My relationship with dates… hasn’t been the greatest. And I’m not talking about the OKCupid variety. Out of all the Chinese herbs that make an appearance in your typical Asian kitchen, red jujube dates might be one of the most frequent. Asian moms love these shriveled red dried fruits for their mild sweetness, health benefits, and apparent versatility as a sweet or savory ingredient. I’ve seen them thrown into soups, teas, meat dishes, and desserts.
My mom kept her stash of red dates piled in the Chinese herb closet and they always came out smelling and looking medicinal. She would drop them into a savory soup and I would watch them bob around, but would never eat them. If they appeared in a meat dish, they got ostracized to the other end of my plate and were promptly ignored.
When I began studying Chinese medicine, and more specifically, Chinese herbs, I came face-to-face with my childhood dislikes. I confess that I’ve held many prejudices against Chinese herbs because of their strange flavors and propensity to look like dirt and twigs. I studied herbs reluctantly at first, but getting a bigger picture of their therapeutic qualities and their relationship to our bodies eventually unlocked a door for me. But studying herbs in a theoretical way is still very different from touching, cooking, and savoring them. I’m perfectly fine accepting many of these herbs in a medicinal formula, but as a food? I wondered about that.
That’s why I wanted to create this blog. So many ingredients that qualify as Chinese herbs in the traditional materia medica show up in common kitchens around the world. I thought I would approach these old enemies (frenemies?) with a culinary curiosity and a willingness to expand my love of cooking to include Chinese herbs. So far the experiment is going really well. Husband and I didn’t realize how much we’d love mountain yam, and how easy it would be to make Chinese herbs tasty.
Cue the red jujube date. It’s only been within the last five years that I’ve paid jujubes any attention. I’ve viewed them as a medicine for so long, that when I finally took a proper taste, I was surprised at how similar their flavor is to the medjool date. Interestingly, the red jujube has no virtual connection to the date family. Instead, it’s part of the buckthorn family and grows on a tree as a mottled green, apple-like fruit. As they dry, jujubes turn red and wrinkled and become spongy inside. When the dried jujube is moistened, they’re far more yielding and soft than chewy medjools. Dried jujubes also have a more intense sweetness and flavor than their fresh counterparts.
Therapeutically, jujubes are sweet in nature and warm in temperature. They build up yang qi, which warms the body, and they aid in boosting the body’s digestive energy and in nourishing the blood. Scientifically, jujubes are immune system boosters. Studies show that jujubes stimulate the production of white blood cells and on top of that, they yield 20 times more vitamin C than citrus fruit, making them an ideal ingredient when you’re on the edge of getting sick or getting over a sickness. They’re power packed with Vitamin A, B1, B2, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, calcium, copper, and manganese, and they also contain anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor properties. Furthermore, the Chinese materia medica speaks of the jujube’s abilities to “calm the spirit”, a reference to its sedative properties, especially for those experiencing anxiety or insomnia due to blood deficiencies.
All of this makes the jujube a welcome part of the Asian diet, and it’s no surprise that a fruit that promotes health and longevity gets featured so prominently during Chinese New, a time when you wish everyone happiness and longevity. This particular dessert makes its rounds during the holidays, but in actuality, it’s perfect as a bite-sized snack anytime of the year. Dried red dates can be pretty soft when they’ve been plumped up by water, but when stuffed with a sticky rice ball, they become delightfully bouncy and chewy.
Glutinous rice flour is a common ingredient at Asian food stores. Therapeutically, glutinous rice (also known as sticky rice) is sweet in nature and neutral in temperature. While it’s also qi nourishing, having too much of this sticky stuff isn’t a good idea for the digestive system. Happily, we’re using it in bite-sized quantities here. The Vietnamese rice flour brands come in these clear plastic bags and are generally great for cooking, baking, steaming and, on top of it all, are inexpensive. This one cost 99 cents. I bought the light coconut milk at Trader Joe’s but any coconut milk (or water) will do. Soak the red dates in hot water for at least 30 minutes to allow them to soften and plump up. This will make taking out the pit a lot easier.
This recipe uses very little coconut milk (just about 3 tablespoons) so this is a great recipe if you need to use up leftover coconut milk. Otherwise, water works just as well. Stir in a spoonful of brown or white sugar. I chose brown sugar to add a light caramel tone to the sticky rice, but white sugar works perfectly fine too.Pour slowly and stir as you pour. The consistency is almost there. You want the dough to be smooth, soft to the touch, and not too sticky. Add a little more rice flour or liquid as needed. Just be careful with the liquid, a little goes a long way!Rolled up coconut sticky rice balls in their little jujube jackets, all set for the steamer.
They remind me of one of my favorite Indian sweets, the gulab jamun stuffed with khoya. The rice balls will expand slightly as they steam, so take that into account when stuffing the dates and arranging them in your steam-proof dish. Top the pot with a lid and steam for 10 minutes. Half the fun of this dessert is that these dates have an enjoyable bounce and chew. The brown sugar lends a light caramel tinge and adds a touch of sweetness to the mellow flavor of the coconut sticky rice. It’s a nice contrast to the sweet tartness of the date.
Red Dates Stuffed with Coconut Rice Balls
Makes 10 pieces
- 10 dried red jujube dates
- 1/4 cup glutinous rice flour
- 3 tablespoons coconut milk or water
- 1 teaspoon brown or white sugar
- Rinse off the red dates and soak them in a bowl of hot water for at least half an hour. This will soften the dates and make it easier to remove the pits.
- Dry off the dates and make a small incision along the side of the date to take out the pit. Be gentle as the dates will be quite soft. If the pits aren’t coming out easily, maneuver the knife around the pit, cutting small slits around the pit until it comes out. Try to avoid slicing through the entire date.
- Dissolve the sugar into the coconut milk or water.
- Sift the rice flour into a small bowl. Slowly pour the coconut milk or water mixture over the rice flour, stirring throughout.
- On a flat, clean working surface, knead the rice flour dough until it is smooth and has the consistency of playdough or modeling clay. It should be soft and smooth to the touch, and not too sticky. Add more rice flour or liquid as needed.
- Portion out the dough into 10 equal pieces. Using the palms of your hands, roll each dough piece back and forth to form a short rope or tube. Stuff each piece into a date and shape, as needed.
- Arrange the dates on a steam-proof dish. Keep them dough-side up so that the rice doesn’t stick to the bottom of the dish.
- Fill a stock pot halfway with water and place a steaming rack inside. Put the dates in and cover the pot.
- Bring to a boil, then reduce to medium heat. Steam the dates for 10 minutes. The rice balls will expand slightly and should appear glossy.
- Uncover and serve while they’re still warm. Enjoy!