This delicious and soothing sweet concoction is know as Chinese Almond Dessert Soup 杏仁糊, or also sometimes as Chinese Almond Tea 杏仁茶. Rather ironically it's not made of almonds at all, rather it's made from the kernels of apricots, apricot seeds, also known as xingren or 杏仁. Probably the reason it's called an 'almond' dessert is because apricot seeds exude an intense, delicious, almond-y aroma that is really just lovely. More almond-y than almonds! This dessert soup is considered by the Chinese to be soothing for the lungs, helping to stop coughs and just generally boosting your health.
|Apricot kernel seeds, skins removed, as sold in Chinese markets
While I was doing my research on this post I came across an interesting conundrum. Apparently apricot seeds are considered dangerous to eat! They contain something called amygdalin which converts to hydrogen cyanide in our tummies. Ugh! But this is a traditional Chinese dessert, a standard at Chinese dessert shops and my family and I have always enjoyed this delicious soup. So what gives? Is it safe to eat as my Chinese pharmacy (where I got the apricot seeds) insisted or is it not safe as so many non Chinese sources insisted.
Okay the lowdown as I understand it is this. First of all there are two types of apricot seeds. If you look closer at the photo above you can see that there are two sizes of seeds, one bigger, one smaller. The larger one is known as the southern sweet apricot seed, 南杏, which, as the name implies provides a sweet almond-y marzipan-y flavor. These sweet seeds have a very low level of amygdalin and are safe to eat as long as you don't eat a huge amount. In our dessert soup we will mainly use this type of seed.
The smaller seed is known as the northern bitter apricot seed, 北杏, and in this dessert soup we use it to provide a bite of bitterness to contrast the sweet apricot seed, balancing and improving the overall flavor. The bitterness is indicative of a higher level of amygdalin and therefore toxicity and thus must be used with caution.
What does this all mean? Never ever eat raw uncooked bitter apricot seeds. Just to be on the safe side, don't eat either type raw. However, with the skins removed (the skins are brown like almond skins), soaked overnight and cooked for a minimum of 20 minutes the toxicity should be removed and the seeds should be fine to eat. If serving to children I recommend not adding the bitter apricot seeds and just using the sweet ones.
In Hong Kong one can buy these seeds at any Chinese pharmacy, you know, the ones that sell Chinese medicine herbs. You can also sometimes find them at the wet markets at the spice and sundry shops. In other countries I would go to Asian grocery stores to find these seeds. Or you can get bitter apricot seeds and sweet apricot seeds online but note that these still have the skin on. To get the skin off blanch the seeds in boiling water, then rinse with cold water and the skins should slip right off.
So, on to the actual making of this traditional Chinese dessert soup. The first step is the overnight soaking of the seeds. A good spoonful of rice is added in for an extra layer of flavor.
The soaking water is poured out and the soaked seeds rinsed well under running water. The seeds and rice are then added to a food processor or stick blender to pulverize.
Add about a fourth cup of water at a time up to about a cup and a half as you pulverize. Adding water in in stages allows the seeds to be pureed more finely.
Here is my final purée of seeds. Could be finer if I had better equipment but that’s okay. This is as fine as I could get it. Time for the next stage!
Water is boiled and then the apricot kernel purée is added to it. Let it boil for at least 20 mins!
Once you've boiled the puree for 20 mins it's time to add the sugar and simmer until you reach the desired consistency. Regarding the consistency, you should know that there is Almond Dessert Soup and there is Almond Tea. The difference between the two I believe is in the consistency and texture of the final dish. The dessert soup is thicker and may or may not have the finely ground apricot kernels in it, according to your preference. The tea is thinner, drinkable, and most definitely does not have the apricot kernel grounds in it.
We like the thicker Almond Soup version and love the texture that the apricot kernels add to the soup. If you like the Almond Tea version use a cheesecloth to strain out the grounds before serving. Trust me it’s yummilicious both ways