When I was in grade school, I didn’t have much respite from the steaming, cicada-filled Beijing summers other than bamboo sleeping mats, my grandmother’s languid afternoon fanning, and her softly repeated mantra: Xinjing ziran liang. “When your heart quiets down,” coolness (apparently) naturally follows. Yeah, I never really got that either, but since air conditioning was still a rarity and the fan was considered a waste of electricity, my options were limited.
From mid-July until late August, the heat would finally subside with thunderstorms that swept through a city heaving with relief. The trick was minimal motion. Summers were lazy, as in eating-various-cold-fruits-from-the-side-of-the-bowl-and-not-lifting-my-head-up lazy. I read book after book and moved only to flop onto a new section on the bamboo mat, sucking up the coolness with feverish skin.
However, things went awry when I had to leave the house. The minute I stepped outside, I was instantly licked with a sticky sheen of sweat and dust. And then the jostling. And the squishing. The yelling. The sun. The heat. The humidity. The sweat – someone else’s sweat. Things would get out of control until I was able to find a corner shop and buy a binghulu, or frozen orange-flavored gourd, for five mao. Misleadingly named for its vague resemblance to the vegetable, there is nothing natural about this sausage-link-shaped plastic tube filled with frozen phosphorescent orange “juice.” But twist off the top, crush the tube from the outside, and the ice inside breaks into little sugary snowflake shards that you suck out, crunch, and melt in a climax of cooling, Tang-flavored glory.
Suddenly, everything was manageable. You had the entire rest of the tube to protect you for at least two more stops on an overcrowded bus.
I recently found a corner shop in Beijing that still carries binghulu despite the capitalist influx of Magnum bars pushing out my old communist favorites (the binghulu weren’t even branded!). But, truth be told, besides the nostalgia factor, these frozen treats didn’t taste very good and yellow #5 dye probably shouldn’t be a mainstay of anyone’s diet.
So I’ve come up with some grown-up icy treats, which are also really fun for kids. These granitas, or Italian fruit ices, are excellent frozen into popsicles for the younger set but can be served as sophisticated desserts at the grown-ups table. Freeze any leftover liquid in ice cube trays for the perfect cold summer drink by topping them with cold soda water later, or shake them with vodka for a cocktail. Think of these recipes as mere suggestions. And don’t be afraid of the Sichuan numbing pepper in a dessert. Used in small quantities, they leave a light, green fragrance. Use whatever fruit or herbs are in season, because these will only work with the ripest fruits possible. Asian pear and mint, dragon fruit and plum wine, and kumquat and black pepper for later in the season. The possibilities are endless.
You have to remember, though, that these icy treats only reach apotheosis when you fall upon them with desperation on a muggy, hot summer’s day. But let’s face it, in Beijing – those days aren’t hard to find.
½ cup sugar
2 ½ cup water
Bring to a boil in a sauce pan.
Peach and Sichuan Pepper Granita
Half of the syrup
1 teaspoon of Sichuan peppers
2 of the ripest, softest, most fragrant peaches you can find
Pour the hot syrup over the peppers and let the mixture steep for ten minutes. Discard all but two or three peppers. Peel and core the peaches (the riper the peaches, the easier). Combine peaches, syrup and pepper in the blender. Whiz until completely smooth. Pour into popsicle molds or a metal pan. Freeze for 5-6 hours, depending on your freezer temperature. Remove, stir and break up ice crystals every two hours – or, if you’re not that motivated, break it up when it is completely frozen for a grainier ice.
Basil, Pineapple, and Lychee Granita
½ small, ripe pineapple
4 or 5 lychees
4 or 5 leaves of basil
Half of the above syrup
Peel and core the pineapple. Peel and core the lychees. Combine all ingredients in a blender and follow the same directions as above. The granita is also delicious as a drink with rum and a splash of soda.
Each serves 2-3 as dessert or makes about 2-3 small popsicles.