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!