My Citizens! It is My great honor and pleasure as the Emperor of the Empyrean – YOUR TFD! – to wish you a most heartfelt 恭喜发财 and 新年好! Both mean the same thing in Cantonese and Mandarin – HAPPY NEW YEAR! – as we are now entering the year of the Water Tiger and good riddance to a less-than-stellar 2021, aka the year of the Metal Ox!
Being the contrarian that I am, I will NOT be sharing a Chinese recipe today, but instead a Vietnamese dish known as xôi lá dứa! Why? It is colored a most luminous shade of green and thus is an auspicious symbol of the year of the Water Tiger and also as an omen foreshadowing much sweetness, happiness and money in 2022 (the dish is quite sweet, it is exceptionally fragrant with Pandan essence and this year is said to be ideal for starting a new business – more on that shortly)!
This dish is a favored breakfast in Vietnam, and My image shows the rice molded into the Chinese character for ‘Double Happiness’ – a most apropos way indeed to start off your Chinese New Year, methinks! Xôi là dừa is a Vietnamese dessert (and breakfast!) belonging to the group of xôi dishes that are made with a base of sticky rice. It consists of pandan-flavored steamed rice that can be combined or topped with coconut milk or coconut cream. The dish is garnished with grated coconut as well as salted, pounded sesame seeds or peanuts. Apart from the flavor and aroma, pandan gives the rice its typical green color and heady aroma.
Before we discuss the recipe and what exactly pandan is – a brief discussion of Chinese astrology is perhaps in order!
2022 is the year of the Black-Water Tiger and the 2022 Chinese New Year Day is on Tuesday, February 1, 2022, which is the 4719th Chinese year. The first day of the Chinese astrological year is the first day of Tiger Month. The first day of the Water Tiger is on February 4, 2022. If a baby was born before February 4, then the baby’s Chinese Zodiac sign is the Ox, not the Tiger. February 4, 2022, is also the opening Ceremony date of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.
Tiger is associated with the thunder or motion in Chinese I-Ching. Water Tiger is equivalent to the Water-Thunder Hexagram, which means something moving inside the Water. That’s a sign of a baby growing inside the womb. Therefore, Water Tiger of 2022 implies caution, growth, development, challenge, creation, and planning. Tiger month is the first month of the spring, when seeds and plants start to germinate. December of Winter Solistice contains one Yang, while February of the Tiger year contains three Yangs.
The expression of San-Yang-Kai-Tai 三羊開泰 used in the Chinese New Year means Three Yangs Start Fortune. Therefore, 2022 is a great year to start a business or career goal. Chinese zodiacs are based on the Heavenly Stems and Branches system, which coordinates one of five elements (Metal, Water, Wood, Fire and Earth) to each Tiger Year on a rotating basis. That means every 60 years, one element will apply to the Zodiac sign and have certain personality traits associated with it. Other recent years include 1950 and 2010’s Metal Tiger, 1974 and 2034’s Wood Tiger, 1926 and 1986’s Fire Tiger, and 1938 and 1998’s Earth Tiger.
2022 is the Year of the Water Tiger. Those born this year are said to have great interpersonal relationships, and be very family-oriented. The last Water Tiger year was 1962. On the other hand, Metal Tigers are natural leaders with a rebellious side, but are also sympathetic to those on their team. Wood Tigers love to learn, have excellent memories, and are creative with a solid group of friends. Fire Tigers are detail-oriented, talented, and strong-willed – but hate discussion. Earth Tigers are generous, but can have an arrogant side as well. Either way, they love to help.
The green of this dish as well as its unmatched perfumed fragrance both derive from the same source – the tropical pandan leaf. The paste, extract, and powder made from the leaves both tint the ingredients with a green hue while contributing flavor and aroma. Pandan leaves have a naturally sweet taste and soft aroma. Its flavor is strong, described as grassy with hints of rose, almond, and vanilla, verging on coconut. Pandan shares an aroma compound with basmati rice, so some cooks looking to save money will flavor plain rice with pandan.
Pandan is believed to have been domesticated in ancient times. It is sterile and can only reproduce vegetatively through suckers or cuttings. It was first described from specimens from the Maluku Islands, and the rare presence of male flowers in these specimens may indicate that it is the origin of the species. However, as no other wild specimens have been found, this is still conjecture. The plant is grown widely throughout Southeast Asia. It has also been introduced to South Asia via Malaysia and Indonesia, where they are grown extensively, though South Asian populations have low genetic diversity.
In Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, it is commonly called pandan or pandan wangi (fragrant pandan). The green juice acquired from its leaf is used extensively in Malaysian cuisine and Indonesian cuisine as green food coloring and flavoring agents that gave pleasant aroma for kue, a tapioca, flour or glutinous rice-based traditional cakes; including klepon, kue putu, dadar gulung, lapis legit, pandan cake, buko pandan salad, and buko pandan cake. The tied knot of bruised pandan leaf is also added into fragrant coconut rice to enhance the aroma.
In Sri Lanka, it is called rampé and it is grown almost in every household. Most of the Sri Lankan dishes use these leaves for aroma along with curry leaves. In India it is called annapurna leaves; In Odisha, India annapurna leaves are used to lend aroma to rice and pithas, in Bangladesh, it is called pulao pata (পোলাও পাতা); and in the Maldives, it is called ran’baa along with the other variety of pandan there (Pandanus fascicularis), and is used to enhance the flavor of pulao, biryani, and sweet coconut rice pudding, or payesh if basmati rice is not used.
It acts as a cheap substitute for basmati fragrance, as one can use normal, non-fragrant rice and with pandan the dish tastes and smells like basmati is used. The leaves are used either fresh or dried, and are commercially available in frozen form in Asian grocery stores of nations where the plant does not grow. They have a nutty, botanical fragrance that is used as a flavor enhancer in many Asian cuisines, especially in rice dishes, desserts, and cakes.
The leaves are sometimes steeped in coconut milk, which is then added to the dish. They may be tied in a bunch and cooked with the food. They may be woven into a basket which is used as a pot for cooking rice. Pandan chicken, (Thai: ไก่ห่อใบเตย, kai ho bai toei), is a dish of chicken parts wrapped in pandan leaves and fried. The leaves are also used as a flavoring for desserts such as pandan cake and sweet beverages. Filipino cuisine uses pandan as a flavoring in some coconut milk-based dishes as well as desserts like buko pandan. It is also used widely in rice-based pastries such as suman and numerous sweet drinks and desserts.
Pandan leaves and their extract have also been used as a food preservative due to their antibacterial and antifungal properties (particularly against mold). Bottled pandan extract is available in shops, and often contains green food coloring. The leaves are used in the perfume industry and traditional medicine. Pandan essence may substitute for vanilla essence and it is far less expensive. Studies have even established the strong repellent capabilities of pandan against American cockroaches!
In xôi lá dứa, pandan is the star of the show and you want to use only the freshest leaves (or frozen, if you live near an Asian supermarket – they almost always carry them). If you want to use the fresh leaves, you can actually buy them from this purveyor on eBay. You will also need some concentrated pandan essence – that is almost impossible to find even in Southeast Asia, as artificial flavors and colors seem to rule the pandan supplies in most supermarkets there. Thankfully, you CAN get genuine pandan essence in the United States – it isn’t cheap, but a little goes a VERY LONG WAY – you can buy it from here.
Glutinous rice is the other major co-star in this dish – this is a very good brand, and please do NOT substitute regular rice for glutinous! Glutinous rice is far stickier, and far more sweet and it is not interchangeable at all with regular rice. You absolutely want to use UNSWEETENED coconut CREAM, not sweetened coconut cream or sweetened coconut milk – this is the correct kind to purchase and is very high-quality. This is my preferred brand of unsweetened coconut milk, which you will also need in addition to shredded unsweetened coconut. Lastly, if you want to use a ‘double happiness’ silicone mold as shown in the recipe image, you can buy it here.
Citizens – the New Year is upon us and I hope that all of TFD Nation enjoys a happy, healthy and prosperous Chinese New Year – hopefully enjoyed with My Vietnamese breakfast/dessert as a favored meal rife with symbolism during your celebrations!
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