During this season when sweet osmanthus is in bloom, people in a hurry sometimes cannot help but slow their pace and take a deep breath of the fragrance, which is pure, sweet and seductive.
The lingering fragrance is difficult to describe, but it has been called delicate and fruity-floral, somewhat like apricot. The shrub or tree osmanthus fragrans is also known as sweet olive or tea olive.
"Unlike other flowers smelling either too delicate or too intense, osmanthus (guihua 桂花) presents a floral scent that is clean enough to wash away the dust in the air and rich enough to spread over miles. It's hard to believe it comes from nature and not the moon in heaven," wrote Song Dynasty (960-1279) poet Yang Wanli.
Yang's comparison of osmanthus fragrance to heavenly scent is inspired by a legend. It was said that osmanthus was originally a plant in the heavenly moon. A sky fairy who could not bear to watch a plague devastating humanity scattered osmanthus seeds over the Earth. They grew into fragrant plants and their flowers were made into wine that helped cure the people.
Osmanthus was praised by literati as a symbol of tenacity since it blooms in the autumn, when weather turns cold and frosty. The tiny flowers of white, yellow and orange seem to evoke beauty and romance. "Seductive" is a term widely associated with osmanthus perfume.
Unlike many other flower petals that are bitter, osmanthus petals have a distinctive taste, which is only slightly bitter but mildly sweet. This makes it ideal for cooking and making tea and wine. It is said that only by tasting osmanthus can one fully experience and appreciate its beauty.
Osmanthus is abundant in Jiangnan, the region south of the Yangtze River, and is widely used in Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanghai cuisines both as an ingredient and fragrance. It can be made into savory dishes and sweet dim sum, adding sweetness with more dimensions and freshness and balancing fatty taste. It is used in making wines and teas, both green and black.
Osmanthus in the kitchen
The flower epitomizes autumn and is only available from September to November, says Gao Xiaosheng, the Chinese executive chef at Pudong Shangri-La, Shanghai.
September is best for fresh flowers, while October and November are good for dried flowers, says Jason Wang, sous chef at Club Jin Mao, a Shanghainese restaurant at the Grand Hyatt Shanghai.
"The freshly picked petal, without being dried, has a certain bitterness, although its seductive scent reaches its peak," Wang says.
He usually chooses fresh petals as the final topping of a dish to enhance the aroma, but not influence or overwhelm the taste of other ingredients.
Du Caiqing, chef de cuisine at Hyatt on the Bund, typically immerses fresh petals in brine for five minutes, then tosses them with sliced lily root or adds them to stir-fried chicken fillet. "It's a good way to highlight the flower's natural fragrance," he says.
Chef Gao from Shangri-La prefers dried petals. "Osmanthus is a little like wine, which needs to be dried and aged for one or two months until the bitterness is completely gone and its floral note is fully preserved," he says.
Chefs agree that dried osmanthus is more versatile than fresh flowers.
Honey and crystal sugar are ideal combinations for osmanthus.
"If honey and some citrus are added to osmanthus, the taste is balanced and moderately sweet, not overpowering," says chef Wang from Grand Hyatt Shanghai.
He shares two personal recipes sweetened osmanthus (糖桂花) and osmanthus jam (桂花酱), both using honey.
"For sweetened osmanthus, simply marinate honey, sliced lemon and dried osmanthus together for four days," he says. Then it can be used to flavor various desserts such as osmanthus rice cake or infuse tea. For osmanthus jam, replace the sliced lemon with preserved plum (话梅).
Osmanthus jam makes an ideal dipping sauce for roast duck and pork, Wang says. The floral, sweet-and-sour flavor cuts through the fattiness of the meat, giving each bite more layers of flavor and fragrance.
Crystal sugar cooked with osmanthus adds a smooth, round taste to a dish.
Dried osmanthus also enhances the sweetness of tubers and roots, such as lotus and taro, according to chef Du from Hyatt on the Bund.
Different growing areas produce flowers with different characteristics. Chef Wang prefers the Hangzhou area because the flowers have a "mild and elegant fragrance." Chef Gao likes the golden color and intense bouquet of osmanthus from the hills around Suzhou in Jiangsu Province.
Shanghai Daily tastes four dishes created by Chinese chefs to celebrate this aromatic season, from classical to modern style.
Osmanthus ice cream (桂花冰淇淋 58 yuan+15%)
Chef Du from Hyatt on the Bund creates a new taste sensation, osmanthus ice cream.
"From now until next month is the best time to taste this dessert because the floral fragrance is most intense," the chef says.
Dried osmanthus mixed into the cream changes the traditional sweet and milky flavor, making it richer and floral, with a long aftertaste.
It's as if there's a fresh petal in the mouth.
The chef recommends osmanthus ice cream with his jasmine tiramisu.
"The two desserts express different flower bouquets, but both are elegant and implicit, not tainting but complementing each other. The cheese-like texture of tiramisu highlights the silky texture of ice cream," he says.
Where to taste:
Venue: Xin Da Lu China Kitchen, Hyatt on the Bund
Address: 1/F, 199 Huangpu Rd
Tel: 6393-1234 ext 6318
Braised ham with osmanthus syrup (蜜汁火方 288 yuan+15%)
Dark red, finely textured ham from Yunnan Province is sliced thin, covered with thick, crystal-like osmanthus syrup and topped with dried petals.
"It features premium ingredients, complex culinary craft and seasonal fragrance," says chef Gao at Pudong Shangri-La.
The thick syrup decocted from osmanthus, crystal sugar and kumquat is smooth and sweet with a hint of fruity sourness, giving a rounder taste and fresh note to the salty, smoky ham. The meat is braised in chicken and pigeon soup for a long time before it absorbs all the flowers and becomes rich and savory. Then comes the osmanthus syrup for a balanced flavor contrast.
Osmanthus rice cake (桂花糕 52 yuan/6pc +15%)
Osmanthus rice cakes are traditional steamed dim sum made from glutinous rice filled with osmanthus and jujubes, another autumn ingredient. It's a classic case of using osmanthus to enhance a dessert.
Adding it to the sweet jujubes creates a distinctive floral taste complementing the fruit. A little olive oil is added to the filling, creating a textural contrast.
A cup of osmanthus tea (using a single dried flower) is recommended to make the taste more floral and to cleanse the palate.
Where to taste:
Venue: Gui Hua Lou, Pudong Shangri-La, Shanghai
Address: 1/F, 33 Fucheng Rd, Pudong
Tel: 6882-8888 ext 220
Glutinous rice ball with osmanthus and fermented rice (桂花酒酿圆子 32 yuan+15%)
This classic Shanghai dim sum has a distinctive aroma and taste, two kinds of sweetness from petals and rice.
Chef Wang from the Grand Hyatt Shanghai sources golden osmanthus from Hangzhou. "Rice balls and fermented rice are both white, which makes the dish visually too dull and simple," he says. "Golden osmanthus vitalizes the presentation and adding it is my way to show respect to the autumn season."
Added osmanthus develops more sweetness in the fermented rice, thus avoiding the use of crystal sugar, which can overwhelm the rice.
Where to taste:
Venue: Club Jin Mao, Grand Hyatt Shanghai
Address: 86/F, 88 Century Ave, Pudong
Tel: 5047-1234 ext 8778
Osmanthus winemaking dates back more than 3,000 years. Records show very different ingredients and techniques used for imperial and public consumption.
Public wine sellers used to add osmanthus petals during the process of fermenting rice wine, a strong, sweet and mellow drink made from rice flour. The alcohol content can be 20 percent or higher because the rice is converted to a large amount of sugar. Generally, the longer the wine is aged, the better and smoother the taste is.
By contrast, winemakers for the imperial court used tiny osmanthus fruits and petals, no rice, to make osmanthus fruit wine.
The imperial palace used mountain spring water, osmanthus flowers and their "noble fruit" from Wuxian in Jiangsu Province, according to Roger Sun, manager of Yu Bar at Shanghai Marriott Hotel Luwan.
The wine was golden in color, mild in taste and had a sugar content of more than 18 percent. It preserved the floral essence and was smoother and more elegant than the strong rice wine that could overpower the flower, he says.
The old wine recipe used in the Forbidden City was lost after the fall of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), but in 1956 a Beijing-based wine company rediscovered the formula.
Sun, inspired by the old osmanthus wine, created a cocktail called Yu Gui Fei (88 yuan+15%) or Imperial Concubine. In addition to osmanthus wine, Sun uses blue curacao, litchi liqueur, lemon and grapefruit juices.
"The tart juice gives the sweet aged osmanthus a more refreshing taste, while the sweetness of litchi echoes the floral notes of the osmanthus wine," he explains.
Hong Kong celebrity food critic Cai Lan writes in his blog that aged osmanthus wine has great potential for cocktail making because of its elegant sweetness.
"For me, a cocktail based on aged osmanthus is better than Canadian ice wine as the after-dinner sweet wine," he says.
Where to taste:
Venue: Yu Bar, Shanghai Marriott Hotel Luwan
Address: 28/F, 99 Jiangbin Rd
Tel: 5318-8888 ext 6590
Compared with osmanthus dishes and wine, osmanthus tea offer a simpler and more direct floral flavor and fragrance.
Generally, there are two kinds of osmanthus tea, one using a single dried osmanthus flower and the other blending the dried flowers with varieties of green or black tea, says Annie Wang, the tea sommelier at Pudong Shangri-La. These are infusions, somewhat like jasmine tea.
Compared with green and black tea, flower tea requires higher infusing temperature, around 90 degrees Celsius to ensure all the fragrance is released, she says.
Single-flower osmanthus tea, has a clear golden color, sweet and refreshing aroma, mild taste and a sweet aftertaste. It is considered nourishing and builds qi (energy flow).
Blended tea features more complexity since osmanthus has different flavors and aromas when encountering different varieties of tea. For example, the taste is sweet and clean in green tea, mild and floral in black tea.
At Gui Hua Lou, the Chinese restaurant at Pudong Shangri-La named after osmanthus, single-flower tea is served as the complimentary pre-meal tea. The osmanthus Tie Guanyin (Iron Guanyin premium Oolong tea) (158 yuan+15%) and the osmanthus black tea (128 yuan+15%) are recommended.