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In the Scorching Heat Wave, Smoky Plums Saved Me

What to eat or drink to beat the heat? My vote is for this hotpot tonic.

Christopher Cheung 21 Jul

Christopher Cheung reports on urban issues for The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung.

I live in one of those Vancouver towers with big windows, both their international selling point and their Achilles’ heel. When the heat dome hit last month, the windows invited the sun in to broil us. The leaves scorched off my houseplant. The vinyl melted off my blinds with a chemical stink. The leftover rice I was too lazy to remove from the rice cooker blossomed with mould.

I’d been working from home since the beginning of the pandemic, and when the extreme weather arrived, I longed for our downtown office with its Arctic air conditioning. The ability to shower and go shirtless at home without co-workers around helped slightly, but it didn’t stop my body from heating up during the workday like an overcharged battery.

What to eat or drink to beat the heat? I ended up embracing an unlikely saviour to combat our new climate change hell, something that revolted me as a kid that I’ve now learned to love: smoky plums.

I tried a lot of other things before I came to these plums. I cooked some cold dishes — potato salad, a slippery Hainanese chicken — but they required boiling water, not great in the heat. So I took to different Metro Vancouver restaurants to dip into various summertime eats.

At North Road’s Koreatown, I sat at the side of a sizzling parking lot slurping naengmyeon from a stainless-steel bowl: buckwheat noodles with pickled cucumbers and chunks of ice in a truly chilling beef broth.

In Collingwood Village, I picked up a halo-halo from a Filipino café: ube ice cream on a heap of shaved ice with macapuno and coconut meat buried inside. I welcomed the brain freeze, though within seconds the sun turned my colourful cup of art into purple sludge.

I even tried to sweat out the heat, venturing into the windowless dark of Crystal Mall’s food court for something spicy. I sat at a table with the fan in my face to drain a laksa from Malay Curry House: a yin-yang of thick egg and thin rice noodles in curried coconut milk with shrimp, fish cake, poached chicken and a pool of chilli oil that triggered peaceful perspiration.

It was nice to flee my apartment in the evenings, but my body needed something to withstand the hottest hours of the day. I couldn’t show up on Zoom as a tomato. Friends and family offered suggestions. Limeade? Cold tofu? A doodh soda?

Then I was reintroduced to smoky plums. A friend offered me a sip of homemade syunmuitang, which is made with the plums. The Cantonese doesn’t translate flatteringly to English: “sour prune soup.”

According to traditional Chinese medicine, it’s a cooling drink, perfect for enjoying with hotpot to counter sore throats from too much red meat. Some restaurants make it, but you can also buy it in nicely packaged bottles from Asian supermarkets.

I had my first try of syunmuitang — known as suenmeitang in Mandarin — at age 12, at supposedly one of the best restaurants in Vancouver for it, Landmark on Cambie Street. A dapper server in a white shirt and purple vest brought out a pitcher of the stuff to fill our glasses. It was dark amber with a ruby hue.

“Try it! It’s good!” said all my relatives. But one sip and I shuddered — it was too strange, too sour, too herbal. I washed it down with a Coke. Over the years, watching adults drink it was more peculiar than watching them drink wine. My taste buds did not understand it.

But trying it as an adult in the middle of a heat wave? It turned out to be everything my body wanted: bright, tangy, sharp and totally cooling.

I set out to make my own syunmuitang to survive the summer, so I visited a Chinese dried goods shop. They’re all over Metro Vancouver, eye-catching to tourists with their piles of dried seafood, everything from fish maw to sea cucumber. But these places are more everyday than exotic, selling dried staples of Chinese cooking in bulk: grains like red beans, fruit like jujube dates, aromatics like star anise. Supermarkets carry many of these products too, but they’re cheaper here.

I asked the cashier about the plum juice and she pointed me to the packaged ingredients, a few dollars each. “It’s very easy to make,” she assured me.

The namesake ingredient, of course, are the dried and smoked plums, plunus mume, also used in Japanese and Korean cooking. When ripe, they’re light yellow with a red blush. But after they’re smoked, they’re wrinkly, jet black and smell strongly of charcoal. The plums are paired with dried hawthorn berries, a popular ingredient in Chinese candies, jams and sodas. Pieces of licorice root add a bitter and barky complexity. There are optional additions such as orange peel, hibiscus, Osmanthus and rose blossom. For sweetener, slabs of cane sugar.

It’s easy to make: rinse the ingredients, soak them, boil them, strain them, sweeten the liquid and chill. For a while I wondered if something was burning, when the smell was in fact the fumes of plunus mume. Like any homestyle soup, there are variations, with no shortage of food writers and YouTubers sharing how they do it, from shortcuts like pressure cooking to special extra ingredients like malt.

A litre of the soup cost me a dollar, with plenty of ingredients to spare. It was a cheap treasure, and I kept it in my fridge like a cooling elixir for when I began to overheat. Bring on the Zoom meetings! I can wear a collared shirt and keep my camera on without turning red, as long as I’ve got my sour, smoky tonic in hand.

I have the heat wave to thank for the reintroduction. Living in Vancouver, there’s no shortage of these culinary comforts thanks to immigrants who bring their ingredients and recipes here, stocking their supermarkets with a thousand times the products of what any “ethnic aisle” has to offer. But it can be easy for Canadian-borns with overseas roots like me to have our palates assimilated by Western flavours, making foods familiar to our families foreign to us.

I’m glad that when I was ready, the plums were there on the shelf waiting for me.

The author recommends these four recipes, from the Woks of Life, Amy + Jacky (pressure cooker), Very Good (Cantonese) and Rosalina’s Kitchen (Mandarin).

What do you eat or drink to beat the heat? Chime in below!  [Tyee]

Read more: Food

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