Grass jelly is a popular dessert throughout East Asia. In Vietnam, grass jelly is either served with coconut cream or as an additional ingredient in chè (sweet soup). The Vietnamese name of it is sương sáo and it is said to have cooling properties, that's why people like to eat it when it's hot.
What is it?
Grass jelly is a product from a plant called black cincau, Mesona chinensis or Platostome palustre, a member of the mint family that's native to East Asia, where it grows in grassy, sandy and dry areas.
After the whole above ground portions of the plants are harvested, they are piled and left to oxidise and gain a darker colour, until they are dried and sold.
Traditionally the stems and leaves of the plant are boiled for several hours together with a bit of starch and potash (potassium carbonate) until the extract is cooled down to a jelly-like consistency. Nowadays most grass jelly is made from instant powder in a few minutes.
Sometimes the preparation instructions are... slightly confusing though, like this one here I bought in Saigon some time ago:
Trying to wrap around this unusual "Marshal Nun", I found this proof of martial sisters of the Far West:
Grass Jelly Elsewhere
In China, the plant is called 凉粉草 (liáng fěn cǎo, cool grass powder) and a popular herb in traditional Chinese medicine.
In Java the jelly-drink is cooked with the ash of rice straw to get an even blacker colour. They also add sago starch, sugar syrup and coconut milk to create a lovely cooling drink from the diced jelly.
Apart from vitamins and minerals, the fresh leaves contain around 11% pectin, which is responsible for the gelatinous consistency. It is said that the tannins react with pectin and traces of so far unidentified components to create the dark colour of the grass jelly.
In Indonesia they have a broad variety of grass jellies made from different plants, often green and milder in taste than our dark grass jelly.
Sources and additional information
Today I was craving for a dessert, but too lazy to go out. So I cooked myself up some grass jelly. Lovely!
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