Crispy Popped Rice Treats / 爆米香的好滋味
Crispy Popped Rice Treats
◎English text by Peng Hsin-yi
◎Photos by Yang Chan-hua, Tsai Yi-jen
Mr. Wei He-li has over twenty years experience handling the pressure cooker responsible for the popped rice creations. As he spins the cylinder-shaped pod over a steady fire, his other hand stirs the malt sugar syrup that bubbles on top of the stove. There are a series of steps that go into the creation of popped rice treats and Mr. Wei has the process down to an art form. This precise timing is carried out at a steady and leisurely pace. The result, batch after batch of fragrant, gooey (but not overly sticky) popped rice treats.
The treats began in the good old days with his grandfather and a childhood filled with the delicious fragrance of popped rice. The family business has been handed down three generations and is now carried out by Mr. Wei. Traditional rice popping pressure cookers are rarely seen these days. Mr. Wei makes sure he keeps the old tradition alive. He believes his trade should be cherished like any other traditional folk crafts. Sometimes Mr. Wei receives invitations from local primary schools to demonstrate the traditional rice popping process. It is his ambition to spread his passion for the traditional treats to a new generation of fans. He has even earned the nick name "Uncle Popped Rice". Some of the children actually seek him out after his presentation, to buy his popped rice treats.
The basic ingredients include plain rice, glutinous rice or wheat. The grains are sealed in the pressure cooker and dry cooked over a slow fire for about 10 minutes, until it starts to pop. Mr. Wei always calls out "It's popping!", so people in the vicinity aren't startled by the noise. He then opens the pressure cooker, which lets out a loud bang! This is the sound that earned the treat the name "Popped Rice". He then transfers the popped rice into a mixture of raw sugar, malt sugar and vegetable oil that has been bubbling on the side. The rice and syrupy mixture are then carefully tossed so that every grain is evenly coated. Mr. Wei describes this as the most challenging step in the process and claims it takes years of experience to know when the syrup is the right consistency. The mixture is then poured into a wooden mold and spread evenly with a rolling pin. He simultaneously presses the syrup-coated grains into a firm block. Timing is of the essence as the huge block must be cut into serving pieces while it's still hot. They are then stacked into plastic bags and after10 minutes, when the blocks have cooled down, the excess moisture is let out. The bags are then sealed and the treats are ready to be sold.
Mr. Wei's menu now features various rice treats, such as peanut, sesame, macron, etc. The best seller is the Double Peanut Popped Rice Treats. Mr. Wei told us his business fluctuates with the temperature. As sales drop in the hot summer months, his business is only in operation between Mid Autumn Festival (August 15th on the lunar calendar) to Tomb-sweeping Day (approximately mid March on the lunar calendar, or April 4th on the Gregorian calendar). However, Mr. Wei never sits idle during his months of hiatus. He is always thinking about how he can modernize his business, create a new presentation, design new packaging or develop new flavors. He hopes to attract more patrons and pass down the appreciation for this traditional snack.