and even after relocating to the US, my husband and I often find ourselves making the hour-long drive to Oakland for our favorite Malaysian restaurant in the SF Bay Area. And because the restaurant is located in Chinatown, we get to kill two birds with one stone: eating and shopping!

Rain or shine, Oakland's Chinatown is a hive of activity, especially during the weekends when families get together for meals and the chitter-chatter of grocery shopping fills the atmosphere. That energy is even more palpable in the few weeks leading up to Chinese New Year, with festive knick-knacks on full display and celebratory ingredients stacked high. Mandarin oranges for fortune, bean curd for happiness, mushrooms for longevity...

It certainly got me in the spirit of the upcoming celebration, and continuing the tradition that was last year's Chinese New Year cookie party, we're having another Lunar New Year Party this year, gathering a collection of festive recipes by a talented bunch of bloggers. Sweet is the theme of the party, hence the name #SweetLunarNewYear, because sweet dishes signify a sweet life for the new year, and after a tumultuous 2016, aren't we all ready for some sweetness in the year of the Rooster?

While I was in Chinatown recently, I gathered a few ingredients to make one of my favorite tong sui (Asian sweet soup), Snow Fungus Soup, remembering what my mother had taught me about traditional Chinese herbs and unabashedly directing questions at the helpful mothers of Chinatown for guidance. 

In Chinese food, desserts are more often eaten on special occasions and not necessarily at the end of a meal. Tong sui, a Cantonese phrase meaning "sugar water", is a variety of lightly-sweetened soups that are served warm and enjoyed as snacks between meals. Sometimes even breakfast! Unlike most desserts, tong sui are not considered indulgent treats and are usually made of ingredients with healthful benefits for the body.

Snow Fungus Soup, considered a longevity tonic in traditional Chinese medicine and believed to be a magic food for skin thanks to its reportedly high collagen content, is a delicious tong sui that is easy to make at home once you get to know the ingredients.

Let's take a look at the ingredients for Snow Fungus Soup:

Snow fungus (syut yi in Cantonese), also known as white fungus, silver ear fungus, white wood ear, white jelly mushroom, and tremella from its scientific name, is an edible fungus that grows on trees in Asia and is cultivated for use in Chinese medicine. It's been called the poor man's bird nest for its comparable health benefits at a much lesser price, including nourishing the lungs and promoting good skin. They are usually sold dried and are soaked for at least four hours, after which they puff up and double in size, for use in both sweet and savory soups. Cooked snow fungus is soft and gelatinous.  

Although it is also known as white fungus, high quality snow fungus is yellowish in appearance. It is best to avoid those that are completely white as they might have been bleached. Depending on the type, some cook softer than others and I've encountered some that are slightly crunchy no matter how long it's been cooked, so it helps to ask your storekeeper to direct you to the one preferred. For this recipe, I like snow fungus that is jelly soft almost to the point of melting in the mouth. 

Dried lily bulbs (bak hap in Cantonese) are the dried petal-like layers of the underground bulb of the lily plant. While fresh lily bulbs are used in stir-fries, the dried ones are usually included in soups and stews. They are considered to be beneficial for the heart and lungs, and believed to be able to help calm a restless mind due to its moistening, cooling, and sweet nature. 

Dried red dates or jujubes (hong zou in Cantonese) have long been heralded as a superfruit in Chinese medicine for their high vitamin C content and impressive antioxidant properties. Believed to help replenish one's qi and improve blood circulation, they are widely used in teas, soups, stews, and desserts, and even eaten raw as a snack. Get my easy recipe for a delicious jujube tea here.

Dried lotus seeds (lin zi in Cantonese) are shelled and dried seeds of the lotus flower commonly used to make the filling in many Chinese pastries such as steamed buns and mooncakes. Dried lotus seeds are often added directly to soups and will retain a starchy bite even after being cooked for a long time. They are a good source of protein and other minerals, and are believed to have healing and anti-aging benefits. 

Dried goji berries or wolfberries (gei zi in Cantonese) have become widely available and are no longer complete strangers in the Western diet, finding their way into breakfast smoothies, granola, and even desserts. In Chinese cooking, they are added to stir-fries, soups, stews, and even teas. These tiny berries have been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years and pack a punch in nutritional value, celebrated for their high antioxidant properties and believed to boost the immune system as well as, oddly enough, protect the eyes. Check out how I use dried goji berries in teagranola, and brownies.

Rock sugar (bing tong in Cantonese), also packaged as lump sugar or candy, is crystallized raw sugar that is for some reason preferable in making tong sui. My mother insists on it, believing it is better for the throat, but I treat it with as much caution as regular sugar. It usually comes in two forms, big irregular lumps with a coarse surface or more manageable in small rectangular shapes (as shown here), and is better measured by weight in a recipe. 

Most of these ingredients are available in bulk and sold by weight, which means you can buy as much or as little as you want without the pressure of committing to a big bag of ingredient you're unfamiliar with. It's a great way to explore a new cuisine and introduce some of the benefits of traditional Chinese medicine to your diet. Here's a fun challenge: The next time you find yourself in Chinatown, pick an ingredient and ask someone about it. You may even end up with a recipe or two, like I have!

There are more festive sweet recipes in the #SweetLunarNewYear party at the end of this post. Use the hashtag on social media and show us what you're eating and cooking to celebrate the occasion. Don't forget to also check out the #ChineseNewYearCookieParty for festive cookie recipes.

Have a sweet and joyful lunar new year + Happy Year of the Rooster!

What's your favorite new year food? Leave me a comment below! Sign up for personalized email updates and let's connect on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Pinterest.

Snow Fungus Soup
An Asian sweet soup (tong sui) believed to be a longevity tonic in traditional Chinese medicine. Enjoy as dessert or a snack between meals. Serves 6.

1 snow fungus
10 cups water
1/4 cup dried lotus seeds
1/4 cup dried lily bulbs
12 dried red dates (jujubes)
2 tablespoons goji berries
100g rock sugar

Soak the snow fungus in water for at least 4 hours or overnight. Discard the tough, dark-colored center at the bottom by cutting around it with a pair of scissors. Then, hand shred the snow fungus into smaller pieces.

In a large pot, bring the water to a boil. Add the shredded snow fungus, dried lotus seeds, dried lily bulbs, and dried red dates. Turn the heat down to a simmer, cover, and cook for 1 hour. 

Add goji berries and sugar to taste. Continue to simmer for another 10 to 15 minutes to let the sugar dissolve completely. Ladle into individual bowls and serve warm. 

#SweetLunarNewYear Party: Sweet Recipes for a Joyful New Year

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Chinese Peanut Cookies by Wok & Skillet
Vietnamese Steamed Rice Cakes by A Taste of Joy and Love
Gluten-Free Chinese Almond Cookies by Grits & Chopsticks
Black Sesame Shortbread Cookies by Little Sweet Baker
Ice Cream Mooncakes by Brunch-n-Bites
Coconut Red Bean Pudding by The Missing Lokness
Korean Caramelized Sweet Potatoes (Goguma Mattang) by What Great Grandma Ate
Cashew Nut Cookies by Anncoo Journal
One Bite Pine Nut Cookies by Yummy Workshop
Baked Coconut Walnut Sticky Rice Cake by Jeanette's Healthy Living
Black Sesame Cream Puffs by Pink Wings
Cashew Nut Cookies by Roti n Rice
Mini Peanut Puffs (Kok Chai) by Malaysian Chinese Kitchen
Thousand Layer Cake (Lapis Legit) by Daily Cooking Quest
Pineapple Cookies (Nastar) by V for Veggy
Almond Orange Spiral Cookies by Butter & Type
Three Color Dessert (Che Ba Mau) by The Viet Vegan
Year of the Rooster Mochi by Thirsty for Tea
Korean Tea Cookies (Dasik) by Kimchimari
Sweet Sticky Cakes (Kuih Bakul) by Lisa's Lemony Kitchen
Sweet Rice Balls with Peanut Butter (Tang Yuan) by Omnivore's Cookbook
Candied Ginger (Mut Gung) by Plant Crush
Chick Egg Tarts by Dessert Girl
Red Bean Soup with Black Glutinous Rice by Nut Free Wok
Orange Scented Sweet Red Bean by Lime and Cilantro