The History Dish: Rice with Maple Syrup (Hong Sooy Un Doy)

Let’s say it’s 1880 and your in-laws are in town.  They want to “see the real New York.”  So what do you do with them?  How about a tour of Chinatown!

Long before the endless stalls of knock-off handbags, Chinatown of the late 19th century was a tourist destination.  Gangs of middle-class city visitors would swarm to the Lower East Side to take guided tours, in which they might peek into an opium den, shop in import stores, or meet one of the “Irish Brides” of the mostly male Chinese population.

The tours were meant to titillate, even to shock.  You were descending into a “foreign” country,  just a few blocks below Houston Street.  I often wonder how these visitations were received by the immigrant Chinese population: some, I’m sure, took advantage of the situation for financial gain.  Others, perhaps, were even able to chuckle at the awe-struck outsiders.  But how does it really feel when your neighborhood is filled with tourists, ogling and judging your way of life?

The tour would always end in one of Chinatown’s many eateries to grab a bowl of Chop Suey, a mix of pork, chicken organs, and vegetables which was considered the height of exoticism at the turn of the century.  You can watch me (poorly) cook a turn-of-the-century recipe for chop suey here.

My colleague Bill Wander recently had an article published  in Asian Fusion magazine, all about these “slumming tours” as they were known at them time.  He did a little investigating into what a Chinese restaurant was serving at the turn of the century:

“The Oriental Restaurant at 3 Pell St in 1903 featured the inevitable “Chop SOOY” for 15 cents and a small chicken chow mein for forty cents. Birds Nest soup and shark fin soup were $1.50 and $2. respectively. The menu was ala carte, with rice or bread and butter at 5 cents. But the most unusual item on the menu might have been “Hong Sooy Un Doy” – Rice with maple syrup – 10 cents.”

You can see the full menu here.

Rice with Maple Syrup–I was intrigued! I like rice! I like maple syrup!  And who has ever heard of that flavor combination before?  It reminded me of a dish my mother used to eat when she was a kid: cooked rice in cold milk with sugar and cinnamon.  Sweet rice, in my mind, is associated with rice pudding.  To see it so simply dressed with sweet condiments, rather than savory, seemed unique.

So I cooked a pot of rice according to this recipe and drizzled real maple syrup on top.  I dug in with a pair of chopsticks.

My first thought was “hot ice cream!”  It had the creaminess and sweetness of ice cream, but with a comforting warmth.  But after a few bites, the flavor became monotonous.  It’s an interesting idea, but perhaps it needs some improvement.  Perhaps a maple-pecan-bourbon rice pudding instead?  Or maybe, a maple-ginger rice pudding; or maple-sezchuan-peanut rice pudding, to pull out the dish’s Chinatown roots.  Now that’s worth thinking about.


11 thoughts on “The History Dish: Rice with Maple Syrup (Hong Sooy Un Doy)

  1. Wow!!!!! I’m so excited that I just found this blog!!! I’ve been demonstrating cooking from the 1830’s at a living history museum in MA since I was 16 (and am of course generally obsessed with food history). I’ve lived in Brooklyn for a while and am so glad to see that I’m not the only person in the city that thinks it’s a good idea to test an oven temp by holding my arm in it! I would LOVE to find out about more events here (and to participate)!!

  2. We grew up eating (and still do) what we called ‘cereal rice’ – rice with cinnamon, nutmeg, white sugar, a pat of butter, topped with milk. Definitely a comfort food.

    For some reason I don’t associate maple with rice at all. On cornmeal mush for sure though. Esp leftover mush, sliced & fried in bacon grease :)

    • That sounds almost exactly like what my mother described to me! I remember her letting me taste it when I was a little girl, and I thought it was gross. Now, it seems like it would be quite nice.

  3. Do you think that they infused the maple syrup into the rice by cooking it along with the rice and water? It would be a more subtle sweetness, I would think. Just a thought. Love me some rice and old timey receipts!

    • I did think about the afterwards; maybe they took pre-cooked rice and kinda glazed it by cooking it again with maple syrup? Might be interesting.

  4. I was so thrilled to see your mention of the way your mother used to have “cooked rice in cold milk with sugar and cinnamon.” I used to eat exactly the same thing, and still do sometimes because I like it so much. When I was little, I was always happy when my mom made rice for dinner because I knew there would be leftover rice for breakfast! However, I’ve never known anyone else who ate it that way.

    Could that be a regional thing? I’m wondering where your mother was from; my parents were both born and raised in rural western Kansas.

      • Old Native American Dish. Wild Rice and Maple Syrup,sometimes they added nuts and dried berries. What ever they had in storage. In the 1800’s they learned how to make pies. The Cooked Wild Rice and Maple Syrup and what ever else was added, was mixed with egg, and baked in a single pie crust. Try it, it’s good with or without a crust. You can make it sweet or savory.

        • I love adding garlic to my rice with a bit of black pepper and maple syrup, the garlic pops out compared to the sweet of the syrup. I love it

  5. I just cooked rice using maple sap instead of water. Very good. I added some herbs and salt. Next time I’ll make it with cinnamon.

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