Saturday, June 16, 2012

Before there was Rice Krispies, there was mi-ch'ang

One of the most wonderful things I remember growing up in Hawaii was mi-ch'ang, aka toong mai: a crunchy puffed rice and roasted peanut confection held together by a candied sugar syrup. It's origins come from the Hakka people, a Chinese minority. Mi-ch'ang is usually given as a precious gift at New Year's and I remember them being so good, it took willpower not to plow through the entire tin!

I once asked my mom about these treats and she said the recipe and process were often a secret even within families. She herself had never made mi-ch'ang, but what she did know about it was an arduous affair: soaking then steaming the mochi rice, drying the steamed rice in the sun, puffing the rice by cooking it in hot sand in a huge wok, roasting the peanuts in the hot sand and removing the husks, and then finally (I guess, because details are sketchy here) making the sugar syrup and combining everything into a pan and compressing the mixture. Oh, and then cutting them into squares and packing them into plain aluminum tins that look like gallon paint cans. For such a small treat, the making of mi-ch'ang was, and apparently may still be, surrounded by superstition, lore and guarded like gold. Some would designate tools and materials specifically for their version, such as a special wok or black sand, and some even went so far as to have a shack (off limits to everyone but the mi-ch'ang maker) devoted to its production. Here's a great article about mi-ch'ang that appeared in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin (Jan 2004) if you'd like to read more about this elusive treat, along with a modern day recipe (PHOTO BY BETTY SHIMABUKURO BETTY@STARBULLETIN.COM).

Anyhoo, a few months ago I came across a recipe by the cookbook writer David Lebovitz. It was called White Chocolate Rice Krispie Treats with Candied Peanuts. I made it a few times and in the back of my mind, a connection was made to its Chinese counterpart. Yet, I only recently tried tweaking his recipe in an admittedly lame attempt to recreate the mi-ch'ang of my youth. And surprisingly, the result turned out to be pretty good! It's chewy, not crunchy like the original, but in the interest of shaving probably a week's time off the preparation, it's an acceptable tradeoff in my book. Give it a try and let me know what you think. I realize you may not have had authentic mi-ch'ang made by a family shaman, but you might just like these treats as is. Perhaps with further tweaking, such as cooking the marshmallows a bit longer or even using a candy syrup, they might inch even closer to the real thing.

Mi-ch'ang-style Rice Krispie Treats
4 oz. salted butter, cut up
1 10 oz. bag of mini marshmallows
3 oz. finely chopped candied ginger (adjust to taste)
8 oz. Planter's Honey Roasted Peanuts
5 oz. (about 5 cups) Kellogg's Rice Krispies

Spray or butter a 13"x9" pan. Heat the butter in the microwave until just melted. Add the marshmallows and ginger and stir to coat in the melted butter. Microwave on high, stirring every 30 seconds, until just melted. Quickly stir in the peanuts and Rice Krispies until evenly coated with the melted marshmallow/ginger mix. Distribute clumps of the mixture into the prepared pan, pressing lightly into an even layer. Let cool. Flip the layer out onto a cutting board and cut into 1" cubes with a serrated knife (a plastic lettuce knife works well). Store in an airtight container.

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