Quenching Your Thirst in the Tropic

Grass Jelly Drinks

We left our comfortable air-conditioned car and entered a large corrugated shed that houses the Orchard View Yong Tau Foo Restaurant in Kuala Lumpur on a recent hot sunny afternoon. Although the shed is open-sided it sits between two similar restaurants so there is no cross breeze to speak of. By the time we were seated I was already drenched with sweat. I couldn’t wait to order one of the ice cold drinks that always start a meal in restaurants throughout Malaysia and Singapore.

Open air or outdoor eating-places are everywhere in Southeast Asia and they serve up some of the most satisfying meals. But the hot and humid climate makes it a challenge for travelers from a more temperate clime to stay cool. Even locals who work and live in air conditioned spaces have a hard time. Ice cold drinks make it almost tolerable to enjoy eating al fresco.

Asian Drinks in Vats

In Malaysia and Singapore many cold drinks are based on Chinese drinks or have been influenced by them. A particularly popular one is grass jelly drink, which is traditionally made with an herbal grass jelly (仙草), water and simple sugar syrup. Grass jelly is made from an herbal plant, with a scientific name of mesona chinensis, which is thought to have special healthful effect of cooling the body. For centuries it has been used to revive sunstroke victims. The plant is dried then boiled for hours to make a black looking brew, to which a small amount of starch is added as coagulant to form a jelly. The solidified jelly can be cut up and served warm or cold in a syrup.

A version that I recently learned about is made with soybean milk instead of water and has a white appearance instead of being translucently black. In Kuala Lumpur it is called a “Michael Jackson,” which I hoped was named in jest but I certainly find the name uncomfortably insensitive. My feelings aside, both the regular grass jelly drink and the soybean milk version are excellent cooling drinks.

Making grass jelly is a laborious process. I remember our cook in Singapore used to spend a long time making it at home when I was growing up. In Southeast Asia grass jelly is now sold fresh in blocks at local markets. In America you can buy grass jelly in just about any market in Chinatown, though it is only available in canned form. It’s packaged as plain grass jelly or already mixed and ready to drink.

I’ve been touring Malaysia and Singapore these last two weeks and I’ve encountered many tropical drinks of my youth. I’ll be sharing some of them in upcoming posts. For now here’s a recipe for making grass jelly drinks using commercial ready made jelly. Cheers!

  • Grass Jelly Drink (仙草)

    • Makes one serving
    • 4 ozs. grass jelly (fresh or canned)
    • 3 ozs. water or soybean milk
    • Enough crushed ice to top off a glass
    • simple sugar syrup or sugar to taste
    • Cut the grass jelly into thin strips or chop into small pieces. Put in a glass and add water and ice. Sweeten the drink with a simple syrup made from sugar and water. Serve icy cold.
    • As an alternative soybean milk can be substituted for the water.
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9 Comments

  1. Posted August 24, 2009 at 1:00 am | Permalink

    wow you were in KL and atre atr Ampang! cool! hope you had a great time! :)

  2. Posted August 24, 2009 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    I really miss this grass jelly drink. It is very popular in Malaysia.

  3. Posted August 24, 2009 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    Interesting! I didn’t know there was a soy bean version. I usually just drink the traditional grass jelly drink with the sugar water.

  4. Posted August 24, 2009 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

    I love grass jelly. But I never try it with soy milk. Very interesting idea:) I can’t find fresh made grass jelly here in Vancouver, Canada.

  5. Jessie
    Posted August 25, 2009 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    I never had grass jelly but it does sound very interesting and I would love to try it if I had the opportunity

  6. Posted August 26, 2009 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always wondered what those slim jelly pieces were, floating in my drink. Gorgeous photo.

  7. Posted August 27, 2009 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    hope you’re having a great trip! have a favorite place in New York (ideally Manhattan) to get these ingredients?

    • Posted August 29, 2009 at 6:14 am | Permalink

      Giff,

      You can get grass jelly at just about any Chinese grocery in Chinatown. I like Kam Mon on Canal Street near Mott Street and Hong Kong Market at the corner of Elizabeth and Hester Streets. You can buy ready to serve version in a soda can or you can buy the plain unsweetened jelly in a regular can.

      I am having a great time in Asia. Thanks!

  8. Chris
    Posted September 7, 2009 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    The grass jelly can also be bought in a powder form from Chinatown. It makes a better jelly, with a bit of an “al dente” spring to it!

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