Xin Tai Ruan ( Red Dates with Fillings 心太软)
What is it?
Arguably the next most iconic Shanghainese dish after steamed buns and hairy crabs, xin tai ruan, or filled red dates, is a snack favoured by many for its sticky sweet taste and its whimsical name.
Literally “heart too soft”, its name – which is also the title of a Chinese pop song about a soft-hearted woman – refers to the dates’ chewy glutinous rice paste centres. Despite their sweet flavour, the Shanghainese prefer to enjoy them as appetisers rather than desserts.
Why is it famous?
Xin tai ruan is basically dried and pitted jujubes, or red dates, stuffed with chewy glutinous rice paste. The dates are first fried to soften their pulp and to caramelise before being lightly glazed with a fragrant osmanthus syrup and then steamed.
The quality of the dried dates can make or break the dish. The dates should be mildly sweet and not too bitter, and smaller to medium-sized dates are preferred over larger ones. They are best served within an hour or two of being steamed, when the dates and their filling remain nice and soft, but they can also be steamed again for later consumption.
Where to eat it?
Shanghai’s Old Jesse (41 Tianping Road, Tel: 86-21-6282-9260) is a stalwart for local dishes. The red dates are a must-order, alongside other cold starters such as lotus roots with glutinous rice and salted chicken – an excellent prelude to other Shanghainese staples such as braised pork belly and poached river shrimp.
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