Monday, January 19, 2009

Exploring Fermented Rice

Chinese sweets, and I am not talking about fortune cookies, tend to bring out polarized reactions from people with Western palates. Bean paste tucked into steamed bread? Barley soup with ginko nuts? How is this a treat?

During our bike tour of central China, we ditched the bikes for a bit and did a temple hike. We trekked up, up, up windy staircases with no guard rails, dirt paths, and finally, there was the temple. And there I was, starving! Luckily, there was a vendor who had somehow lugged his food stall up the same stairs (how?), ready to offer us hungry hikers a fortifying snack. It looked odd to me: he had a 40 gallon carboy half full of white stuff, some eggs, and a propane burner. The tour guide was eating it, and so I figured, what the heck? I'm starving!

The snack we ate that day consisted of fermented rice, a little water, and eggs. It was not a snack my family had ever made, but fermented rice was nothing new to me. My mother makes a dessert, bak tong go, that is a fermented rice cake. It is subtly sweet, lightly fermented rice flour cake that my brother and I would scarf down as soon as it was done steaming.

When I returned home, I was happy to see that so many of the foods I had tried in central China were readily available to me at my local Asian grocery store. I'm so freaking lucky to live here! I had always seen some of these items, but since my family did cook with them, I passed them by, not knowing how to use them.

I make this sweet fermented rice soup for breakfast on cold, blustery days. If anyone knows the name of this, clue me in!

You'll need some of sweet fermented rice, glutinous rice balls, and some eggs.

A quick note about sweet rice: this does not mean that there is sugar added. "Sweet rice" refers to short grain rice. In the picture above of the packaged fermented sweet rice, there is sugar, but it is a byproduct of the fermentation - you might be able to see that the ingredient list simply states sweet rice, yeast, and water.

To make this the soup I enjoyed in central China, I bring to a boil about 2 cups of water, and add a cup of fermented rice in a small saucepan. Add the rice balls, and let them cook for a minute. Then, pour in two or three scrambled eggs. Do not stir for at least 30 seconds because you want the eggs to set. Once the eggs are set, turn off the heat, break up the eggs, add some sugar of your choice (I hardily add more than a tablespoon of agave syrup since the fermented rice is naturally sweet), and serve! ETA: Some recipes call for adding the fermented rice after the egg is set.

This isn't exactly cereal and milk, but trust me, it is delicious!

Since I've been a fermenting fool lately, I decided that I could make my own fermented rice. I found a good tutorial here, but since I still had some fermented rice left, I decided to do the old trick of using some of the old stuff to make some new stuff. Currently, it is bubbling on my counter. The boy is making faces at it, and he is sure that I am trying to kill us both, but so far, it smells and tastes right. My mother thinks I'm a little nuts for trying this, although she does remember her mom making this using similar methods (and I must note that her and her siblings are all alive and going strong). It should be done tomorrow!

ETA: The trick worked! My fermented rice turned out just as wonderful as the store bought stuff, and both the boy and I had it for yesterday's breakfast. In other words, no one died from it.


  1. Kerala, in SW India, has a fermented rice crepe of sorts. Here is a recipe that seems okay (I just googled it as an example)

    The pan you cook it in is a very very shallow wok so the center is a little lumpy (dumpling like) with a thinner crepe like edge. The crepe comes out like a shallow bowl and you fill it with stewed coconut chicken and send yourself to paradise. We use fresh coconut milk, which isn't as gooey and sweet as the canned thai stuff.

  2. Sounds yummy! We do a lot of jook here (rice porridge) but haven't tried the fermented thing yet. And I *love* bak tong go!

  3. Wow! So interesting - I will have to try this sometime :)

  4. ok, even when you provide step by step instructions, and pictures, I'm sure this is still beyond me. Looks yummy tho.

  5. That sounds so unusual! I would love to try it. It would break up our hum-drum cereal and an occasional crazy yogurt breakfasts.

  6. Okay, now I'm looking at those rice balls and having flashbacks of the tapioca balls in that tea!!!

    If you didn't know what was coming up that straw, it wasn't always a pleasant surprise...but the tea was good!

  7. ""Sweet rice" refers to short grain rice." perhaps a little correction;
    sweet rice refers to glutinous rice, this is the rice they use to make amasake (Japanese fermented rice) and sake (rice wine). The glutinous rice in Thailand is long grain and is used to make the Thai equivalent of amasake (kow maak), sake (sato) and also for the stronger drink Lao Kao.



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