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On the scent of tasty osmanthus dishes[Recipes]

By Austin Hu (Shanghai Daily)

09:16, October 19, 2012

Poached tilefish with osmanthus sauce.
Read recipes on page 2 (Shanghai Daily)

Shanghai is a fickle mistress. Summers, for me at least, are the most trying times, by the time September and October roll around I have seemingly been sweating for nearly three months straight; I have personally fed entire colonies of mosquitoes.

But as if sensing my despair, Shanghai slowly begins to lift the sweltering haze and the glory that is autumn begins to take shape. Come October proper and I know that I have one more incredible indigenous treat still in store, the blooming of the osmanthus flowers, or guihua.

You never really know when it's going to happen. It will feel and look just like any other day in October. You will wake up, go through the motions of your morning ritual, completely oblivious to the natural wonder that is taking place right outside your window. It isn't until you step outside that you are exposed to the full glory that is a city full of osmanthus in full bloom at the same time.

Some liken the smell to peaches and apricots, others feel as if it has notes of citrus and spiced tea. Me? I prefer the description of a perfumist I came across while researching this piece. When asked how she would describe the scent of osmanthus she responded simply that, "it smells like happiness."

There are all manners of environmental variables that must fall into place before the elusive osmanthus blooms here in Shanghai. Something about consecutive days of at least a 5 degree temperature swing between day and night and a certain moisture level in the air.

Immaculate blooms aside, I also find osmanthus appealing for its culinary applications. It can be used simply in teas and with tangyuan (glutinous rice balls). A few sprinkles of the dried flowers can turn an otherwise mundane pot of tea into a perfumed ambrosia of fruit and flowers, the perfect concoction to be steaming out of your mug come the colder months.

Osmanthus can also be used to flavor all manners of other delicious edibles. There is of course the famed osmanthus cake - guihua gao - sweet, wobbly and delicately translucent. And there is an osmanthus wine that combines rice wine with guihua and sugar into a floral liqueur that I personally find irresistible in cocktails.

Somewhat more obscure but certainly no less tasty are the osmanthus jams, or guihua jiang, some sweet, some savory; a perfect addition to congees and assorted Chinese flatbreads. If you're anything like me though, you'll want to eat it on really plush toasted brioche with a wedge of sharp cheese.

It's certainly easy enough here in Shanghai to buy osmanthus products to use to your heart's delight. If given the choice though, I would suggest venturing out to make some of your own product with dried osmanthus. Here I've done two separate preparations and combined them into light fish dish perfect to open a meal with. Happiness never tasted so good.

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