Grocery Ninja: Sour Plums

The Grocery Ninja leaves no aisle unexplored, no jar unopened, no produce untasted. Creep along with her below, and read her past market missions here.

20071203sourplum.jpgA few years ago, I went with my por por (grandma) to the cinema to catch Pride and Prejudice. She used to bring me to Chinese operas staged beneath giant, makeshift tents in fields, and I remember promising her that when I grew up, it would be my turn to bring her to the theater. (I know—what a lousy deal my por por made; she brings me to watch an underground staging of a dying art form, and I bring her to the cinema down the road!)

Anyway, my por por was a good sport and sat through most of it, reading the Chinese subtitles and not even tugging on my sleeve to ask what was happening (like I used to). But near the end she must have had enough, because you know that scene where Elizabeth and Darcy meet in a field and it's all romantic and touching? That's when my por por opened her purse and started fishing around.

Fish, fish, fish. Rustle, rustle, rustle.

I fix my eyes on the screen and try to concentrate on the tears glistening in Elizabeth's eyes. After a prolonged period of crinkling plastic, my por por leaned over and asked, "Yan Yan, do you want some suan mei?"

It's a good thing she's a 70-year-old woman who looks like a Chinese Mrs. Claus, or I'm sure someone in that cinema would have had some choice words for us.

A couple of weeks back, Por Por sent a care package that included a bag of these suan mei (sour plums). They're made by drying plums with sugar and salt, and are flavored with herbs like liquorice. In Asia, older women (like my mom and Por Por) tote a stash of these with them everywhere—the sweet-tart-salty flavor invigorates on a hot and muggy day, works wonders when you're feeling under the weather, and also helps with motion sickness.

Pregnant women practically subsist on these (in the same way women suffering morning sickness here stem the nausea by eating Saltines), and there are entire tidbit shops devoted to selling the hundred and one varieties available (including new-fangled flavors like green tea and curry). Here in the States, you can usually find a wall dedicated to them in Asian groceries in a rainbow of colors—reds, yellows, grays, and blacks—and with varied flavor profiles; some are saltier than others, some are mouth-puckeringly sour, and yet others are completely sweet.

It's fun to watch people who aren't expecting how tart it is bite into one and squinch their faces—they look like a caricature of the same shriveled plums they're eating. My favorite way to eat them in chilly weather is to drop a few into a Thermos of hot water and let them steep for a sour plum "tea." Back home in tropical weather, though, the drink is refreshingly served atop plenty of ice.

Besides tea, these plums also show up in cooking sauces (duck and plum sauce, anyone?) and as a very quaffable mei jiu (plum liquor). There's also a black, smoked variety called wu mei used in TCM. My mom throws these into a pot with a bunch of other medicinal herbs when anyone in the family has ulcers or a sore throat. They're supposed to be "effective against parasites and for promoting a strong digestive system and heart," too.

I'm a little concerned about my por por sending these, though. Mostly because she sent a lot of them—enough to survive several road trips from the East to West coast. Or a pregnancy. I hope she's not getting ideas about grandchildren.

About the author: Wan Yan Ling is an impoverished grad student and sourdough finger-crosser living in Rhode Island. She can usually be found in the kitchen procrastinating on "real work" or online tracking down obscure recipes. Ling thinks eating alone is no fun, and she still believes in hand-mixing.

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