Want to beat the heat? Try these centuries-old recipes.

With temperatures reaching nearly 40 degrees Celsius across much of southern China, almost everyone is looking to beat the heat. Some flooded relatively cooler provinces like Yunnan; others crank up their air conditioners and debate whether to pay increasingly exorbitant prices for ice cream.

For the rest of us, there’s still the undisputed king of summer drinks in China: Guangdong. leungcha. Literally meaning “fresh tea”, it should not be confused with iced tea. In line with traditional Chinese medicine, which prohibits frozen drinks, authentic leungcha should be served at room temperature. Instead, the restorative properties of the drink are derived from a blend of medicinal herbs with “cooling” properties, including Japanese honeysuckle, bamboo leaves, wax gourds, chrysanthemum flowers and calla lily. .

Like all good traditional Chinese remedies, the first sip of leungcha is always the most difficult. A 1942 article in the influential Shanghai Shenbao newspaper described the then new drink thus: “At the first taste, many frown and look aggrieved, as if they had wasted their money on bitter water. It’s only after they’ve finished the drink that they appreciate its sweet aftertaste, which lingers on the tongue – and realize that the heat that tormented them has all but dissipated.

Although originally a Guangdong delicacy, merchants sold leungcha to Shanghai’s growing Cantonese population as early as 1924. In 1946, cheap leungcha the stalls were an integral part of the city’s sweltering summers. In the words of the Shanghai weekly Fengguang: “Take a look at any busy intersection or tram station. Won’t you see at least a few merchants peddling these drinks, peddling their wares to cries of “Hey! Just one copper coin per cup!”

so cantonese leungcha is the most emblematic summer drink in the south, another drink reigns supreme north of the Yangtze: suanmei tangor sour plum soup.

A scan of Feng Zikai’s “Offering Tea” comic strip, 1934. Courtesy of the author

Although not an invention of Beijing, any story of suanmei tang must begin in the Chinese capital, where the drink is an integral part of the myth of “Old Beijing”. In the 1930s, shopkeepers were ubiquitous on the streets of the city, clanking two small bells shaped like copper teapots or goblets together to attract the attention of customers.

An advantage of suanmei tang is its relative simplicity. Remove the pits from a few sour plums, mix them with sugar, steam them until soft, then add boiling water and let the mixture settle. Once cooled, it is ready to eat, but vendors often placed a container of suanmei tang in a bucket full of ice to make it more refreshing on hot days.

Of course, just because something is simple doesn’t mean it’s easy. In 1937, the China Times shared a recipe for suanmei tang this suggests how seriously aficionados took their drinks: “Put 10 dried plums, three small pieces of orange zest and a pinch of chopped osmanthus flower in a ceramic jug with several cups of ice water, then mix with white sugar and bring to a boil.” The recipe author urges the reader to perform each step carefully and, whatever they do, not to dilute the flavor by adding more water than necessary.

Cartoons and photographs of sellers of

Cartoons and photographs of “suanmei tang” vendors, published in Eastern Times and The Culture Arts Review respectively, 1934. Courtesy of the author

In addition to leungcha in the south and suanmei tang in the north, the third must-have summer drink in China is mung bean soup. Although mung beans have been a popular hot weather palliative for centuries, traditional mung bean soup doesn’t look like soup like the name suggests. Until the 1940s, it looked like a slightly runny dessert and was often served with peppermint, crushed ice, or cherries. The following recipe, found in “The Guide to Making Cooling Drinks” from the 1940s, is representative of this:

“First, rinse the beans and boil them in a pot until they get mushy. Next, boil white beans and peeled lotus seeds separately until soft. Let cool. Put eight parts mung beans and one part white beans and one part lotus seeds in a small bowl. Add the white sugar and cold water, along with a few drops of peppermint oil (or an infusion of peppermint leaves boiled in water). Garnish with five or six cherries. Crushed ice can also be added for extra cooling.

Those looking for a more luxurious break from the heat might opt ​​for mulian dong, or manglietia fruit jelly. A distant cousin of mung bean soup, although much more difficult to make, it consists of putting mulian seeds and hemlock, or arrowhead leaves, in a coarsely woven cloth bag, which is then placed in a bamboo basket and immersed in water. By rubbing the cloth bag against the basket, the contents infuse the water, which is then left to set in a kind of jelly to which sugar – or in more complex variants, honey and peppermint oil – is added.

A woman sells 'suanmei tang' to tourists in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, June 18, 2022. Ding Genhou/IC

A woman sells ‘suanmei tang’ to tourists in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, June 18, 2022. Ding Genhou/IC

The resulting jelly would have been an extravagant treat for the typical working-class city dweller a century ago. The lucky ones may be able to afford leungcha, but the majority would have to make do with free teas donated by philanthropists and charities – a long-standing practice in China. No matter how well-intentioned, the drinks could be dangerous: a 1923 expose in a medical magazine found that many of the teas offered at roadside stalls were little more than tea dust or barley mixed with dirty water.

Similar class divisions exist today. While young white-collar workers order designer ice cream brands like Zhongxuegao or Häagen-Dazs directly to their doorsteps, the riders in charge of their delivery swelter in the sun, big bottles of cheap tea hanging from their handlebars.

Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.

(Header image: A booth distributes free “leungcha” to residents of Shantou, Guangdong Province, July 2020. Du Dong’er/VCG)

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