KUALA LUMPUR, July 10 — Rainy afternoons can be a balm after a warm, humid morning. The cooler weather makes it more pleasant to tackle many a task, especially with so many of us working from home these days.

Yet too much rain and we feel a chill in the air and in our bones. We need some warming up. What better way than with some hot food?

Ah, but our lunch hour has passed and it won’t be dinnertime for a good while yet. Some cheese and crackers with some coffee or tea would be easy and quick but hardly satisfying when it’s our spirits as much as our bellies that need warming.

It’s at times like this that I turn to a nourishing bowl of tong sui — literally “sweet water” in Cantonese — to lift my mood and bring a gentle smile back to my face.

Whether it’s nutty, velvety fa sang wu (peanut cream) or a bowl of silky smooth pak kor yee mai fu chok (ginkgo, barley and dried bean curd soup), our taste buds and our hearts ring out with pleasure with every spoonful.

Snow fungus tong sui with ginkgo nuts and red dates promises to reinvigorate us, both body and soul. Even something as basic as the humble red bean soup can go a long way in taking us down memory lane. The perfume of the chan pei (dried tangerine peel) brings us back to our childhood kitchens.

This weekend I fancy something simultaneously simple and sinful.

Known as hak loh mai (“black glutinous rice” in Cantonese) but also zi loh mai (“purple glutinous rice”) especially in Hong Kong, this tong sui looks like the inverse of a pearly white congee with its purplish black hues. Surely there’s nothing to get excited about — it’s just grains, right?

Grains of black glutinous rice before cooking.
Grains of black glutinous rice before cooking.

Ah, but the devil is in the details.

Some pandan — a knot of those fragrant green leaves — is necessary to impart its refreshing aroma. A handful of rock sugar, of course, for sweetness (this is “sweet water” after all). Dried longan for bite and a more subtle and fruity sweetness.

The sinfulness comes in the form of santan or coconut cream, thick manna that will turn this hak loh mai into something extra rich and creamy.

Admire the startling contrast of black glutinous rice and white coconut cream for a moment, then stir well to blend both parts into a stunning violet colour. (Hence the moniker zi loh mai.)

'Santan' (coconut cream) will make it extra rich and creamy.
'Santan' (coconut cream) will make it extra rich and creamy.

If it seems I never tire of rhapsodising about tong sui, that’s because a bowl of this not too sweet yet ambrosial Cantonese dessert soup will evoke the time a loved one — my mother, my grandmother, an aunt — spent to make a pot of it for the family.

This is not merely a teatime treat or something sweet at the end of a meal, it’s one of the ties that bind us to our family, one of the links that pull us back to the past.

And when we make our own pots of tong sui and ladle up a bowl for the ones whom we care for, we are starting the cycle of love anew.

So as I add a generous spoonful of santan to my bowl of hak loh mai, knowing very well that we will ask for a second helping, maybe a third, it is with contentment at a weekend well spent and also at a craving, a deep heartfelt desire, satisfied.

It’s a walk down memory lane we didn’t know we needed but now that we have savoured it, are so glad that we did.

BLACK GLUTINOUS RICE TONG SUI

The startling contrast of black glutinous rice and white coconut cream is beautiful.
The startling contrast of black glutinous rice and white coconut cream is beautiful.

Despite its name, grains of black glutinous rice aren’t actually jet-black in colour but varies from brownish black to purplish black. High in dietary fibre as well as manganese, don’t panic when rinsing the grains as the resultant liquid will become almost burgundy in colour; it’s all natural!

Whilst the use of santan is pretty much standard for hak loh mai, other ingredients can be considered optional depending on where the tong sui is made. In my hometown of Malacca at least, what with its deep Peranakan heritage, some fragrant pandan is a must.

A knot of those pandan leaves imparts a lovely fragrance to the 'tong sui'.
A knot of those pandan leaves imparts a lovely fragrance to the 'tong sui'.

Another nice touch is the use of dried longan, which might confuse some purported tong sui purists. These add a different dimension to your sweet dessert soup and helps balance the richness of the coconut cream.

Finally, add a handful of rock sugar at the end of cooking, to your taste. Sweetness is an individual thing, after all, be it the flavour of food or one’s personal disposition.

Ingredients

150g black glutinous rice

2 litres water

2-3 pandan leaves, tied in a knot

50g dried longan

250ml santan (coconut cream); reserve some for topping later

1 teaspoon salt

100g rock sugar, or to taste

Method

First rinse the black glutinous rice with water. Aim for at least 4-5 rinses but note that the water will never run entirely clear.

Soak the rinsed rice overnight with enough water to cover the grains; if short on time, try to soak it for at least 1-2 hours before cooking else the cooking time will increase.

Drain the soaked black glutinous rice and add to a large pot, together with 2 litres of fresh water (not the soaking liquid). Bring to a boil over high heat.

Once the water reaches a rolling boil, reduce the heat to about medium-low. Allow to simmer for about 1.5 hours, making sure to stir from time to time to prevent any scorching as the grains absorb the water and the soup thickens.

Dried longan adds a more subtle and fruity sweetness.
Dried longan adds a more subtle and fruity sweetness.

About half an hour before the end of cooking or when the grains have softened, add the pandan and dried longan. Continue to simmer for at least another 30 minutes. You may add more water as necessary if the soup reduces too quickly.

While the black glutinous rice finishes cooking, use a smaller pot to warm the santan with the salt over low heat. Just a gentle simmer will do, till all the salt has dissolved. Set aside.

Add a handful of rock sugar at the end of cooking, to your taste.
Add a handful of rock sugar at the end of cooking, to your taste.

Towards the end of the cooking time, add some of the santan (how much depends on your preference consistency) and rock sugar to taste. Stir well to combine and remove the pot from the heat.

To serve, ladle the hak loh mai into individual bowls with a smaller dish of the remaining santan on the side for topping.

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