燒愛玉: Hot Ai Yu Jelly and other Taiwanese Winter Desserts
plus Hot Grass Jelly and Black Sesame Tang Yuan
This is Yun Hai Taiwan Stories, a newsletter about Taiwanese food and culture from a Taiwanese-American in NYC. It’s written by Lisa Cheng Smith 鄭衍莉, founder of Yun Hai Taiwanese Pantry. If you aren’t yet a subscriber, sign up here.
This month, I explore the ontological gooeyness of Taiwanese warm desserts, a temporary escape from the much scarier ontological gooeyness of the world around us. Cat Yeh contributes a recipe for Hot Ai Yu Jelly, a deep-cut Taiwanese sweet treat that can only be made from bonafide Ai Yu fig seeds. Keep scrolling for mom-approved Hot Grass Jelly and Black Sesame and Peanut Tang Yuan, naturally colored with red dragonfruit juice.
We are also offering an exclusive 15% discount code for our subscribers: HAOTIAN15. Use this to stock up on the raw materials you need. Save up to 30% when applied to a bundle. Code applies to Taiwanese Dessert collection only and expires March 16th, 11:59 PST.
仙草 Grass jelly, 地瓜 sweet potato, 糯米粉 glutinous rice flour, 木薯粉 tapioca starch, 菜燕 agar-agar, 紅豆 red bean, 綠豆 green bean, 薏仁 Job's tears, 粉圓 fen yuan, 愛玉 ai yu, 羅勒籽 basil seed, 芋頭 taro, 黑芝麻 black sesame, and 冬瓜 winter melon: The makeup of traditional Taiwanese dessert soups and beverages shares little with Western sweets. They're chewy vs. cakey; soupy vs. custardy; continuous vs. discrete; and are sometimes prescribed as tonics by practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (but do let me know the next time you get a prescription for a canelé so I can switch to your doctor). I’m generalizing a bit, but boy, do I love dessert soups. And boy, are they different from pastry.
Guidance for making these soupy, sometimes-warm-sometimes-cold, gelatinous desserts from scratch is hard to come by in English. Mostly I’ve been googling in Chinese and trying to interpret the results with my first grade reading level. Google translates agar agar as “vegetable swallow” and grass jelly soup as “burned fairy grass”. Evocative, yes, but shouldn’t agar agar be in the google dictionary by now?
The basic building blocks of traditional Chinese dessert soups are sometimes mysterious (tell me the difference between water chestnut starch and tapioca starch without telling me the difference between water chestnut starch and tapioca starch) and the toppings, though basic, all have unique preparations for best results (soak red beans overnight, add salt at the start of cooking to prevent splitting, but don’t add the sugar until the end or the texture won’t be right). All together, it can be intimidating to reconstruct sweet soups at home, especially if you, like me, are cooking from taste memory. But soups and jellies are forgiving, approximation-tolerant, and a canvas for improvisation. Do not be afraid. Anything goes. Just don't undercook the beans. Or overcook them. Or add sugar too early.
Today, I’m sharing warm Taiwanese desserts to soothe you for the remaining months of cold, damp weather. These include Hot Ai Yu Jelly 燒愛玉 (Google translation: Burning Love Jade), Hot Grass Jelly 燒仙草, and Sweet Stuffed Tang Yuan 湯圓 in Ginger Soup. Testing these recipes has been a slippy-slidey rock of stability for me as the world rages outside, bigger than I know how to contend with.
Hot Ai Yu Jelly 燒愛玉 by Cat Yeh
One of the great variables in Taiwanese desserts is temperature. Mung Bean Soup, Red Bean Soup, Grass Jelly, and Tang Yuan are all examples of desserts enjoyed warm and cool. Or both simultaneously, in the case of Yu Pin Yuan Fire & Ice 御品元冰火湯圓 in Taipei:
For a Taiwanese person, what could be more familiar than the golden child of summer desserts: Ai Yu Jelly 愛玉, served with honey syrup in an icy bath of green Taiwanese lemons? Betcha didn’t know it can also be served hot, simmered in black tea, doused with creamer and black sugar syrup. In fact, serving it warm is one of the hallmarks of real Ai Yu, which is made by rinsing the seeds of the Ai Yu Jelly Fig. The seeds readily shed their pectin when rinsed in water in a porous bag, which then sets into a jelly when minerals are present. The canned and powdered forms melt with heat because they generally contain agar agar or carageenan, but the fresh stuff holds up.
Here at Yun Hai, we’ve been whispering about hot Ai Yu Jelly for a while. We’ve heard it’s even eaten in hot pot sometimes? After getting lost in many tabs of Ai Yu threads (yeah those exist), Cat discovered an old TVBS clip featuring an Ai Yu stand in Taitung county that was serving (wait for it…….) Hot Ai Yu Jelly 燒愛玉. The clip is shared below; hot Ai Yu is featured at the 4m20s mark, but honestly just watch the whole thing for the sound effects. *honks horn and pretends to fall down*
Cat has developed a recipe for Hot Ai Yu Jelly 燒愛玉, inspired by the process that the owner disclosed in the video. Amber colored Ai Yu Jelly with specks of natural reddish fiber—that’s how you know its real—is gently simmered in tea. Serve it lightly sweetened with black sugar syrup and drizzled with milk, cream or coffee creamer. You can dress it up with ingredients like boba, Job’s tears, goji berries or jujube, if you like.
It seems this is just the tip of the proverbial Ai Yu Jelly. This article (in Chinese) references hot Ai Yu Jelly in ginger soup; Ai Yu set with tea (it should gel with any liquid that doesn’t contain sugar or oil, provided it contains enough minerals); and Ai Yu served with beer, sugar syrup, pineapple, lemon, and mint. So much jelly research to come in my future.
Hot Grass Jelly 燒仙草
Hot Grass Jelly 燒仙草 is a dessert I came around to long after developing my love for charismatic megafauna like Mango Shaved Ice and Bubble Tea. I was never in Taiwan in the cooler months because of school and work schedules, and it’s relatively hard to find Hot Grass Jelly the US (unless you have a Meet Fresh near you, but those didn’t exist when I was a kid).
When my mom came to visit me recently, I immediately tried to show off with the more polyhedral form of this dessert, where you set Grass Jelly Tea into a bouncy gel with gelatin or agar-agar. This form is known as xian cao dong 仙草凍 (dong 凍 means both frozen and aspic). It’s the style most frequently encountered in bubble tea and shaved ice shops. She seemed to think it was good but asked, more than once, when I would be developing my less sweet hot grass jelly version. So finally, 媽, here it is: the ultimate old fashioned flavor 古早味, especially when served with fen yuan (the original name for boba pearls), red bean, Job’s tears, and toasted nuts (I had pecans, but go with peanuts to be really traditional).
The process is simple. Once you make the grass jelly tea—instructions here—which is similar (easier) than making a long-simmered stock, it keeps in the fridge for a week. You can sip it as a sweetened beverage, set it into the bouncy 凍 version, or cook it with a little starch slurry and rock sugar to thicken it into this hot, soupy pool of an herbal dessert. Serve with desired toppings and store leftovers in the fridge for a few days, which reheat easily on the stovetop.
Mom’s verdict? “Super good.”
Sweet Stuffed Rice Dumplings with Black Sesame and Peanuts 花生芝麻湯圓
Lantern Festival feels like a world away already, but it’s never a bad time to make Tang Yuan. In our last newsletter, we featured a savory Hakka version. This time, we have a sweet version, stuffed with Dong He Black Sesame Paste and Chopped Peanuts, with dough colored naturally using Red Dragonfruit Juice.
The concept is fairly simple: Make filling balls out of fat, sugar, and nut butters, then freeze them solid. Wrap an elastic glutinous rice dough (made chewier and more workable with the help of a ban ma or hot boiling water) around the frozen filling, and boil until they float. When heated, the oil and fat in the filling become molten, so a delicious, sweet lava oozes out when the dumpling is bitten into. Turbinado sugar, which doesn’t readily melt, creates a pleasant sandy, crunchy texture.
A tip for our newsletter subscribers:
Tang Yuan is a state of mind. It seems like a difficult dough to work with, but if you accept the mystery (and the mess) and keep on going, it will come together.
The instructions ask that you cook a bit of the mixed dough and knead it back in to create a more workable final product; this piece of cooked dough is called the ban ma 粄媽 or “rice dough mother”. In your initial mix, try to keep the dough as dry as possible. It should come together smoothly, but cleave like a piece of chalk. Then, carefully take about 5% of your dough, flatten it into a disc and add it to boiling water. When it floats, remove it, let it cool and mix it back in. I’ve found that after folding it back in, the dough can seem alarmingly sticky. Just knead and believe. The dough will take up your intention and come together beautifully. And if it doesn’t (give it time), you can always add a little more rice flour or water to adjust. Once you get the hang of it you won’t even need a dough recipe.
Thanks, as always, for taking the time to read this humble publication.
I stand with Ukraine,
Lisa Cheng Smith 鄭衍莉
Don’t forget to use the newsletter-exclusive HAOTIAN15 discount code for 15% off all dessert ingredients. It applies to dessert bundles too, for up to a 35% savings. Expires March 16th.
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