'The true cook is the perfect blend, the only perfect blend, of artist and philosopher. He knows his worth: he holds in his palm the happiness of mankind, the welfare of generations yet unborn.'

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Sweet purple rice soup with coconut milk 椰汁紫米露

In my earlier posts on congee and panna cotta, I wrote about how different colours in food often carry unique characteristics, flavours and connotations - that's why we're recommended to eat at least five different colours of food every day, right?

Well, I'm not sure many of us live up to that lofty ideal, but I'd like to introduce a sweet soup today made of my favourite colour: purple. It's interesting that there isn't actually much purple food around. I can think of aubergine (eggplant), but that's just the skin. I'm sure there're other purple ingredients, but it seems much rarer than other colours. Incidentally, the rarest colour in food has got to be blue, which is a rare pigment in nature. That's why we find blue eyes so attractive, right? A blue cocktail never fails to deliver the impression 'Caution! Is it really food?' (Am I alone in thinking this?)

In recent years, however, purple food has been all the rage. Think of purple potatoes and purple broccoli. I'm sure they have always been around, but the exponential growth in their popularity is staggering. Fifty years ago who would have dreamt of eating a purple potato or broccoli? The major factor in their recently popularity (apart from their catchy colour) is their exceptional nutritional values. Take purple potatoes, for instance: unlike white potatoes, they are rich in the antioxidant anthocyanin. This flavonoid has been shown to be an immune system booster and aid in the prevention of certain cancers, and more importantly, promote weight loss!

Turning to the Orient, one purple ingredient has been in constant use for thousands of years: purple rice. It is in fact one variety of unrefined glutinous (sweet) rice. It has long been prized as a superfood in China and in ancient times it was reserved for the royalty. It is extraordinarily rich in vitamins, minerals, iron, melanin and has four essential amino acids. Curiously, its use is mainly in sweet dishes, usually soaked and steamed before mixing with sugar and other ingredients. The purple rice soup I'm writing about today is one of the few liquid applications of this ingredient, and is hugely popular in Hong Kong. I've served it to many Chinese friends from other regions and they all loved it. It's really easy to make too.


Think of this as a congee made with purple rice, sweetened with sugar and fortified with coconut milk. It is important that you soak the purple rice thoroughly first otherwise it would be very difficult to cook and soften.

1. Rinse the purple rice briefly and add water to cover generously. Add 1/2 tsp salt for every 250g of rice, stir well and let soak for at least 5 hours. The salt helps to soften the grains. Caution: The rice will yield a lot of sweet soup after cooking. Don't start with too much rice unless you really want to cook a huge portion!

I used 500g of rice this time - enough for a huuuge pot.

2. Now add water (don't throw away the soaking water! It's full of nutrients!) and cook the rice in a large pan. The rice to water ratio should be about 1:10. Bring to a boil before turning down to medium-low and simmer for an hour with the lid on. Stir the bottom of the pan from time to time to prevent scorching.

It looks almost black and rather dull right now. Fear not, things will lighten up when you add the coconut milk.

Taste the rice - it should be chewable.
3. After an hour, the rice grains should be soft and have released some of its starch. Add plenty of coconut milk - it really needs a good dose of the stuff for flavour. I suggest at least one (preferably two) can of coconut milk for every 250g of rice. It's kind of like adding milk to your coffee. Some people like it black, some milky, but I think in this sweet soup the coconut milk is really essential.

Looking more like it now, but I felt that it still needed more coconut milk...

So I added another can. Doesn't it look like latte art?

4. Season with sugar and salt. Don't be alarmed by the addition of salt. Like many southeast-asian desserts, it needs salt to give body to the sweetness. As far as sugar is concerned, err on the side of adding too little rather than too much - the coconut milk adds a natural sweetness and it will taste sweeter when cool. You can always add more sugar later if you decide that it's not sweet enough.

5. Leave to cool to room temperature. I like to add some tapioca pearls to add some texture to the soup, but it's optional. If you want to add it, do it now (not when it's hot). You will also notice that the soup has thickened visibly upon cooling. Serve chilled or hot. (For instructions on how to cook tapioca pearls, please refer to my earlier post on melon tapioca soup.)

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