Celebrate the Year of the Monkey with a traditional Chinese treat, toong mai, a puffed-rice cake made with mochi rice and peanuts, bound with a sugary syrup.


The secret to making toong mai
is in the proper puffing of the rice

The Year of the Monkey dawns with hope and promise. Last Wednesday, 14 days into the solar new year and eight days before the lunar, my first resolution of 2004 (or my last of 4701, depending on your perspective) was fulfilled.

I made toong mai.

I sense you are not impressed, undoubtedly because a) you do not know what toong mai is, and/or b) you did not see the original recipe.

Toong mai is a crunchy Chinese puffed-rice cake, sort of like Rice Crispy Treats, but better. It is a favorite of celebrations such as the new year, but not often made in the home, for good reason.

The traditional method involves soaking and steaming the rice, drying it in the sun, then making it pop in a wok filled with hot sand. Hot sand. Not a project I was willing to undertake without supervision.

But many readers over the years have asked for this recipe and it was time to put up or shut up. So on New Year's Eve I offered a free cookbook to anyone who could provide a workable recipe and who had made the rice cakes themselves. That last part was most important.

Two weeks later I had a half-dozen recipes (two involving hot sand), but no living rice-cake-experienced human being. I even broadcast the request -- Jo McGarry let me on her KCCN-AM radio show, "Table Talk." Three people called to say their families make toong mai, but alas, the aunties declined to go public. "Very Asian," one caller said, by way of explanation.

Another man recommended a friend whose mother-in-law used to make toong mai in China. Alas, the mother-in-law had forgotten how.

At Shung Chong Yuein, the Chinatown cake shop that sells the best toong mai in town, owner Judy Ng would only say that the rice cakes are made for her by an older woman, using sand.

It seemed toong mai was produced by magic, or perhaps elves. (The above-mentioned aunties actually turn into elves to puff their rice, which is why they don't want strangers watching them. OK, that was a lie, but you can see how this quest was beginning to take on mythical proportions.)

The journey was one of false starts and false hopes, but also of great stories that remind us that food is about history, culture and shared memories as much as it is about recipes. And last Wednesday, the New Year's Monkey smiled. Out of my kitchen emerged a decently acceptable slab of toong mai. Not as wonderfully crunchy and compact as what you can get in Chinatown, but do I look like your popo?

Regardless, I declare victory, a victory I am willing to share because that is, after all, what they pay me for. The secret turns out to be deep-fat frying. For details, turn to D4.

To learn more about toong mai, stay with me here:

Toong mai is actually a Hawaii-only name that doesn't make sense in Chinese, according to "Chinese New Year: Fact and Folklore," by William C. Hu (Ars Ceramica, 1991). This book was suggested by Gilbert Wong, who remembers his mother and neighbors making the rice cakes when he was a child, 70 years ago. "It was ono."

The original name was chi'ao-mi-kao, and it was brought to Hawaii by the Hakka people, who short-cut the name to mi-ch'ang, probably a combination of mi-kung (sweet cakes) and mi-t'ung (puffed, hollowed-out rice). "It may have been a case of someone suffering from dyslexia that it came to be called t'ung-mi or toong mai in Hawaii," Hu wrote.

He described a tedious process: Mochi rice was spread on bamboo trays to dry for half a day. Coarse sand was heated until red hot in a wok, then the dried rice was added by the bowlful to puff. A special utensil was then used to separate rice from sand. Finally, a sugar syrup was boiled, mixed with the rice and some peanuts, and everything was pressed flat.

The key to making toong mai is clearly in the puffing. Hot sand isn't the only way.

Steven Chiang, chef at the Golden Dragon restaurant at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, remembers vendors coming to his street to carry out this duty when he was a child more than 30 years ago in Taiwan. They used special pans that operated something like pressure cookers. "The mothers took out their rice and a couple dollars," and the vendors would puff the rice for them, Chiang recalls.

A similar process on a larger scale is used at the Hawaii Candy Co., which sells its Puff Rice Cake in plain, ginger, arare and furikake flavors. President Keith Ohta describes his rice-puffing machine as "like a cannon." The 6-foot-long chamber pressurizes under heat. The rice goes in and basically explodes out.

You see why no one makes Rice Crispies at home?

Maylene Haslett's late mother, Sun How Lau, made toong mai in a shed outside their Moiliili home every Christmas season, selling it in gallon tins back in the 1960s and '70s.

Haslett, now living in Bellevue, Neb., says her mother's equipment included a huge wok (36 to 40 inches wide), plus a wooden oar that she used as a spatula and "her precious black sand." Gas lines fed into the shed.

She describes a process similar to the Hakka way, except that the sand was black, and she says the peanuts were roasted in the sand as well. Haslett remembers helping to remove the peanut skins, after which her mother or grandmother would heave the pan, tossing the peanuts into the air. "Surprisingly, not one peanut was ever dropped and the skins blew away in the wind."

Haslett says her mother was very superstitious and would often blame the children for jinxing the process when a batch didn't set up right. For luck, "she would pray, offer incense and prepare (her equipment) with vegetable oil, using a grapefruit leaf."

The author Hu also notes many precautions taken by the Hakka people, meant to keep evil away from the rice cakes: Rice-puffing was set for "an auspicious day in the 12th month," and took place behind locked doors with no children or strangers allowed inside. The sugar syrup was made using water stored from the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. This was also the only water that the cake-makers could drink.

Spooky. Makes you think the stars are aligned against the process. But Haslett remembers many successful batches of toong mai, up until the late 1970s, when her mother remodeled, getting rid of the toong mai shed.

There was never a written recipe. "I will ponder what Mom's secret ingredients may have been, but I believe it was mostly her creativity and talent, plus the love that went into it. ... If you do find a recipe, please forward it to me, OK?"


Oil replaces
traditional hot sand

These are the rice-puffing methods that did NOT work:

>> Place raw rice in a very hot, covered pan and shake the pan over the burner for 20 to 30 minutes. All you get out of this is burned rice.

>> Place raw rice in hot oil until it puffs. All you get out of this is oily burned rice, and a very smelly kitchen.

It turns out that for method No. 1 you need a special pan that puffs the rice under high pressure -- not mentioned in the recipe. Method No. 2 is actually on the right track, the cookbook just neglected to mention that you have to cook the rice first.

Muriel Seto sent along the recipe that came closest, from "The Chinese Cookbook," by Wallace Yee Hong (Crown Publishers, 1952). Hong calls for the rice to be steamed, cooled and "spread until absolutely dried by heat." This took some extrapolation, but the results were good. A heavily adapted recipe follows.

Before you begin, check your equipment: You'll need a steamer, preferably the Chinese bamboo type, cheesecloth, a couple of small pots, a rolling pin, spatula and a flat, wire-mesh strainer (see photos). Don't try to do this with a slotted spoon.

Also, check your schedule: Working straight through, this will take most of the day, on top of soaking the rice overnight. You can spread the work out over a couple days, though.

And, check the weather: Many toong mai recipes suggest that you not attempt this on a humid or rainy day. I managed it in the middle of rainstorm, but if those are your conditions, have an airtight container on hand to keep the puffed rice fresh.

Now, proceed. May the New Year's Monkey guide you.

Steamed, dried mochi rice is lowered into a pot of hot oil, left, where it almost immediately puffs and rises to the surface. It should be removed when just turning a pale brown.

Toong Mai

1 cup mochi rice (sweet, glutinous rice)
Vegetable oil for deep-frying
1 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vinegar
1/4 cup dry-roasted peanuts, preferably unsalted

Cover rice in water and soak at least 3 hours, or overnight.

Drain rice. Spread a layer of cheesecloth in the bottom of a steamer basket. Place rice in an even layer over cheesecloth. Cover and steam over boiling water 40 minutes, or until rice is soft. Cool.

Preheat oven to 175 degrees. Spread rice evenly on a baking sheet (grains will be very sticky, but try to separate as much as possible). Bake 45 minutes. Every 15 minutes turn and separate rice so it dries evenly.

Turn off oven. Leave rice in oven 3 to 4 hours, until completely hard and dry.

Pour about 2 inches of oil into a small pot. Heat to 375 degrees. Scoop a small amount of dried rice onto strainer and lower into hot oil. The rice will puff and rise. Use strainer to separate and turn rice grains. When rice just starts to color -- in a few seconds -- lift out with strainer, tapping the side of the pot to release excess oil. Drain on paper towels.

Working in small batches, puff the remaining rice. (Don't try to hurry the process by using a larger pot. The rice cooks quickly and will burn if you can't get it out of the pot fast enough.)

Break up any clumps of rice and immediately store in an airtight container. You should have about 4 cups. Discard oil. (If you're tired now, go to bed. Finish in the morning).

Bring water, sugar and vinegar to a boil. Simmer until a thick syrup forms and mixture begins to turn light brown, about 30 minutes (240 to 245 degrees on a candy thermometer, halfway between soft- and hard-ball).

When syrup is almost ready, combine puffed rice and peanuts in a large, lightly oiled bowl. Oil a spatula and a baking sheet. Pour syrup over rice and stir quickly, using spatula, so rice is evenly coated. Work quickly, as syrup cools and hardens quickly. Spread on baking sheet and form by hand into a 3/4-inch thick layer. Press firmly with a rolling pin to compress to 1/2-inch thickness, pushing in the edges as you go to maintain shape. Cool and cut.

Nutritional information unavailable.

Variations: Grated ginger and sesame seeds may be added to the puffed rice. You can also vary the amount of peanuts and experiment with more or less syrup, depending on how sweet or chewy you like it.

Win a cookbook

For my next trick, I would like to learn to make tong go, Chinese candied fruits and vegetables. If you know how, there's a free cookbook in it for you. They key is, you must be able to do it yourself, or lead me to someone who can.

I am also still looking for a living, breathing human being who makes toong mai the old way, using red-hot sand. Let me, my notebook and a photographer come record the process, and there's a cookbook in it for every aunty involved.

Today, Muriel Seto of Kailua wins a copy of "Sam Choy's Island Flavors" for sending in the recipe that came closest to a workable formula for toong mai. Maylene Haslett of Bellevue, Neb., gets a runner-up cookbook, "Great Chefs of Hawaii," for her detailed account of her childhood toong mai adventures.

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