left corner left corner
China Daily Website

Soap beans, silver ears and peach gum

Updated: 2013-01-27 08:28
By Pauline D. Loh ( China Daily)

Soap beans, silver ears and peach gum

Many Chinese tonic recipes come from ancient medical texts that are thousands of years old. Now, modern science is discovering TCM sages really knew what they were talking about. Pauline D. Loh shares some beauty tonics that will firm your skin and brighten your eyes.

Forget about double-boiling bird's nest for that collagen fix. The eco-friendly, economically viable option is to seek out soap nuts, white fungus and peach gum for a beauty regime that starts inside out. When we were younger, and the Chinese world was still relatively undisturbed by too much wealth, our grandmothers and mothers fed us hashima and bird's nest rarely but regularly, convinced they were investments toward clear, bright, unblemished skins.

Bird's nest, the pods of dehydrated mucus from the tropical cave swift used for nest-building, and hashima, the ovarian tissues of a frog species found in the tundra of China's Northeastern Heilongjiang province, are both exotic foods with exorbitant prize tags.

Increased demand has threatened the animals' existence, and as consumer conscience gradually overpowers vanity, more eco-friendly beauty supplements have surfaced.

It cannot be denied that the rapid expansion of online marketing and sales has contributed to the spread of these previously localized products, but we should just count our blessings, shall we?

There are three all-natural products that the Chinese believe are good for you if they are taken regularly as tonics, and they are just as exotic as their animal cousins.

Soap beans, soap nuts, soap pods are just some of the literal English names for something the Chinese call zaojiao, the fruit kernels of the Gleditsia sinensisit tree, or the Chinese honey locust.

It is a tree whose leaves, thorns and fruit have been used widely in traditional Chinese medicine, as far back as 2,000 years ago.

The long thorns have antibacterial properties and were used in the treatment of inflammatory and skin diseases. Modern scientific research suggests they may also be anti-carcinogenic.

It is the fruits that are popularly sold online now, as "nature's collagen supplement". This is the soap nut or soap bean, long used by the locals as a natural all-organic detergent.

But, it is also delicious used in a dessert sweet soup, boiled with white fungus, Chinese jujubes and rock sugar. Perhaps the "collagen" advantage was arrived at because the fruit cooks to a chewy, soft gelatinous texture that is very easy on the taste bud.

Certainly, the Shanghai ladies, always the fashion leaders, are buying it in vast quantities on China's popular Web shopping mall, Taobao.com.

The snow fungus, also known as white fungus, silver ear or white jelly fungus, is no stranger to the Chinese kitchen. This relatively rare fungus is known as "vegetarian bird's nest", a reference both to its nutrition benefits as well as its texture.

Usually sold dried, it is rehydrated before cooking, and a little bud will blossom into a large clump of snowy, curly-edged frills. It was largely used to add texture to a dish, but now again, scientists say the TCM sages were right: Tremella fuciformis is good for you as it is a valuable source of easily digested vegetable protein.

Finally, there is peach gum, little nodules of dried resin harvested from Prunus persica, the Chinese peach tree. Again, the gum crystals are a traditional dessert, served to the Empress Dowager Cixi by the Manchu chefs in her imperial kitchens.

According to the ancient medical tome, Benjing Fengyuan, peach gum is an excellent skin tonic that "clears the blood and cures pimples and acne". It goes on to say that regular consumption would also help prevent urinary tract infections.

Incidentally, peach gum is now marketed as an alternative to gum Arabica, widely used in food manufacturing as a binding agent.

That shiny stuff they smear on mummy tummies before the gynecologist does an ultrasound is also likely to be peach gum based these days as it is used more and more in pharmaceutical products.

The old folks believe that beauty starts from inside out, and one of the best ways to keep your youthful looks is to keep a positive attitude and worry less. To start with, I'm pretty sure having a bowl of hot, sweet dessert full of natural collagen that's going to make any woman happy.

Contact the writer at paulined@chinadaily.com.cn.

Recipe | snow fungus and snow pear sweet soup

Ingredients (serves 2):

10g snow fungus, soaked in plenty of water until it blooms

1 snow pear (Nashi pear)

30g mixed apricot kernels (nanbeixing)

Rock sugar to taste


1. Peel and core the pears and cut the fruit into little cubes.

2. Snip the snow fungus into little florets.

3. Heat up 800 ml water in a saucepan and bring to a bowl, add the mixed apricot kernels and pear cubes. Add the snow fungus.

4. Bring to a boil and reduce immediately to a low simmer for about 40 minutes or until the pear and fungus buds are very soft. Add rock sugar to taste.

5. Serve hot for best effect.

NOTE: Mixed apricot kernels or nanbeixing is a mixture of the larger, sweeter heart-shaped "southern" apricot kernels, and the smaller "northern" kernels with its bitter almond flavor. You can buy the mixture from medicine shops, groceries or from larger supermarkets.

Recipe | soap nut, longan and jujube tonic

Ingredients (serves 2):

20g soap nuts, soaked overnight to fully rehydrate

50g dried longan pulp

8-10 Chinese jujubes (dried red dates)

1 slice of ginger

Rock sugar to taste


1. Make sure that you soak the soap nuts long enough that they plump up well. Rinse and drain.

2. Wash and rinse the longan and red dates.

3. Place 800 ml of water in a saucepan and add the soap nuts, ginger, longan and red dates. Bring to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer for about 30 minutes.

4. Add rock sugar to taste, and stir until the sugar is completely dissolved.

5. Serve hot in winter, chilled in summer.

Recipe | peach gum and berries in cream

Ingredients (serves 2):

100g peach gum crystals, soaked overnight

50g dried cranberries

50g dried wolfberries

Rock sugar to taste

50ml cream, or full cream milk


1. The peach gum needs to be soaked thoroughly until they expand to about 10 times the original volume. After that, you need to rinse off any dark bits and impurities.

2. Place peach gum and 1 liter water in a large sauce pan and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for about 30 to 40 minutes, during which the liquid will turn a little sticky.

3. Add sugar to taste, and add the cranberries and wolfberries.

4. Peach gum tastes better if you chill it. Just before serving spoon over cold cream or milk.

Soap beans, silver ears and peach gum

Soap beans, silver ears and peach gum

Soap beans, silver ears and peach gum

Soap beans, silver ears and peach gum