Lychee Buns: A Taste of Song-Dynasty Luxury
Anyone who has done business in China knows the importance of luxury goods. No banquet is complete without a serving of something expensive: bird’s nest, shark’s fin, fine baijiu, for example. As a regular traveler to China, I have chewed on my share of abalone and even unwittingly ingested the flesh of endangered species.
The love of luxury has been constant in China since ancient times. But Chinese views of luxury shift constantly, reflecting changing tastes and the laws of supply and demand.
In recent years, people have begun to see abalone and baijiu as blasé. Foreign foods like truffles, which offer a touch of novelty, have displaced old goodies. On my last trip to China, the men at the party were doing shots of solid Spanish reds instead of baijiu. Matsutake mushrooms have supplanted abalone as the highlight of the evening.
Long before the mushrooms became a banquet staple, ghee was a coveted luxury product in the eleventh century. The Song elite raved about the stuff: its rich flavor and fragrance. They also went to great lengths to buy ghee, shipping it over long distances.
Like most pricey foods, ghee was too good to keep to yourself. Song elites shared their loot with friends and donated it to monasteries. The thank you notes, which took the form of short poems, survive to this day.
The best ghee in the Northern Song period hailed from certain places in the north, from Xi’an and further west in Shaanxi and Gansu. Many Chinese believed that the superior flavor of the product owed much to the luxuriant grass that grew on the hills in these places year round. The grass fattened up local cows, producing creamy milk and marbled veal calves.
In practical terms, this meant yogurt with loads of milk fat, yogurt that cooks could churn into a cultured butter and then heat to make clarified butter, or ghee. The ghee not only had a deeper flavor than regular butter, but enjoyed a long shelf life. Some of the stuff found its way into the vegetarian delights served in southern monasteries.
This recipe offers clues about what Song-dynasty people did with their ghee. A fusion dish, it marries the flavors of the steppes to those of the tropics. The lychee, the other main ingredient, is native to Guangdong and Fujian, in the deep southeast. The sweet, fragrant fruit was popular in the Song dynasty, too. Well-heeled men and women feasted on the stuff. A renowned man of letters composed three hundred different poems about the fruit.
My efforts to reproduce the recipe presented mild challenges. Lychees are a seasonal product, available only during the early summer in Michigan. However, the canned product works just fine. Some versions of the recipe combine the lychees with coconut blossoms for a touch of sweetness. My search for the blossoms yielded no results. You can find coconut nectar online, but this may be overkill. Canned lychees, preserved in syrup, require no additional sugar.
The ghee sold at grocery stores is moreover different from the Song-dynasty product. Ghee nowadays is synonymous with clarified butter. In medieval China, cooks made ghee by first churning yogurt into butter and then heating that butter. This laborious method survives in rural Turkey and parts of India. But I have yet to successfully replicate it in the modern kitchen. Whole milk is not what it used to be. The fat content of commercial milk is too low to make much butter from yogurt. You can buy true or “traditional” ghee on Amazon, but a six-ounce jar will set you back at least fifty bucks.
My recipe is easier on the pocket book and still delicious.
Lychees (four twelve-ounce cans, or five to six cups of the fresh fruit, peeled)
Cinnamon, powdered ginger
1. Prepare the bun ahead of time with this recipe.
2. If using canned lychees, strain them well. Use a meat presser to squeeze out all of the liquid from the lychees.
3. Heat a wok, adding first the ghee and then the lychees. Sauté the fruit until the liquid evaporates and the fruits caramelize (be careful of hot oil splashes). Sprinkle powdered spices to taste, but go easy! They should add a touch of spice to the fruit, but not overwhelm the palate. Set aside and allow the lychees to cool to room temperature.
4. Prepare the buns in the usual way. Brush a little of the caramelized butter from the pan onto the buns before adding the fruit. Scoop up about two tablespoons of the filling and close the buns.