Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Jujube Fruit Isn't Just for Movie Theaters Any More

The jujube fruit is a Chinese date. Jujubes are oval and about the size of an olive, containing a bright red flesh when they are fresh, but shrinking and shriveling and turning brown to an appearance similar to other dates when they are dried. Every jujube contains 1 or 2 seeds. Jujubes become sweeter as they are dried, and jujube date sugar is a key component of thousands of traditional Chinese and Japanese herbal medicines.

While complex herbal formulas use jujube sugar to “harmonize” other ingredients, the primary use of jujube dates in Asian kitchen medicine is to create calm, especially calm after night terrors. Porridges sweetened with jujube sugar are a standard remedy for toddlers who cry at night, so much so that an instant porridge known as Gan Mai Da Zao Tang is available from acupuncturists and at Chinese herb shops across the United States.

Laboratory experiments with animals have found that the sugar in jujube dates reduces electrical activity in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with overwhelming, primal urges. I can attest from personal experience that jujubes calm crying toddlers, long enough for uncle (or parents) to take a nap.

You can use jujubes whenever recipes call for raisins or dates. Jujubes grow and produce prolifically across the southern U.S. from Florida to California. If you pick jujubes from your own tree, just be sure to let them ripen first. Jujubes picked too early, that is, before the flesh inside the date begins to turn yellow and take on the texture and flavor of a crisp apple, do not ripen to their red, sugary, soft desirable state.

The dates are especially high in vitamin C and keep indefinitely without sulfites or other preservatives when dried. If you do not grow your own jujubes or have access to a farmer’s market where jujubes are sold, jujube fruit in available in most Chinese, Vietnamese, and Indian food shops. And to make the traditional remedy for night terrors, try this:


Lullaby Soup

This porridge originates from the oldest of all written cookbooks, a medical guide entitled Essentials from the Golden Cabinet, written in China in the early third century CE. The venerable medical sage Zhang Zhongjing described an elaborate theory of how this simple soup is suitable for calming children and soothing sore throats in adults, explaining that anxiety, excessive worry, or pensiveness disrupted the flow of energy throughout the body and the jujubes and rice recaptured the “lost soul” disabled by emotional distress. Traditional Chinese Medicine regards the recipe as so useful it is even available as an instant soup in China today. You can make this porridge into a vegetarian dinner entrée by adding 1/2 cup of almonds or pine nuts, reserving a few almonds or pine nuts for garnish for adult diners.

1 cup jujube dates
1 licorice stick
1 cup rice
4 cups water

1. Place the rice in a bowl, cover with water, and allow to stand for at least 1 hour.
2. Rinse the jujubes, then remove seeds and discard the licorice stick. Cut the dates into small pieces.
3. Drain the rice, then put rice and jujubes plus 1 cup of water into a blender, pulsing several times. (If you are using almonds or pine nuts, add them at this step.) Add 2 more cups of water and continuing pulsing until you have an even mixture.
4. Pour the mixture into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Then reduce heat, stirring frequently, until mixture has the consistency of ketchup.
5. Serve hot. A sprinkle of cinnamon or a few raisins or pitted jujube dates add color and flavor.

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