Shikhye/sikhye is a traditional Korean drink often served after a meal at restaurants. Despite its continued popularity, it is not usually made at home aside from holidays because of the long process of making shikhye and its wide availability as a canned product. This chilled drink is usually served in a small bowl with floating grains of rice and pine nuts. Extra points for those who serve it with granite-like shikhye ice bits. It is a simple drink at its best for quenching thirst and aiding digestion with its subtly, yet distinctively malty-sweet flavor.
Shikhye requires only 4 ingredients - rice, water, malted barley flour and sugar, with a few more optional ingredients - ginger (생강; saeng gang), jujube (대추; dae chu) or cinnamon (계피; gye pi) - if you choose to flavor the drink.
Making shikhye starts with pouring malt water over hard-boiled rice, then keeping it at a constant temperature of about 140 F/ 60 C degrees for 4-6 hours and finally boiling with sugar added.
As it is also explained in Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking, what goes on behind these steps is nature's simple magic. Adding malted cereal grains to cooked grains allows the malted grain's enzymes to digest starch into sugars. Malted barley is often used as it has more active enzymes than other germinated grains. The result is subtly sweet, malty liquid from a combination of maltose and glucose, about half as sweet as sucrose, i.e., table sugar.
It takes little effort and few ingredients, but long waits in-between steps. I'd equate the effort of making shikhye to making bread, which takes only a few simple ingredients and steps but tests your patience. And like bread, homemade shikhye tastes so much better with a better control of sweetness and flavors.
Because of the long process of making shikhye and how fast it disappears from the refrigerator especially on hot summer days like now, it makes sense to make a big batch at a time. Of course, you'll need a big rice cooker to make this happen.
The actual amount of shikhye you can get is determined by the size of your rice cooker, so start from how much water the rice cooker bowl can hold, then decide how much rice and malted barley flour should be used. The end-result is still less than the maximum water you put into the rice cooker because you lose some in the process of straining. As you will soon see from my recipe, I have a very small rice cooker.
A simple ratio for shikhye I've come up with is -
Rice (uncooked) : Malted Barley Flour : Water = 1 : 1 : 10
Can you make shikhye without a rice cooker? Yes, but it's much easier if you have a rice cooker not only for the part of rice cooking but also to keep the mix of rice and malt water at a constant temperature of 140F/ 60C degrees for 4-6 hours. Slow cooker's low temperature seems to be too high, which I learned to be about 160F/ 70C degrees. I remember from my early childhood that my grandmother used to keep a big bowl of rice with malt water sitting on the heated floor (온돌; on dol - traditional Korean heating system) and wrap it with a blanket. Of course at the time, I didn't really know what was happening. I just thought that my grandma was a funny person to wrap her precious bowl with a blanket and place it on the floor. Oddities aside, I presume an electric blanket would be another alternative.
You can find malted barley (엿기름; yeot gi reum) flour (가루; ga ru) in Korean grocery stores. You will often find two different types - coarse and fine. Both will work, but for the purpose of making shikhye, I prefer the coarse 'flour' (it looks more like flakes), which makes multiple straining steps a bit easier without any impact on the flavor.
To make about 4 cups of shikhye)
1/2 C short-grain white rice
1/2 C malted barley flour (엿기름 가루; yeot gi reum ga ru)
5 C cold water (plus up to 1 C of water to soak and cook rice)
1/4 C or more sugar
Optional) slices of fresh ginger, cinnamon, Chinese dates (also called jujube) for flavor and pine nuts for garnish. Honey for extra sweetness.
In a big bowl, add 1/2 C malted barley flour and 5 C cold water. Cover and let it sit for about 6 hours or overnight in a dark, cool place. In the beginning, it will be pretty murky with malted barley flour floatings, which will slowly sink to the bottom. If you are making this in a hurry - although it's not a recipe for people in-a-hurry, you can start with lukewarm water and wait about 3 hours. But you're taking a chance of a compromising result - cloudy, grayish shikhye.
After about 4 hours into soaking malted barley flour in water, rinse and soak 1/2 C of white rice (short grain sushi rice) in 1 C of cold water for 30 minutes. Leave just enough water to cover the rice grains and cook. If you make rice often and you know how to work your rice cooker, you probably have found different degrees of doneness of rice. Sometimes it's closer to a big mushy mass that reminds you of porridge without enough water. We're going for something closer to the other end - rice that's all cooked, but you can distinguish each rice grain.
Strain the malted barley liquid after 6 hours or more of soaking when the top of the liquid mostly clear and free of mallted barley flour floatings. Slowly strain the liquid with a fine strainer, lined with cheesecloth if you have it. When you get closer to the end of the liquid with the flour residue on the bottom, just discard it and don't force straining the last drops of the liquid. It will just cloud the drink later.
After rice is cooked, add the malted barley liquid in the rice cooker. Keep the rice cooker at 'Warm' for 4 to 6 hours. When you see about 20 rice grains floating on top, it's done. Scoop out the rice and reserve separately.
Slowly strain the liquid one more time with a fine strainer lined with cheesecloth. Again, don't try to get the last drops of it. You will still find some malted barley flour residue, which should be discarded after straining.
Place the liquid in a pot and add 1/4 C of sugar.
Optional) To flavor the drink with ginger and/or cinnamon, this is the time to add a couple of fresh ginger slices and/or a small cinnamon stick.
Bring up to a boil. Let the ginger pieces and cinnamon stick steep until the liquid cools to room temperature. Taste and feel free to mix in more sugar or honey to your taste. Remove ginger and cinnamon and refrigerate in an airtight container.
Add rice grains and pine nuts right before serving. If you add rice grains too early, they will sink to the bottom. Although it is mostly served chilled, I always have a cup of shikhye when it's still hot right after boiling - it's a heart-warming tea for a chilly day, a great reward for myself after a long-day of making shikhye.
More Ideas! If you have a patbingsu (팥빙수; Korean-style shaved ice with sweetened red beans) machine - i.e., ice shaver, you can make shaved shikhye after freezing it in the container that comes with the machine.
Even without an ice shaver, you can make something similar. Simply freeze it in a shallow, flat container. After an hour, scrape all around with a fork as the liquid starts forming ice. Scrape with a fork every half an hour until a desired consistency of ice is formed. Shikhye granite is great as is, or served as an icy drink with part granite, part liquid. You can also enjoy it with all the patbingsu toppings you like - fruit pieces, honey, condensed milk, and, of course sweet red beans and rice cake pieces, most of which can be found in Korean grocery stores. You've seen this one before - homemade patbingsu with shikhye granite I made a year ago!
ginger 생강 (saeng gang)
jujube 대추 (dae chu)
pine nut 잣 (jat)