Sweet Mung Bean Soup
And a short introduction to traditional Cantonese desserts (tong sui)
Coming from Canton, soup is what really runs in my veins. To start our meal we have savoury soups, (the chicken soup here is one of them) and to end the meal we have sweet soups, also known as tong sui 糖水, which literally translates to ‘sweet water’.
When it gets too hot in summer and we have no appetite, we don’t even need the main course in between.
Though it is called ‘soup/water’, it does not always come in liquid form — it’s more a general name for traditional Cantonese desserts rather than a descriptive summary.
In fact, five of the most traditional soups are collectively known as ‘two slush three paste’ 二沙三糊: red bean and mung bean ‘slush’, along with black sesame, almond, and walnut ‘paste’. The ‘slush’ type of soup is more similar to the English rice pudding; beans cooked slowly until they start to break down and form a thick soup, but each individual bean still remains detectable. The ‘paste’ style, on the other hand, consists of nuts or seeds blended until smooth but just before the oil start to seperate, then cooked with rice paste to form a smooth glossy thick soup, the consistency rests somewhere between a nut butter and thick custard.
The history of tong sui is said to be so long that no one really knows when such dishes first appeared. The reason for their invention is a combination of the geographical location of Canton and theories in traditional Chinese medicine: the area is hot and humid, sugarcanes were widely grown, and it is believed that sugar is effective in removing excess humidity in the human body.
After hundreds of years in development, the variety of tong sui you can get has grown vastly, and the habit of eating tong sui has very much infiltrated our daily lives. If you walk around in my home city, you can always find a tong sui stall no matter which way you turn. Akin to cakes in the western world, there are also endless possibilities of tong sui you can have. (This is also why I am calling this ‘an introduction’ to the subject, because it is actually a very big topic for a deep dive.)
If soupy desserts are not your cup of tea, there are plenty of other options to choose from.
Milk-based desserts — traditionally made with buffalo milk — are a popular subcategory, with the two most common ones being ginger-curdled milk 姜撞奶, which has the texture of a tender panna cotta, and double-skin milk 双皮奶, which is often topped with coarse red bean paste and resembles an extra creamy set custard.
If you are vegan, there are also similar desserts made with almond milk, as well as bowls of steamed or stewed fruits, much like poached pears or quinces here, but served with grains and pulses, and sometimes with Chinese herbs.
When tong sui culture travelled across to Hong Kong, fusion varieties started to develop, utilitsing a combination of traditional concepts and more exocit ingredients. Mango pomelo sago and coconut sago pudding are perhaps the most famous in this category, but there are many more varieties each with their own history and origin.
Other than the diversity, another important concept in tong sui culture is seasonality. Much like savoury soups, the choice of tong sui consumed is often mindful of the season, weather, as well as the mood that the eater is in.
Most places both hot and cold versions are available for most items for maximum flexibility, and in some shops they even provide a list of seasonal recommendations. Given the huge variety of dishes, you will always find the one for any time of the day on any day of the year: yuba and gingko barley for spring, chilled mung bean for summer, cane sugar stewed pear for autumn, warm red bean soup for cold winter.
Some of these choices stem from traditional Chinese medicine believes, but the core idea is timeless: the best soup would always be the ones we crave, and our cravings will vary with the season.
So, in preparation for the summer ahead — despite the coldest May here in England — here is a recipe for Cantonese style sweet mung bean soup.
Cantonese mung bean soup 海带绿豆沙
One of the most traditional dessert soups back home, it is simple to make but requires patience.
The old school recipe calls for common rue and aged orange peel, both of which I have none, but fresh orange peel works well as a substitute for the latter. These additions I feel can be an acquired taste for some, so feel free to skip if doubtful, but the orange peel is essential for authenticity.
100g dried mung beans, washed and soaked overnight
30g - 60g cane sugar or rock sugar, precise amount to taste
about 1 sheet of kombu/sea kelp, soaked overnight, the sliced into thin strips
2 - 3 strips of orange peel (about 1/8 - 1/4 of an orange), soaked in water
handful of common rue, if available
In a pot, add your soaked mung beans, along with roughly 3 times the volume of water.
Bring water to boil on high heat, then lid on, turn to low heat and simmer for 10 - 15 minutes, until 1/5 of the beans start to break down, shown in the picture below.
Add sea kelp and orange peel (discard the soaking water), then gradually add sugar, adjusting to taste.
Keep on low heat with lid on, simmer slowly for 40 minutes to 1 hour, until a porridge-like consistency. There is no single rule for consistency — it is very much a personal taste, but if you need to add water mid-way, add freshly boiled water.
Serve chilled on a hot summers day, or warm when it’s cold and rainy.
Thank you for reading until the end :) I decided to write this article because tong sui means a lot to me and my culture, but I feel it is a rather low key subject around here. Also, I have been speaking to some foodie friends, and they all thought sea kelp in mung bean soup as a dessert is weird, so hopefully by writing more about the wider subject, it will sound less weird…
Have you ever had tong sui in Chinese restaurants? Leave a comment or DM me to let me know!
Finally, a bit of an update: I am going to take a break with the blog and resume in June, and I will update monthly going forward. I thought long and hard about this, but as lockdown is lifting here I would like to catchup with other things too — such as climbing/eating out/meeting friends. I also want to take more time in writing more thorough posts…
I will be active more regularly on Instagram of course — short recipes and daily cooking will be shared there.
Hope you all have a wonderful May and see you next month! :)