The appearance of Qingtuan (青团), or green glutinous rice dumplings, in Shanghai’s grocery stores and markets, signals the arrival of spring. It’s a sure indication of spring, just like crocuses, robins, and the return of lush, green grass.
Growing up, qingtuan was a staple in my family’s diet, and I always looked forward to the distinct flavor and texture of the green sticky rice dough. You know how much I enjoy the filler, which is often red bean paste.
These are rare and valuable since their window of availability is usually relatively brief. In China, families traditionally pay their respects to deceased relatives on Qing Ming (Tomb Sweeping Day) in early April.
MUGWORT Is a Multipurpose Asian Ingredient
After missing this springtime delight for the past thirty years (since I left Shanghai), I finally figured out that the ingredient I needed to create it myself had been there in my pantry the whole time.
This unwanted plant is called mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) in English and (ài co) in Chinese. Furthermore, I have always noticed it in my own backyard. As a weed, I’ve always considered it an annoyance and removed it. The irony, oh, the irony! I finally get what they mean when they say, “so close, yet so far.”
This is why there is such a brief window in which to prepare and enjoy qingtuan. The time to harvest mugwort is in the early stages, before the plants become invasive and massive.
I did some research (no pun intended) and discovered that mugwort is used as a flavoring in Japanese and Korean cuisine as well. Qingtuan is only one of many delicacies that benefit from its multifaceted use: in the kitchen, as a tea, and in powdered form in baked goods. Yomogi mochi, which is made from mugwort, is a popular Japanese sweet.
Who knew that mugwort tea would become so popular on Amazon?
HOW TO LOCATE MUGWORT
You can either find mugwort in the wild or purchase it commercially. Mugwort powder can also be purchased online or in Asian markets if you are unsure how to identify the plant.
Wild mugwort thrives as a perennial weed. Most likely, you won’t have to travel very far. You can see them on sidewalks, by the side of the road, in fields, and even in your own backyard.
It’s important to make sure the area you’re picking is truly wild and hasn’t been treated with any kind of pesticides or weed killers.
All the leaves on a young mugwort plant are ready for picking. For older, more stalky mugwort plants, pinch only the apex of the younger leaves. Mugwort tastes finest when eaten while it is still young and fresh in the spring.
I’m hoping you got some new information out of this post and gained a new appreciation for this multipurpose plant and this classic Chinese springtime dish.
FOR THE MUGWORT PUREE:
- 6 ounces of trimmed of stems tender mugwort leaves
- 1/4-1/2 cup of water
- 1 teaspoon of salt
FOR THE MOCHI DOUGH:
- 2 cups of glutinous rice flour
- 1 1/3 cups of red bean paste
- 1/2 cup of boiling water
- 1/3 cup of powdered sugar
- 1/3 cup of wheat starch
- 1 tablespoon of lard or butter
- 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
- oil for brushing
STEP 1: PREPARE THE RED BEAN PASTE (OR GRAB A PACKAGE OF STORE-BOUGHT PASTE)
- You can use pre-made red bean paste filling or make your own using our Instant Pot Red Bean Paste or stovetop red bean paste recipes.
- Keep in mind that the red bean paste recipe for the Instant Pot will produce three times as much as is required for this qingtuan recipe. The good news is that any leftover red bean sweets can be frozen for later use.
- Fifteen balls of 25g (approximately 112 teaspoons) red bean paste are required. Once the red bean paste has cooled, roll it into smooth balls to use in the qingtuan. Many people prefer the texture of the mochi dough to the filling, so you can use less if you like.
STEP 2: MAKE THE MUGWORT PUREE
- Since my blender struggles to purée smaller amounts, I created twice as much mugwort puree as was necessary. Alternatively, you can do as I did and freeze half of the puree for later use, or use half of the dish as is. This puree can be used as a food coloring for dough, added to soups, or used to whip up a second batch of these qingtuan to pass around.
- Make sure the water is clear before using it to rinse the mugwort leaves. Extract the liquid, and set it aside.
- The mugwort leaves need to be blanched for just 30 seconds in boiling water (6 cups water, 1 teaspoon salt). Stop the cooking process and put them in an ice bath to maintain their color.
- When they’ve cooled down, give them a gentle squeeze to get rid of some of the excess water; you don’t have to wring them out completely. Put them in the blender with a quarter to a half cup of water and puree until smooth (the water helps yield a smooth puree). Following these instructions, I was able to produce 540 grams of mugwort puree. If you let the mugwort hang out for too long before combining the dough, the green hue will fade.
STEP 3: MAKE THE DOUGH
- Mix 1/2 cup (120 ml) of boiling water with the wheat starch in a medium mixing bowl using a rubber spatula until a dough ball forms. (It should be boiling.) Place aside.
- The mugwort puree should be placed in a large, separate mixing dish. You’ll only need about 270g or half of what you’d need if you prepared the whole amount.
- Put in some lard (or butter), powdered sugar, vanilla, and sweet glutinous rice flour. Mix by hand and knead until dry but cohesive. Mix in the wheat starch dough and knead until it’s a uniform bright green color throughout and has a smooth texture.
- It needs to be moist so that it doesn’t break when you pinch off a piece but dry enough to keep its shape. Knead in a little water, a spoonful at a time, if it’s too dry. If the dough is too wet, add sweet rice flour, 1 tablespoon at a time, by kneading it in.
- At the end of the day, the dough is incredibly forgiving. It’s important that you’re able to completely enclose the filling within the pastry. Dough that is too wet will be sticky when cooked, whereas dough that is too dry will be chewy. One that’s chewy is my favorite!
- About 735 grams in weight is ideal for the dough. Cut the dough into 15 pieces, each around 50 grams in weight. Keep them from drying out during assembly by rolling them into balls and covering them.
STEP 4: ASSEMBLE THE QINGTUAN
- Make sure the water level in your bamboo steamer won’t reach the qingtuan, and fill your steamer with enough water for 10 minutes of steaming over high heat. For each qingtuan, have ready 15 squares of parchment paper, measuring 3 by 3 inches.
- Make a dent in the center of a ball of dough using your fingernail. Using your fingers, dig a deep hole by pressing down and out.
- Wells for red bean paste balls need to be just the right width and depth so that the filling can be securely placed inside. Insert the red bean filling and close the pouch by squeezing the seam together. Put the qingtuan on a square of parchment paper, shut the open seam, and roll it between your palms to smooth and round it out.
STEP 5: STEAM THE QINGTUAN
- To get the most out of your steamer, you should pre-boil the water. Once the water in the steamer comes to a boil, you may begin steaming the qingtuan, which should be placed on the rack at least half an inch apart.
- Steam them over high heat for 10 minutes while covered. Put a stop to the cooking immediately (don’t oversteam them, or they’ll explode) and take them off the stove.
- To keep them from drying out and cracking, brush a little layer of oil over them.
- Serve the newly baked Qingtuan (青团)!