ASIAN SOUTHERN ALMOND MILK,
WITH THAT DISTINCTIVELY FLORAL AROMA AND REMEDIAL RICHNESS THAT WORKS SO FLAWLESSLY WITH THIS TRADITIONAL SOUP, ELEVATING IT TO NEW HEIGHT
I’ve always pondered about almond, well, not specifically about what this word would mean to most of you, which is probably something like American sweet almond, with narrow leaf-drop shape and minimum coolosity inside what is already not-so-exciting trail mixes.
But I’m talking about what is also called “almond” in Asia. Same name, but entirely different characteristics. Asian almond is much smaller with flat heart-shaped profile, but most importantly, an immediate, elegant and floral scent separates itself from the American variety. You could identify that scent/flavour if you are familiar with almond extracts or some marzipans, unique, subjective, and hard to describe. Why both “almond” and yet so different? Well, because they aren’t the same thing to begin with.
American almond is the kernel of a fruit in the drupe family (Prunus dulcis) (see comments for extra information), whereas Asian almond is actually the kernel of apricot. And it’s extremely important to note that in Asia, even the word “almond” comes in two different, and mostly, dangerous distinctions. Southern almond (Prunus armeniaca L.), sweet, floral and nourishing, is the common ingredient we consume in both dessert or savory dishes. Whereas another variety called northern almond/bitter almond (Prunus armeniaca Linne var. ansu Maximowicz), smaller with an even stronger, bitter “almond-y” scent, is actually poisonous if ingested in large-enough quantity, and is only used in small amount for medicinal purposes. The reason why almond extracts taste/smell like Asian almond and not American almond, is because the extracts are mostly made from bitter almonds (but relax, the extracts are treated in order to neutralize the poisonous elements).
So, a bit of some boring, nerdy botany talk. But how does it all apply?
Deliciousness is what.
Have you heard of soulongtang? The Korean ox bone soup that is milky white as a result of hours and hours of rolling boil, reaching a state of emulsion between liquid and gelatin, protein and other minerals – very much the same as tonkotsu ramen broth. Well, that process is interesting to replicate, if you are one such individual with admirable persistence and disposable free time. But in this rare reality where convenience and optimal result can actually coexist, we can achieve this rich and deeply nourishing soup in a fragment of the time it takes, by adding almond milk. But not just any other boring, fake-ass, vanilla-falvoured almond milk sold in cartons please. I’m talking homemade Asian southern almond milk, with that distinctively floral aroma and remedial richness and depth that, exceeding my own expectation, works so flawlessly with this traditional soup, elevating it to new height.
There’s nothing else I want more than the warmth and comfort of this dish, in this dark and uncertain time that is January 2017. Hope you agree.
*SORRY! The first link to the southern almonds was the WRONG ONE! It’s now updated and correct.
- 1 cup (115 grams) Asian southern almond, or see note
- 2 heaping tbsp (35 grams) skinless toasted peanuts
- 3 cups (750 ml/grams) hot water
- 2 lbs (900 grams) oxtails
- 6 large slices ginger
- 1 large onion
- 8 cups (2 litre) water
- 2 tsp sea salt, plus more to adjust
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- finely diced chives or scallion to serve
- ground white pepper to serve
- MAKE ALMOND MILK: In a blender, soak Asian southern almonds and skinless toasted peanuts with 3 cups of hot water for 2 hours (or cold water for overnight). Blend on high for 2 min until smoothly pureed, then transfer into a pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Once it starts to simmer, turn the heat down to low. You will see a lot of foam starting to accumulate on top. Just ignore it and keep gently stirring. Cook the mixture for 5 min, then turn off the heat and let cool.
- You can either wait for it to cool down naturally, or as I did, stir in a few ice cubes to cool it down fast. Once it's cool enough to handle, strain it through a fine cheesecloth. The mixture will be thick and trickling down slowly. Bring the top of the cheesecloth together into a ball, and squeeze on the mixture to extract as much liquid as you can. You can make this a few days ahead and keep the milk in the fridge.
- MAKE SOULONTANG: Place oxtails and sliced gingers in a large pot, and fill with enough water to cover, then bring to a boil and let cook for 30 seconds. Pour the dirty water into the sink, then clean each oxtails under water to remove any scums and impurities. Set aside. Cut the onion into quarters, then toast them directly over the burner until charred all around. Add the oxtails, charred onions and 8 cups of water into a large pot (or pressure cooker as I did). Bring to a boil then lower the heat down to medium-low, keeping it at a medium-boil for 3 hours. Keep adding water to bring the water back to its original amount. Or if using pressure cooker (recommended), cook the mixture for 1 hour according to manufacture's instructions.
- Strain the soup through a fine sieve, keeping only the oxtails and the liquid. Then season with 2 tsp of sea salt and black pepper, and bring back to a medium-boil. Skim off any fat and impurities, and cook for another 30 min. Now add the Asian almond milk. Once the mixture is coming back to a simmer, turn off the heat (skim off any foam if any). Serve with diced chives and white pepper, and more sea salt on the side.
If you REALLY cannot find Asian southern almond, online or otherwise, you can substitute with American sweet almonds. But look, PLEASE DO NOT USE ANY store-bought almond milk that is flavored with vanilla and whatnots. Yew.