|Full Recipe Name|
|The Compendium of Essential Arts for Family Living|
During Lord Þórfinnr Hróðgeirsson 's investigation of Yuan dynasty (1271–1368, led by Mongols) Chinese cuisine, he came across a selection of “thirst water” recipes in The Compendium of Essential Arts for Family Living. It also calls them “sherbets,” and the majority of them, like their relatives in Central Asian cookbooks, are sweet fruit syrups. This one is made from crabapples.
Sherbets likely arose in the Islamic world, and spread to China in the 13th century. A 12th century Egyptian cookbook contains quince and sugar syrups, while a 14th century Arabic cookbook contains a lemon-quince-rosewater sherbet. Other examples exist.
Old Stuff from the Martial Forest by Zhou Mi (1232-1298) names fifteen “thirst waters” flavored with fruits, herbs and spices. It seems that the Mongols had a particular affinity for them: the 18th century Corrections to the Compendium of Materia Medica tells us that 14th century scholar Wu Lai records that the Yuan dynasty planted an orchard of 800 probably-lemon trees for the purpose of making “sherbet” by cooking their juice with boiled-down honey. This, and the name of this recipe, implies that sherbets were drunk by the upper strata of society - indeed they were sold, iced, in Hangzhou and Kaifeng during the Song dynasty.
Essential Arts lists 7 sherbets, five of which are boiled down fruit juices with honey or rock sugar, and often rosewood, borneol and musk, then dissolved into water to drink.
For about 1 gallon. The original recipe is fifteen times this, fermenting 50 liters of water.
- “Newly-sprouted” Chinese Pear-Leaf Crabapples (Malus asiatica) - the author used apples harvested from an ornamental crabapple tree because Malus asiatica could not be sourced.
- Mill the apples.
- Boil the apples at a rolling boil until they are tasteless.
- Press the mash and take the juice.
- Over a gentle fire, boil down, stirring frequently, until it doesn’t disperse when dropped into water.
- Serve with borneol, musk, and optionally sandalwood powder - see below for substitutions.
The recipe is fairly straightforward. It isn’t clear if it’s meant to be boiled down to “just” a syrup, or to almost a candy, as either could be a reading of the “doesn’t disperse” line. For fear of scorching, the author erred on the side of syrup.
For transportation, the syrup was additionally heated after closing it to ensure shelf stability.
Deviations from Period Practice
This was prepared using modern equipment, but that should have little influence on the final flavor. Period cookware would have been iron or pottery vessels over a stove, and so would have contributed little flavor and had a similar cooking experience. The additional heating should have no effect on flavor, as this has already been boiled for quite some time.
The author had no way to obtain Malus asiatica for comparison, but by choosing young crabapples from an ornamental crabapple, least avoiding an overly cultivated variety. The apples had good amounts of tannin and acid. The author did freeze the apples, since they were harvested in 2017, a year before brewing. Freezing breaks down the cells and mutes some flavors, although the effect should be minimal since boiling does much the same. Processing in a food processor rather than a mortar will also change the flavor somewhat: cut cells tend to release somewhat harsher flavors, and the liquid probably got more extraction from the seeds - so more cyanides, and other bitter compounds - than it would have if the apples had been crushed.
Borneol is fairly easy to obtain. Musk is not possible to obtain as it is derived from the anal glands of Moschus moschiferus, which is a vulnerable species. Instead, the author used musk mallow seeds (Abelmoschus moschatus) which produce a similar odor. They were extracted them into a base of a rice wine which the author produced following a 6th century recipe.
The author was not able to obtain rosewood powder, but did get rosewood essential oil.
The three aromatics are blended together into the same rice wine for the judges' convenience.
This beverage is presented in a porcelain stem cup based off an 8th century example, poured from a bottle which mimics Song dynasty celadon ware, mimicking high-status late Song presentation: “wine [was] served in cups of fine porcelain placed on lacquer trays.” The author wished to use a lacquer tray, but it would not have made the journey to Pennsic. So that you may control the quantity mixed in the small tasting amounts needed for a panel, the syrup and the aromatics are served from the flip-top jars they were transported in, with spoons.
Chinese Pear-Leaf Crabapple [Malus asiatica] Thirst-Water
Take some quantity of newly-sprouted small Chinese pear-leaf crabapples and pound them to bits. Put the pounded crabapples in a bamboo vessel and immerse them in water at a rolling boil. Mix, and drain when the dregs are flavorless. Using a variable fire, boil and stir often, not allowing it to boil dry. When boiling, drip into water so that it is not dissipated. Then, add a little borneol [the chemical. Possibly from a member of Dipterocarpaceae] and musk. Sandalwood powder is especially good.
- Kanz al-Fawa'id fi tanwi al-mawa'id, in Medieval cuisine of the Islamic World by Lilia Zaouali p. 133-134.
- The Description of Familiar Foods (Kitab wasf al-at’ima al-mu’tada), in Medieval Arab Cookery translated by Charles Perry p. 442-443.
- 吳萊 (1297-1340)
- 舍里別 Middle Chinese “syae li pjet,” while also giving “thirst-water” as the Chinese name.
- Huang, H. T., Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 6 Biology and Biological Technology Part V: Fermentations and Food Science. Cambridge University Press, 2000.
- 攝里白 Middle Chinese “syep li baek,” primarily calling them “thirst-waters.”
- Gernet, Jacques, Daily Life in China, on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250-1276. Translated by H. M. Wright. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962. Page 49.
- These plant identifications are primarily based on Paul Kroll’s A Student’s Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese, 2015.