燒仙草 – Hot Grass Jelly
Grass Jelly is a dessert which many of us enjoyed since our childhood days. The Cantonese folks call it 凉粉 “leung fun“, while it is 草粿 “cao kueh” for the Teochews and 草粄 “cao ban” for the Hakkas. Its popularity spreads throughout Taiwan, as well as the rest of Southeast Asia where it can be easily cultivated as well, to Vietnam, Thailand and of course Malaysia and Singapore. It is usually eaten as a cold drink or dessert, especially welcoming when the weather is hot and humid but in Taiwan, it is also enjoyed during the winter months, where a hot version would be available and is no less gratifying. And the way 燒仙草 Hot Grass Jelly is eaten seem to be uniquely Taiwan indeed!
Grass jelly is usually called “cheng chao” in Singapore, and sold alongside soya bean milk at drinks and dessert stalls. It usually comes in a firm solidified form, either chopped finely and added into the making of a cold and sweet drink, or simply cut into cubes and enjoyed as a chilled dessert in a bowl with some ice cubes and a drizzling of syrup. In Hong Kong, it is eaten with cubed fresh fruits like mango, water-melon and honey melon, popularised by 許留山 Hui Lau Shan in the 1990s. In Taiwan, it is eaten in summer as a chilled dessert, usually jellified using agar/kanten powder, or in some places gelatine is used instead. The toppings would include 芋圆 taro balls, 珍珠粉圆 tapioca pearls, 小汤圆 small glutinous rice dumplings, as well as an assortment of candied condiments like 蜜红豆 red beans, 蜜绿豆 green beans,蜜芋頭 taro cubes. But for me, the most interesting condiment for Taiwanese Hot Grass Jelly is the incorporation of roasted and salted peanuts. It seems odd initially but later realised that it works remarkably well, lending not only the crunchy texture, but also the aroma and a hint of saltiness to an otherwise sweet dessert. Medicinally, it also makes a lot of sense to add ingredients like peanuts and red beans as they help to balance and neutralise the “cooling effects” of grass jelly.
Truth be told, the main ingredient for making grass jelly is what looked like nothing more than “a heap of dried leaves and twigs”. But not any dried leaf litter of course, but that of dehydrated Mesona chinensis. Being a member of the mint family, even the dried stalks give off a faint but noticeable refreshing fragrance. Everything above the roots can be harvested and used in the making of grass jelly. The leaves and twigs are dried under the sun where they rapidly darken upon oxidation.
During the cooking of the grass jelly twigs and leaves, it is important to use a large pot where the twigs and leaves would occupy only half the capacity. This is because upon boiling, the dried stuff reconstitutes and expands, and allowance of space has to be provided for that to happen. The amount of water used is only a gauge as all that is needed is to ensure that the twigs and leaves are completely submerged in water during the first part of the boiling process. Worry not about having too much water added as the final concoction can always be boiled down to concentrate the liquids by evaporating away the excess water.
燒仙草 – Hot Grass Jelly Recipe (serves 6-8)
200g dried Grass Jelly twigs and leaves (仙草干)
80g dried longan （龙眼干)
water, appro. 1.5 to 2 litres, or what is required to keep all the grass jelly submerged in the pot
1 tsp baking soda (苏打粉）
150g unrefined light brown sugar (二砂）
30g corn flour*
3-4 tbsp toasted peanuts
Other condiments (as required)
芋圆 taro balls
珍珠粉圆 tapioca pearls
小汤圆 small glutinous rice dumplings
蜜红豆 red beans
蜜绿豆 green beans
蜜芋頭 taro cubes
Rinse the dried grass jelly twigs and leaves very thoroughly 2-3 times to remove any sand and unwanted debris.
Place grass jelly twigs and leaves in a large pot and add water, dried longan, baking soda and cook for at least 1 hour. Be sure that there is sufficient water to keep all the ingredients submerged. Check periodically that the liquids do not dry out with the boiling. Top up with warm water if necessary.
Drain the hot mixture carefully to remove the twigs and leaves.
Allow the concoction to rest for about 5 min.
Decant carefully the mixture back into the large pot, taking care not to pour any debris which had settled at the bottom back.
Add sugar and stir well to dissolve. Continue to boil the grass jelly liquids to evaporate excess water until the desired concentration. I boiled away about 1/3 of the liquids after straining.
*For the HOT version, mix corn flour with 100g water. While the concentrated grass jelly is hot and simmering, carefully drizzle the corn starch concoction with stirring to thicken the mixture.
Keep the thickened hot grass jelly under very low flame or over a bain marie/water bath until ready to serve.
To serve, ladle a portion of hot grass jelly into a serving bowl. Top with condiments like taro balls, small glutinous rice dumplings, candied yam, red bean etc but most importantly, add a handful of roasted salted peanuts for that uniquely Taiwanese taste.
*For the COLD version, reconstitute 2 tbsp of powder gelatine in 1/4 cup of water at room temperature for 5-10 min. Mix well with 5 cups of hot grass jelly liquids. Leave to cool over kitchen counter top until room temperature before covering with cling film and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight for the grass jelly to firm up. Otherwise, agar powder or kanten powder can also be used but the amounts would vary. Simply follow the instructions on the agar packaging BUT add a tad more liquids than what is the specified ratio on the packaging for softer textures.