Growing up in Hefei, I didn’t have much of a sweet tooth as far as street food was concerned. There weren’t many sweet food items sold on the streets to begin with – there was bingtang hulu, sugar-coated hawthorn fruits; tangchao lizi, chestnuts stir-fried in sugar; and that’s probably about it. I did not care for either of them. But my ears will perk up if I’m sitting in my grandparents’ living room and hear the rhythmic beating of a bolanggu, a type of pellet drum, waiting for the hoarse cry of an old man that sometimes accompanied it:
“Mai jiuniang lo! Mai jiuniang lo!”
(“Jiuniang for sale! Jiuniang for sale!”)
In those chilly autumnal evenings, the old man was a frequent visitor to my grandparents’ residential complex, where my mom and I often went for dinner after work and school, and before going back home. He was always seen pulling a wooden cart with a big wooden barrel covered by a damp towel set on top, spinning the bolanggu in hand, creating a plop plop sound that was associated with street vendors of various goods or, occasionally, collectors of plastic bottles and cans for recycling.
Whenever I hear the old man, I’d grab my mom or my grandma, and race downstairs to greet him and his big wooden barrel filled with a nectar fit for the gods: jiuniang, a soupy sweet rice pudding made from fermenting nuomi (sweet sticky rice) with a specific starter called jiuqu, slightly alcoholic and naturally sweet and tangy from the fermentation process. We’d ask the old man for a taste of the jiuniang to see if it is sweet enough; he’d ladle a little bit out, we’d drink it, give him a thumbs-up of approval, and buy a jin (roughly a pound) or two in a plastic bag, and take it back upstairs.
Jiuniang could be eaten in one of several ways: I loved to just eat it straight out of the bag right after we bought it, the jiuniang so cold and so sweet, with a slight aftertaste of alcohol (China’s views on alcohol for kids were pretty relaxed back then, and probably remains so today; more on that sometime later); if any was left, we would make jiuniang dajidan (jiuniang with egg), either by poaching the egg in the boiling jiuniang or swirling a beaten egg into it to make an “egg flower”, for breakfast the next day.
A real test of self-control would be to save enough jiuniang for dinner the next evening, after my grandma would’ve had some time to make some yuanxiao, tiny white balls made from glutinous rice flour that she’d shape by rubbing small pieces of dough in a circle in the palms of her hands, and make jiuniang yuanxiao (sometimes even with an egg!). The cooking process mellows the slightly bitter edge of the alcohol as it evaporates away, and, especially with the addition of a few spoonfuls of sugar, a delightfully sweet soup awaits me when I would come back from school. There were few things on earth better than coming back to my grandparents’ place and smelling the aroma of a pot of jiuniang yuanxiao bubbling away on the stove, my grandpa hurrying to take my backpack off me and my grandma asking about my day at school, and sitting down to a steaming bowl of jiuniang yuanxiao to warm up – and I’d forget about my homework for at least half an hour!
Since moving to the US, my parents and I have tried to make jiuniang countless times at home, given that Chinese supermarkets here tend to carry only expensive Taiwanese brands that taste more sour than what we were used to. The process to make jiuniang is not difficult on paper, but has a high failure rate (every utensil must be absolutely clean, even microwaved to kill off any bacteria, without a drop of water or oil, and the rice-starter mixture must be kept at specific temperatures to promote the growth of certain kinds of bacteria for the fermentation process, etc.); we’ve consulted countless recipes on a Chinese cooking forum that we frequent, all of which promise a “simple, fail-safe” process, but we’ve yet to nail it down properly and often had to throw out our experiments, as we were never quite sure if the white or black mold growing on the rice is safe to eat (different recipe writers seem to disagree on this point)! I’ve taken to just eating store-bought jiuniang with a generous helping of sugar to try to mimic the taste of my childhood, but it is just not the same…