In the US, the Asian dessert known as grass jelly comes in cans and is devoid of flavor. The actual stuff, however, is fragrantly sweet and smoky, and the perfect thing to slurp down in summer heat.
Across the United States, grass jelly is most often known as the cubed, black gelatin that one orders as a topping at bubble milk tea shops. In Los Angeles, there's an entire chain called Blackball Taiwanese Dessert dedicated to the ingredient—served in a bowl, combined with taro balls, sweet red bean, and maybe a dollop of ice cream.
In Asian supermarkets, it's on the shelf in a can—mixed with honey, water, and the usual additives. People in the West describe it as tasteless.
The real stuff is far from it.
Fresh grass jelly is fragrant, with a lightly smoky undertone. The grass in question is Chinese mesona, a plant in the mint family grown usually as a secondary crop. It's a perennial herb that's harvested only once a year in the spring.
The grass is dried—left to oxidize in the sun—and then boiled for at least eight hours so that it yields a thick, black tea. Starch is then stirred in to give it its signature jelly texture. Traditionally, it's either arrowroot or cassava root starch, but these days, large companies opt for potato or corn because they're cheap.
Grass jelly is chewy. It has the consistency of real flan—gelatinous and thick. When cut into, there is very little resistance. Finally, the jelly is cooled down, served with a bit of sugar water or cold milk.
"It was used by the Hakka people to cure heat strokes in the fields," Ajaya Chen tells me. Chen is a Taiwanese naturopath and cooking teacher. I had met her and her husband Parashara Chou at a detox yoga retreat in southern Taiwan, where she served participants freshly made grass jelly.
The Hakka are an ethnic group of Han Chinese; grass jelly is a signature dessert of the group. It has a cooling effect and is particularly good for hot and moist days. In the open-air markets in Taiwan, it's usually peddled as large cubes. The vendor will simply slice off however much you need.
I am taking a stroll with Chen and Chou in their neighborhood in the countryside of Tongluo Township in Miaoli, Taiwan. We're standing in a small patch of Chinese mesona, planted and tended to by her Hakka neighbor, Mrs. Li.
In the distance, Mrs. Li, at 80-something years old, hacks away at bamboo at the foot of her property. She has never left Tongluo and has no intention to ever leave. It is only 10 AM and it is scorching hot already.
"She does this every single day," Chen notes.
The temperature only starts to cool down in the late afternoon, when mist from over the hills rolls in and significantly cools down the area. "Grass jelly from here is especially good because of that vast temperature difference between night and day," Chen says. "It affects the plant and makes it sweeter."
Because of this, Miaoli is a grass jelly production hub in Taiwan. Chen takes me to the city center to visit a producer called Hakka Grass Jelly, owned by Yongyu Xu, a second-generation grass jelly maker. He works every single day, unless there's a typhoon or the weather drops in temperature significantly.
"People don't eat grass jelly when it's cold outside," Xu says.
Located in a worn-out home, the business has been around for 50 years now. A bubbling vat of tea sits in a steel container in the middle of the home and pipes extend up and around it. I feel like I'm in a Miyazaki movie. A parrot sits in the corner, eyeing us.
"When my father did this, the entire operation was powered by gas," Xu reminisces. "Today, I use steam."
Xu filters out the tea in a cloth with a long tube and touches the boiling liquid with his bare hands. He stares into space, briefly.
"What are you doing?" Chen asks.
"Feeling the texture of the tea, to see if it's ready," he says.
Chen and I look at each other and giggle. How does one feel the texture of tea? How does that even work?
"Years of experience," Chen says softly.
In summer during busy seasons, he can produce up to 4,000 pounds of grass jelly. Tea is cooked in a boiler and filtered with a cloth. Five batches are made and then mixed together. The final mixture is then solidified with cassava root powder imported from Thailand. The company only sells locally to the residents of Miaoli; the shelf life of a cube of grass jelly is about a week.
We're treated to a bowl of the dessert, freshly made, served in a small pool of iced brown sugar water. It's delightful, cool to the touch. I finish it within minutes. A large box of jelly sells for only $6 US.
Xu is one of the last remaining artisanal grass jelly vendors in town. He says there's a high possibility that the 50-year-old business will end with him; his son likely won't continue the practice.
"Every year he says he will come back and learn from me. Every year he keeps on delaying it," he says. "My son grew up in this building, watching me make grass jelly. It isn't novel for him anymore."