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October 27, 2016

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Autumn fragrance osmanthus oozes depth

CHINESE mythology and culinary traditions fuse in the sweet aroma of osmanthus, a flower that blossoms in the autumn and fills the air with a fragrance sometimes likened to peach or apricot.

Osmanthus is a genus of about 30 species of flowering shrubs in the Oleaceae family. It’s a common ornamental plant in China, with strongly scented white and yellow flowers.

Chinese culture has long idolized the plant. In one mythical legend, an emperor punishes a man named Wu Gang by ordering him to chop down an osmanthus tree in front of the moon palace.

But the shrub branches he lops off keep growing back, and Wu is condemned to continue his endless task for thousands of years.

The phrase “Wu Gang chopping the osmanthus” has come to mean any task of endless toil and worthless effort. In a variation on the tale, Wu Gang is credited with creating aromatic osmanthus wine. It’s said that a kind-hearted winemaker’s widow took care of Wu when he was old and poor.

In gratitude, he gave her the seeds of an osmanthus bush and said only those with a generous heart could grow the plant. Today, there is an osmanthus wine label in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region called Wu Gang.

The flower of sweet osmanthus has a long-lived fragrance, making it ideal as a blend for wines and teas. Osmanthus wine is perhaps the most notable of Chinese floral wines, and across China, there are several distinctive brewing methods.

The simplest osmanthus wine is made by adding the flowers to mild white distilled spirits along with rock sugar. The bottles are sealed for three months to allow full infusion of the floral fragrance.

The liquor is best when made with fresh osmanthus flowers, but dried ones also work if you are making it at home. Goji berries and dried longan can also be added for more depth of flavor. The alcohol content is usually lower than 20 percent.

Osmanthus wine can also be made by infusing the flowers in a mild yellow wine, making the perfect beverage to complement steamed hairy crabs in the autumn.

In Suzhou, one unique osmanthus wine is brewed only once a year, always ahead of the winter solstice. It’s called dong niang jiu, which translates as “wine brewed in the winter.”

The Suzhou wine is made with glutinous rice and osmanthus flowers, producing a very fruity, almost juice-like floral brew with low alcohol content. In Suzhou, even children can have a sip or two. Some liken its flavor to Sprite, with its slight bubbly taste.

Every year, people from Suzhou and neighboring cities go to old wine shops to buy dong niang jiu one week before the winter solstice in December. The osmanthus wine is sold in rustic plastic bottles, usually for less than 20 yuan (US$3) per bottle.

The wine sells out quickly, and those who miss out have to wait 12 months for another chance to buy it.

Some local favorite shops selling the wine are Yuan Da Chang, Li Hua Wine Factoryand Jiang Nan Chun Wine Factory.

Dong niang jiu goes well with traditional Suzhou-style cakes and pastries, like lard rice cake with red beans, a thick, creamy dessert.

Osmanthus tea is also a popular beverage of the autumn season. There are two typical variations. One uses dried osmanthus flowers directly by infusing them in hot water and adding honey or rock sugar to taste; the other blends osmanthus with herbal brews.

Osmanthus oolong is a very fragrant green oolong tea that combines the floral taste of oolong and the fruity flavors of osmanthus flowers.

Another way to brew osmanthus tea is by adding hot water to sweet osmanthus sauce that’s made by infusing fresh or dried osmanthus flowers in honey.

Because of their sweet, fruit flavor, osmanthus flowers are used in many Chinese desserts. The famous osmanthus cake itself has more than five regional variations.

The prettiest osmanthus cake is the flower-shaped osmanthus jelly, with osmanthus flowers dotted inside. The dessert is very light in taste and often paired with oolong tea.

Steamed osmanthus cake uses a combination of wheat and glutinous rice flours. The bun-like cakes with osmanthus sugar are topped with golden flowers as well.

Shanghai-style osmanthus cake is a crystal, diamond shaped cake made with glutinous rice flour and sweet osmanthus sauce.


Osmanthus sugar sauce

Osmanthus sugar sauce is an easy way to preserve the sweet osmanthus flowers for use in beverages and dishes. The sauce can be added to hot water for a quick cup of tea or used as a topping on desserts for extra flavor.

To make the sauce, fresh osmanthus flowers are rinsed in water and then cured in salt for 10 minutes to get rid of excess moisture. The flowers are then placed in a container with sugar and honey — 100 grams of honey and 500 grams of sugar for every 700 grams of flowers — and steamed for 10 minutes.

The resulting mixture is poured into clean, dry glass jars and let to cool to room temperature. Honey and sugar are then placed on top to seal off oxidation. The sauce is ready after three days.

There is an even simpler recipe for osmanthus sugar sauce. Fresh osmanthus flowers are rinsed clean and then dried in a cool place. The flowers are then layered with granulated sugar in sterile, dry glass jars. White distilled liquor is drizzled on top before the containers are sealed and stored in the fridge.

Check the next day to see if most sugar has been dissolved, then take a dry, clean chopstick and stir clockwise so that the osmanthus flowers are thoroughly coated with the sugar syrup.

The key to success is ensuring that the amount of sugar used in the recipe is greater than the volume of osmanthus flowers and that the mixture is kept refrigerated. The sauce is ready after about four weeks and can be stored for several more months.


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