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the art of keeping cool

Recipe: grass jelly and ai-yu jelly

I love the idea of summer. It’s when everything is happening. It’s a visual overload in the mountains. The thing I have trouble with is the heat, and by trouble, I mean I hate the heat. I have sworn enemies in this world and the heat is one of them. It makes me cranky and sad and angry all at once. Jeremy and I both recognize this, so there are things we do to minimize the crankiness like hiking, biking, or trail running early in the morning when the air is cool, the sun is low, and the mosquitoes are still slow. It also means we have the trails mostly to ourselves, which is awesome.

wildflowers greet the mountains

flowers fill an alpine meadow

the view from the trail

If we are lucky, the monsoons bring moisture into Colorado from the south and we get a daily cycle of glorious and dramatic thunderstorms and rain every afternoon like clockwork. Our bluebird skies turn into menacing, roiling clouds over the mountains. Cool winds and heavy rains seem to wash away the dreaded heat, even if only for an evening. It’s wonderful.

storm building over crested butte

But sometimes the storms fizzle and there is no relief. Times like these require taking matters into your own hands. We don’t have the benefit of air conditioning because we rarely need it. I try cooling off with ice cold drinks, sorbets, frozen treats, and one of my childhood favorites: grass jelly. I know it sounds odd, but it is really wonderful stuff. It’s like an herbal tea gelatin. Another similar jelly that I preferred when I was younger (probably because it was sweeter) is ai-yu jelly, made from the gel of a seed of a variety of fig.

grass jelly and ai-yu jelly

you just need the jelly, lemons, and sugar

I have only ever found these jellies in Asian grocery stores, usually canned since I never looked for a fresh version (I don’t know if they make that). You can add any sweetener (honey, maple syrup, agave, sugar) to the jelly, which is actually more of a gelatin. I make a simple syrup with organic cane sugar and water. But I don’t stop there. I like some fresh lemon juice to give a little more dimension to the ensemble. When I was on chemo, sweet things tasted so flat because I had lost my taste for sour. So I am especially fond of a little tartness in my sweets these days.

making simple syrup

juice the lemons

As a kid, I thought a black gelatin was really odd. It didn’t look pretty like all of those rainbow colors of gelatin that my friends ate. But I loved the flavor and found it especially refreshing on the hottest of Virginia summer days. I kept it my little secret between me and all of my (Chinese) people. It comes out of the can just like cranberry sauce – in the shape of the can. My childhood friend (another American-born Chinese) told me her mother prepared grass jelly too, but squeezed it through a ricer which made it look like little black worms. We laughed and laughed and then I told myself to never ever ever do that. I guess I was extra sensitive to my non-Asian friends’ perceptions of the foods I ate at home. I like to neatly slice it up into cubes or sloppily slice it into random polyhedra.

slice and dice the grass jelly

pour some lemon juice

add sweetener to taste

stir in some ice

You can treat the jelly like boba (the giant tapioca pearls that are simultaneously delicious, fun, and a choking hazard) and put it in milk tea or slushies, or you can drink it like a beverage on its own. I have always served it in a bowl and enjoyed the jelly as a cold soup. If you do drink it from a glass, then it’s probably in your best interest to chop the jelly up into smaller pieces. The grass jelly tastes like a delicate herbal tea and the ai-yu jelly is slightly sweet, almost fruity. Both are fantastic for cooling off and kinda fun to eat.

grass jelly

ai-yu jelly

Grass Jelly and Ai-Yu Jelly
[print recipe]

3 tbsps sugar
1/2 cup water
1 can grass jelly (or ai-yu jelly)
2 lemons, juice of
1 cup ice

Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan over high heat. Stir to dissolve the sugar and bring to a boil. Remove the simple syrup from heat and let cool. Dice the jelly into 1/2-inch cubes or slice at random into smaller pieces if planning to serve as a beverage. Place the jelly in a large bowl or pitcher and add simple syrup and lemon juice to taste. Stir in the ice. Ladle into bowls or pour into glasses. Serves 4.

more goodness from the use real butter archives

almond jello dessert chinese sweet peanut soup chinese sweet mung bean popsicles taro tapioca soup

20 nibbles at “the art of keeping cool”

  1. A says:

    Grass jelly is kind of rubbery out of the can, so I like to let it sit in water until it becomes softer and more jelly-like. Recently discovered grass jelly in powder form at big Chinese supermarkets. It comes in a matchbox-size cardboard box, enough to make around one gallon of grass jelly, and costs less than a dollar. Good for pot lucks.

  2. Lisa says:

    I hate the heat too. It makes me miserable. Today in New England it’s going to feel like 105. Ugh. I can’t wait for the fall. I’m going to look for the grass jelly on my next trip to the Asian market. I could use something refreshing right now and it’s only 7am!

  3. Rosie says:

    Love grass jelly! When I’m in dessert places, I like it with tofu pudding. MMM!

  4. Rocky Mountain Woman says:

    I have never heard of grass jelly! Need to give it a try…

    Stay cool…

  5. Eva @ Eva Bakes says:

    We used to eat this summertime snack all the time! I still have a can of grass jelly and ai-yu in the pantry for a day when I want a light and refreshing dessert. I love grass jelly drinks too!

  6. Winnie says:

    Intriguing! I am dying to try this :)

  7. Connie says:

    Wow, I have not had grass jelly in ages! I recall there being a bright green jelly as well, maybe it was a green ai-yu jelly but it was sweetened already. My grandma used to make syrup with rock candy, fresh sliced ginger and water to put on the grass jelly.

  8. Ally says:

    Its ironic because I just made grass jelly for a BBQ two weekends ago! i googled everywhere for a good recipe. It was a huge hit after a hot day out in the sun. I use canned Longan in syrup and diced some fresh mango and some lemon juice. Try it like that, sooo good. The syrup was prefect sweetness. I served it in a punchbowl with a ladle.

  9. Abbe@This is How I Cook says:

    Always fun reading about new things and being able to decipher what lines the aisles at the Asian market. Now I might look like I know what I’m doing!

  10. e.summerson says:

    soooo comforting to find others who are actually disturbed by the heat. i have a couple very close friends now who feel the same way and we get thru by hating it together. except i have moved to the desert….
    holding up so far by stuffing small ice pack into a straw hat which is a little like walking with a book on your head because the weight is different than just a hat. i call it operation ice hat. the benefit to my move is that i have access to giant asian superstores now! grass jelly just went on my list.

  11. Jen says:

    I love that you posted this! I have always wondered what the heck grass jelly is and am now going to buy it!! And, miss smarty pants–polyhedra? I had to look it up! :o)

  12. Andrea says:

    When I went to Taiwan in 2001, there were vendors who made fresh ai yu jelly and sold it on the street. When I went back in 2006, they were all gone. It seems like it went out of fashion…

  13. Chris says:

    In Malaysia, the grass jelly (aka “”leong fun” in Cantonese) is usually shredded (like worms!) and served in syrup water and ice, like a drink. You suck up the “worms” thru a straw, most refreshing!! I still make it myself at home on hot summer days.

  14. Maggie says:

    I believe my parents smuggled several packs of Ai Yu Seeds from TW through customs a year or two ago. It’s a pity that they don’t sell it here (I can’t seem to find it online!). Making Ai Yu by hand is somewhat tedious, but the result is so deliciously soft and you can sweeten it to your liking.

    For the grass jelly, my family makes a simple syrup with extra dark brown sugar and ginger to go along with the jelly. :)

    Nice cranberry jelly comparison; never thought of it that way.

  15. Sherry says:

    My family just sprinkled sugar on top of grass jelly cut into cubes and eat it like that. Since they have their own juices anyway, the sugar would melt into it and make a sort of syrup with it. Now we simply buy the grass jelly drinks in a can whenever we want grass jelly… We rarely buy the cans anymore, but after seeing this post, I’m feeling a bit nostalgic…

    Have you ever had a che ba mau? It’s a Vietnamese drink/dessert that has worm-like grass jelly in it. It was a bit strange at first since I find many Asian desserts sorta disconcerting in the beginning (mung beans and azuki beans in a drink made me go ??? hard), but it’s actually really yummy.

  16. Lynn says:

    I didn’t know about grass jelly until the cousins moved from Taiwan to our suburban development but it wa scary looking. Fruit cocktail with almond ‘tofu’ was a lot easier to understand, ad I still get cravings for it in the heat of the summer but typically open a can of litchi instead of the fruit cocktail, these days. Using extra gelatin (a la knox blox) and cutting into diamonds is pretty.

  17. Amanda W. says:

    Are these jellies like the delicious coconut jelly I have had sometimes?

  18. jenyu says:

    A – oh, I like it rubbery :) I’m totally gonna have to look for it in powder form. That sounds much better!

    Lisa – that sounds so miserable!! :(

    Rosie – Cool, I’ve never tried that before!

    Rocky Mountain Woman – it’s gooooooood!

    Eva – yay!!

    Winnie – just make sure you buy one that doesn’t have additives (the companion brand looks pretty clean)

    Connie – I’ve never tried the green one before, but I’m sure it’s good. Ginger flavor sounds lovely too!

    Ally – mmmm, lucky BBQ-goers.

    Abbe – I hear ya. There are still things I have no idea what they are at the Asian grocery store.

    e-summerson – oh geez, how can you stand it?! The heat is one of the reasons we moved to the mountains :) Hope you like the grass jelly!

    Jen – ha ha!!

    Andrea – wow, that’s sad! I’ve heard Taiwan street food is awesome.

    Chris – hee hee! I think as long as you know what it is, it’s fine if it’s in chunks or in “worms” ;)

    Maggie – I imagine it must be a lot of work to make Ai-yu jelly from scratch. Cool that your folks smuggled the seeds over!

    Sherry – No need to convince me of the yumminess of Asian desserts. I grew up eating that stuff – I *love* it!! :)

    Lynn – you should try the grass jelly. It’s really wonderful.

    Amanda – they are softer than the coconut jellies, but just as delightful!

  19. Mrs Ergül says:

    I love ai-yu jelly! Also like the fact that it is made naturally :D

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