Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Weird Food Wednesdays: Grass Jelly


Christine, aka Mistress of Cakes, recently dared me to try grass jelly. She obviously doesn't know who she's dealing with here - not only have I tried it, I also happen to LOVE IT! The real challenge is convincing others that grass jelly actually tastes good.

Grass jelly (aka xian cao/chin chow/cincau/suong sao) is not actually made from grass, but from Mesona chinensis, an herb related to mint. The leaves and stalks are boiled down to extract the flavor and then the liquid is cooled to a jello-like consistency. Despite the intense obsidian color, grass jelly has a mild herbal taste. Hubby Kris says the slightly bitter taste reminds him of tea.


A basic way to enjoy grass jelly is to cut it into cubes and drizzle with simple syrup, honey, or maple syrup. In Southeast Asia, you'll find grass jelly being added to desserts such as ice kacang (the "everything but the kitchen sink" of desserts) or chendol. For an easy dessert, you can cut it up and mix it with canned lychee or fruit salad. I've also found grass jelly to be an excellent substitute for the chewy tapioca balls in bubble tea.

I always buy grass jelly in a can but apparently you can also get it in powdered form. The jelly slithers out of the can in one cylindrical piece (just like Oceanspray jellied cranberry sauce). Only 3 ingredients are listed on the label: Chinese jelly herb, water and cornstarch. A four ounce serving has zero fat, zero cholesterol, 2 grams of carbs and only 8 calories.

I asked my dad whether he knew of any related health benefits and he responded, "Chinese people think anything that looks miserable and tastes bitter is healthy!" Oh dear, here comes the
Jackie Chan backlash! My father thinks it's okay to say things like that because he is Chinese.

While I've never eaten grass jelly specifically for health reasons, a quick search on the internet revealed some medicinal uses: reducing temperatures/fevers (grass jelly possesses "yin" or cooling qualities), lowering blood pressure, preventing indigestion, acting as a diuretic, and increasing fertility.

My favorite way of enjoying grass jelly is in a drink my Auntie Hiok makes for me whenever I visit Malaysia. My cousin Jonah gave me a rough idea of how to make it, so I fiddled around with the proportions until it tasted good:


Phyllis' Grass Jelly "Special"

1/3 cup black grass jelly, chopped into tiny cubes or thin strips
1 1/2 Tbsps palm sugar* dissolved in 1/4 cup of boiling or hot water
1/4 cup of evaporated milk (like Carnation)
3/4 cup of cold water
ice cubes (optional)

Stir together ingredients in a tall glass. Serve with a straw or a long spoon. Enjoy!

*Note: Palm sugar is made from the sap of various palm trees. In Malaysia, palm sugar is dark brown, made from the sap of the Nipah Palm tree (giving the drink a rich latte color when my Auntie Hiok makes it). I've only come across the Thai variety of palm sugar, which is lighter in color but still adds a nice caramelly flavor to desserts. Sometimes labelled as "coconut sugar", you'll find palm sugar either in a tub (preferred) or in round hard disks (aka "palm sugar candy"). The stuff is the tub is softer, but make sure you scrape off any wax on the top before you use it. I still haven't figured out what to do with the hard disks, but I think you can grate, hammer, ice pick or nuke it into submission (more tips
here). If you can't find palm sugar, use dark brown sugar as a substitute.

Another easy drink is made by simply combining sweetened soy milk with chopped grass jelly. This combination is known as the "Michael Jackson" in Malaysia (however, my dad says this is "complete nonsense!" as the soy milk/grass jelly combo existed long before Michael Jackson was even born).


And if you're feeling too lazy to chop, you can always pick up a refreshing grass jelly drink in a can. I prefer the plain flavor (ingredients: grass jelly, water, and sugar) but it also comes in banana, coconut and honey flavor.

You can find canned grass jelly in the aisles of your local Asian food market. Usually it's near the canned exotic fruit (lychee, longan, rambutan etc). All the brands taste more or less the same. You can also order it online here. Grass jelly drinks are typically located in the soy milk (non refrigerated) aisle with the other canned fruit drinks. Palm sugar can be found in the Southeast Asian/Malaysian/Indonesian aisle, or included with the other varieties of sugar in the baking aisle.

So Christine, I dare you to try my grass jelly recipe. And I double dare you not to like it!




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21 comments:

Hornsfan said...

This is my first trip over to your blog - gotta say, Grass Jelly wasn't on my list of things to try :) The drink looks intriguing though and I'm still laughing at your quotes from your Dad!

5 Star Foodie said...

Where do you get this jelly? Sounds neat, I'd love to try.

Phyllis said...

Hornsfan: Thanks for visiting. Yes, my father is quite the character!

5 star foodie: Sorry, I forgot to include where you can find grass jelly. I've updated my post. Thanks for the reminder!

Heavenly Housewife said...

Oh Phyllis, you crack me up! Where do you come up with this stuff. I am still trying to find something to out-weird you. At least that jelly looks more tasty than the gefilte fish :P
What your dad said was pretty funny :). Similarly, if you look up any indian herb/spice they all say it "aids digestion", whats with all the digestive angst amongst the Indian community? Some things r just over my head I guess. Good one though. Cant wait to see what u put up next week!

Christine aka Mistress of Cakes said...

hmm..okay...your way sounds good...i had it strait up...and it did taste like grass...maybe it was a super old can of it? Hmm...maybe someone was just being mean to me. That is a possibility...now I am going to have to retry it. I think Heavenly Housewife and I have to team up to out do you!

KennyT said...

Hahahahaha, there is a very famous dessert house in Sai Kung (a place in Hong Kong) that sells yummy grass jelly dessert! Will bring you and Kris there one day, hehehehe

I dunno why, when I was young, I always mixed up grass jelly with Guilinggao. Have you tried Guilinggao before?

Have you tried Guilinggao (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guilinggao)?

Note: Chinese people no longer use the endangered three-lined box turtles for making Guilinggao.

Teanna said...

That grass jelly sounds SO interesting! I'd love to try the Grass Jelly Special though!

I think it sounds great and there are a lot of interesting ways to use this ingredient! Thanks for sharing!

Justin Schwartz said...

whoa, I'm a little scared of this stuff.

Jenn said...

I was a little hesitatnat as I had assumed it was made from grass, but when you mentioned it wasn't then I'm willing to try it. I'm just not sure of the color.

Phyllis said...

Heavenly Housewife: This is just stuff I have in my pantry, seriously!

Christine, Mistress of Cakes: Grass jelly definitely needs sugar to make it taste good. Like eating unsweetened jello. I had a piece of grass jelly right out of the can yesterday and it didn't taste great but wasn't at all offensive. Maybe someone tricked you and gave you the guilinggao turtle jelly (see Kenny's comment)! I have to admit that I'm starting to get a little nervous now that you're thinking of teaming up with HH to out do me. Did you see oysterculture's sardinian maggot cheese post - no way I can ever top that!

Kenny: No, haven't tried the guilinggao before, but I haven't exactly looked out for it!! And thanks for letting me know that they don't actually use turtle anymore -now I might actually try it!

Teanna: YAY! Another person willing to try a weird food. My job here is done!

Justin: Don't be afraid. I'm sure you've eaten scarier things. Start by mixing some grass jelly with fruit salad. Baby steps!

Jenn: Yeah, the color tends to scare most people off. It's really mild tasting. My husband actually likes it and he never ate anything weirder than General Tso's chicken before meeting me! So glad you are willing to try it!

Thanks for all your comments!

Dragon said...

You are a brave one!

oysterculture said...

I'm looking forward to trying your grass jelly special. I happen to love it too. I think the first time I tried it was in that dessert that is essentially everything but the kitchen sink. I love it because it really makes you think about food differently - what there's corn in my desert and soybeans. Growing up in the midwest, everything had its proper place.

Tangled Noodle said...

I love iced kacang but never wondered what was in it - it's just so similar to the Filipino 'halo-halo' ("mix-mix") dessert and that was all I needed. You know I'm going to have to buy a can of this stuff now, don't you? I'm definitely going to give Phyllis' Glass Jelly Special a try!

Phyllis said...

Dragon: So NOT brave, this is one of the easiest weird foods I've featured. Try it, I bet you'll like it!

oysterculture: Yippee! Another grass jelly enthusiast!
"What there's corn in my dessert?!" - I had the exact same reaction the first time I had ice kacang!

Tangled Noodle: Forget ice kacang, I just looked up 'halo halo' on wiki and I think it should hold the official title for "everthing but the kitchen sink" dessert! Plantains, kidney beans, jackfruit, sweet potato, flan, ice cream - like the dessert olympics! Will definitely look out for this.

Leela said...

This thing rocks! I grew up eating tons of it. It's known to cool you down during the warmer months. We have three seasons in Thailand: hot, really hot, and you-sweat-while-taking-a-shower hot. Right now, we're in the middle of the third kind, so this is the time when the national consumption of grass jelly desserts/drinks rises 10 times.

Phyllis said...

Leela: I know what you mean about the heat in Southeast Asia - I always try to visit my relatives in Malaysia during the cooler seasons, but I guess there is no such thing when you're that close to the equator! This past weekend was sweltering in the Northeast - lucky for me I had a ton of grass jelly in my fridge. It really did cool me down!

Passionate Eater said...

Haha, my sister and I used to call grass jelly "motor oil with buildup," but we have learned to love it over the years!

Danny said...

love love love grass jelly. they r low in calories too (without the additional stuffs we put into the drink).

Robert said...

I actually do like grass jelly. I have had it many times in teas in Asian markets. They also call it herbal jelly. I also drink the grass jelly drink that comes in cans. Its a little challenging to get all the jelly out of the can. I sometimes have to use a can opener to more holes in the can.

Anonymous said...

I have always liked grass jelly, but never tried it with milk. Your recipe is delicious, thank you!!!

Anonymous said...

I actually just had grass jelly awhile ago, got bored and slightly curious, then typed it on google. Happened to come across your blog :)) Sometimes we cut it up in about cubic centimeter sizes, add some shaved ice and syrup and have it as dessert. Most of the time though (at the university where I study in) I just buy some Tapioca Milk Tea with Jelly, and darn it's so heavenly XD