We lived on Waverly Place, in a warm, clean, two-bedroom flat that sat above a small Chinese bakery specialising in steamed pastries and dim sum. In the early morning, when the alley was still quiet, I could smell fragrant red beans as they were cooked down to a pasty sweetness. By daybreak, our flat was heavy with the odour of fried sesame balls and sweet curried chicken crescents.
The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan
On special Sundays when I was growing up, we'd head to Chinatown for Yum Cha (or Dim Sum). The enormous dining room, with its round tables and trolleys laden with teetering towers of bamboo baskets, was endlessly exciting for this food obsessed child. My sister, whose tastes have become slowly more adventurous as we've grown older, always ate countless cha siu bao. The rest of us over-ordered on the dumplings; it's just too easy to keep saying yes when someone continues to bring delicious looking food straight to your table. I have very affectionate memories of those Sundays, and every time I have a sip of jasmine tea, I'm transported back to that dining room.
After last month's dumplings, I have been hunting for a way to include more Chinese food on this site; I've been making tons of it at home. It's a cuisine I didn't grow up cooking, but it's something I've long been keen to learn more about. The sesame balls in The Joy Luck Club, so evocatively described by a young character who loves about a Chinese bakery in New York, were the perfect challenge. Like the dumplings, they're not particularly difficult, but they do take time: a long boil for the shiny red beans until they're reduced to a rich paste, individually filled and rolled balls which require a slight lightness of hand. It's a recipe to make when you need something calming, and steadying. They're also completely delicious, and well worth your time.
They are also perfect with a cup of Chinese tea and luckily, thanks to the generous team at Jing, this is something I now know a little more about. A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to an evening of tea tasting at Spice Market. I drink tea every day - a strong Earl Grey (with milk) made first thing in the morning, a couple of mugs of English Breakfast while at work, and an after-dinner Lapsang Souchong or Assam before crashing into bed (caffeine be damned). I rarely drink green or white tea, but my tasting with Jing may have changed that. Their beautiful Silver Needle (pictured above with the sesame balls) is a gorgeous refreshing tea to drink with food - especially Chinese sweets.
Disclaimer: Jing Tea sent me some lovely teas to sample, along with some of their glassware. If you you want to try some for yourself, you can get 10% off an order during August using the code TLLCAUG15. And if you don't fancy white tea, I can also vouch for their Earl Grey - it's the best I've tasted in a long time.
Makes around 20
150g glutinous rice flour (available from Asian food stores and some supermarkets)
40g light brown sugar
1/4tsp baking powder
100g red adzuki beans
40g caster sugar
1tbsp butter or margarine
50g sesame seeds
300ml vegetable oil
1. First, prepare the red bean paste. If you have 24 hours to soak the beans, do it. If you don't (as I didn't), then you'll just have to boil them for longer. Put them in a saucepan, cover them with an inch or so of water and bring them to a rollicking boil. You'll need to keep topping up the water every now and then, and do keep an eye on them, to ensure they aren't sticking to the pan. Other than that, you can leave them alone.
2. After a couple of hours (my un-soaked ones took two hours; if you soak them it may be more like one) the beans will be soft and squishable - press some of them against the side of the pan with a wooden spoon to test this; you shouldn't sense any resistance. Drain them, then push them through a sieve. Once you have a smooth paste, put this back on the heat, add the sugar and cook until it reaches a thick paste-like consistency. Take off the heat and stir in the butter. Set the paste aside.
3. To make the dough, knead two tablespoons of the flour and one tablespoon of the water into a small ball. Heat a small saucepan of boiling water and cook the ball of dough for two minutes. Remove, and add to the rest of the flour, baking powder and sugar. Slowly add the water, mixing the dough together with your hand. It will form a firm dough. Place the dough in the fridge for half an hour.
4. To assemble the balls, slice the dough into 20 even pieces. Prepare your work station as pictured above - with a bowl of water, and one of sesame seeds, and have the red bean paste close by as well. Flatten the edges of a piece of dough, place a teaspoon of the red bean paste inside and bring the edges around it, pinching them closed. Roll gently between your hands so as not to squash the paste out of the dough and then roll on the bench to even out any bumps. Dip the ball in water and then into the sesame seeds, and set aside while you complete the other balls.
5. Heat your oil to 180C, or hot enough to turn a 2cm cube of bread crispy and golden within a minute. Drop a couple of balls into it, leaving enough room for them to float around freely. The balls will swell and become darker in colour; roll them over once they're golden underneath (this will take a couple of minutes). Continue to cook for another two minutes or so, then remove them from the oil and drain them on kitchen paper. Let them cool for a minute or two, and eat with tea.