I'd like to talk about an ingredient I always pick up when we go to Chinatown: monk fruit. Hard, dry, and rather featureless on the outside, it is understandably a mysterious fruit even though it is a common ingredient in Chinese herbal medicine. I grew up having it as a tong sui (sweet soup) or tea to help suppress coughs and cool down on a hot day.
Like goji berry, another age-old ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine, monk fruit has entered the Western market in the form of monk fruit sweeteners. Though seeing it on the alternative sugar section of my local grocery stores piqued my curiosity, I didn't get a chance to try it until I attended the recent Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco.
So what is a monk fruit? It is a melon native to China and Southeast Asia that is believed to be a longevity fruit due to its many health benefits. In Chinese, it is called lo han guo and is said to resemble the stomach of a Buddha, which is why it is also known as arhat fruit, referring to a Buddhist who has achieved Nirvana.
Monk fruit sweetener is made from monk fruit extract, which is apparently 300 times sweeter than ordinary sugar without the calories, carbs, and effect on blood sugar. It is usually blended with a bulking agent like erythritol and dextrose to give it the consistency of granulated sugar for convenience and measurability.
Personally, I avoid refined sugar and artificial sweeteners. I'm slowly warming up to the taste of stevia (when it is included in my protein powder, for example) but I'm still on the fence with monk fruit sweetener. I didn't like it in my herbal tea, preferring instead to drink actual monk fruit tea on its own.
Here in the US, monk fruit is an elusive ingredient and I get mine in Chinatown or Asian herbal stores for about a buck a piece, depending on the size. Once you get your hands on it, making the tea is a cinch. According to the Chinese Natural Cures by Henry C. Lu, monk fruit is "one of the few fruits that cannot be eaten until it is dried by fire," which explains its brownish appearance.
To use, break open the dried fruit by cracking it in the middle of your palms or stabbing the center of the fruit with the pointy end of a knife and bringing the knife down to split it open. Then use your hands to break the fruit into smaller pieces or separate the flesh and seeds from the shell.
The common way to make monk fruit tea is to simmer the monk fruit pieces in water for at least 20 minutes. Sometimes I combine the monk fruit pieces with boiled water in my thermos and sip it throughout the day. When I need an instant cup of light monk fruit tea, I simply steep the seeds (without the shell) in boiling water for a few minutes, then strain and drink, something I learned to do from the herbal store I frequent in Chinatown. This produces the mildest flavor and the seeds can be reused for another round of tea.
It's my comfort drink in the winter, especially during the rainy days we've been getting here in the SF Bay Area. It can also be enjoyed with ice in the warm season. Try it for yourself!
Asian Food Trends at the 2017 Winter Fancy Food Show
With the participation of over 1,000 specialty food companies from around the world, the Fancy Food Show was all about food sampling and making culinary discoveries. Yes, I tried a whole lot of stuff, some I've never had before. I paid special attention to the booths in the Asian section and here I present to you the food items I'm most excited about.
Black garlic was proudly promoted by two exhibitors from different growing regions in Japan as both a health supplement and a culinary ingredient (pizza topping!). To make black garlic, the garlic is aged to produce something sweeter, softer, and less pungent than raw garlic with allegedly higher levels of antioxidants. I really liked the unexpected fruity and caramel flavors as well as the mushy texture in my mouth. I can see it being a game changer when used in sauces, hummus, and even salads!
Yuzu showed up quite a bit at the show, making appearances as juices, dried peels, and most notably sauces. The citrus fruit from Japan and Korea is described by one of the exhibitors as "strange, bold, and umami". Yuzu juice is extremely tart and lends a nice zing to the hot sauces I tried. Already a familiar flavor in Japan and Korea, I'd not be surprised to see yuzu used the same way lemon is used in cooking.
Look out, world, we have a new gluten-free ingredient! A company from the Philippines was there to introduce mango flour made with mango peel and seeds which is claimed to be rich in antioxidants and vitamins. Good to know someone's trying to repurpose the leftovers from the dried-mango industry. Definitely something to watch out for.
Other Noteworthy Discoveries
I sampled a good amount of cocoa-based products (the darker the better is my mantra), but two items really stood out for me: roasted and ground cocoa beans brewed like coffee by Crio Bru and whole cacoa beans eaten like nuts by Good King.
As someone who doesn't drink coffee and makes tea with cacao nibs, chocolate tea (left) was an easy sell for me. Intense and rich, it's an instant morning pick-me-up. While I was warned that whole cacao beans are not for everyone, I instantly took a liking to these nutty, crunchy bad boys with their deep, dark cocoa taste, especially as they were lightly seasoned with spices and herbs like the lemon, lavender and thyme combo.
While I don't eat ice cream because of my dairy-free diet (sad, I know), I can get behind a vegan version made with natural ingredients, like the banana-based Snow Monkey superfood ice treat. Needless to say, the goji berry flavor won me over but what made this a winner for me was not seeing any added sugar in the ingredients.
Another sugar-free winner was the vegan jello by Hawaii-based Zellee Organic. Instead of gelatin, konjac root is used as a gelling agent but I couldn't really tell the difference. What I could tell was how much more real the flavors were compared to the jello brand we're used to.
Monk Fruit Tea
Only one ingredient needed. Sugar not required as this fruit is said to be 300 times sweeter than sugar without the calories, carbs, and glycemic load.
1 monk fruit
Rinse the monk fruit under running water and pat well to dry. Then break it open by cracking the fruit in the middle of your palms or stabbing the center of the fruit with the pointy end of a knife and bringing the knife down to split it open. Use your hands to break the fruit into smaller pieces or separate the flesh and seeds from the shell.
Method 1: Steeping
Place the flesh and seeds (without the shell) of half a monk fruit in a cup and add boiling water. Cover and let it steep for about 8 to 10 minutes. Strain the tea before serving.
Method 2: Simmering
Place the monk fruit pieces (including the shell) in a pot with 4 cups (1 liter) of water and bring to a boil. Then cover and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Strain the tea before serving.
Alternatively, combine the monk fruit pieces with boiled water in a thermos and sip it throughout the day.