Main Course

Grass Jelly: It’s Not the Jell-O You Know

LA Weekly writer Jim Thurman gives Rico the rundown on grass jelly, the Southeast Asian gelatin dessert that, despite its name, is not made of grass.

Photo Credit: Tawintaew / Thinkstock

It’s Labor Day week. Summer’s over. And Brendan and Rico managed not to do a story about weird ice cream flavors. Not even when an outfit called Coolhaus created a pastrami ice cream and rye bread cookie sandwich.

But recently in the paper LA Weekly, Jim Thurman wrote about another cold dessert that’s just too interesting to ignore. It’s called grass jelly and it’s been available at various Asian eateries and stores around L.A. for a long time, but a place just opened in the San Gabriel Valley that specializes in the stuff.

Rico Gagliano: Is it really made of grass?

Jim Thurman: No grass whatsoever, it’s made from the Chinese Mesona plant. Its leaves and stems are dried and oxidized, much like tea, and it is processed into a jelly. It’s also called leaf jelly, which is a little more accurate.

Rico Gagliano: [Laughs] Yeah, let’s go with that. Well, actually, let’s not because that’s not what they call it here. Speaking of which, we are outside this place called Black Ball, this is, I understand the flagship store of what’s a pretty big chain in Asia, correct?

Jim Thurman: Yes, it is. This is the first U.S. outlet and they have, I think over a hundred outlets in Southeast Asia. It started in Taiwan and into China and, it’s a grass jelly dessert specialist.

Rico Gagliano: What is it? I mean what does the substance look like?

Jim Thurman: They boil it down and mix it with some potassium carbonate, then extract the oils, and cool it, and then cut it into gel. It’s sort of a translucent black, so it’s, it’s not the most appetizing looking in the world, but-

Rico Gagliano: Oh, so it’s kind of like gelatin… so it’s like Jell-O?

Jim Thurman: Yes, it’s very much like Jell-O.

Rico Gagliano: But I’ve seen photos and it looks kind of more like a syrup. So they then pulverize it or something?

Jim Thurman: The syrup is added later, brown sugar syrup to give it some sweetness.

Rico Gagliano: What is its flavor without the syrup added?

Jim Thurman: It can be slightly tart, it’s kind of like a– it’s in the mint family, so it’s kind of tart with a little mint, and then when you add all of the sweetener it becomes a sweet dessert.

Photo Credit: Tuanjai / Thinkstock
Photo Credit: Tuanjai / Thinkstock

In Vietnam, you’ll have it more in drinks mixed with coconut milk and the like. And Thailand has it and serves it with fruit.

Rico Gagliano: And how about Taiwan, which is where this chain hails from? What are we going to have when we go in here? What’s the kind of classic?

Jim Thurman: The classic would be to have it in a little cup, like you get frozen yogurt in, with the syrup [which] has been added, and you’ll get it with, well your choice. You can have beans, sweetened beans, mochi balls that are basically made from taro or sweet potato.

Rico Gagliano: Sweet potato covered with a grass jelly syrup?

Jim Thurman: Yes, all mixed in to a bowl there.

Rico Gagliano: All right, we’ll figure out if that’s a good thing or not. Let’s go in and check this out.

Jim Thurman: OK.

Rico Gagliano: All right, so we’re inside. I got the taro balls and sweet potato balls as you said. And this is very beautiful and also not at all what I thought it was going to look like.

This is basically a huge ice cream cup, and I thought that it was going to be, you know mainly the taro balls and the sweet potato balls, and there would be some grass jelly poured on top. Really it’s a big thing of grass jelly with those taro balls and boba and stuff floating in it. Really the main course here is the grass jelly, that’s what you’re here for.

Jim Thurman: Exactly. Grass jelly is what you’re here for.

[Ed note:  At this point, Rico’s digital recorder stopped working right at the point where he tasted the grass jelly. He describes the tasting experience below:]

“It was very delicious, that dessert, but very sweet. Mainly what it tasted like was caramel, because of the brown sugar syrup they use to sweeten the jelly. So it was like a tasty cold, black, gelatinous syrup stew.”

[The recorder started working again just as Jim pointed out a few items on the menu which proved Rico’s stew analogy wasn’t entirely off the mark.]

Jim Thurman: Ah yes, Taiwanese and Cantonese desserts are quite often warm desserts that are soups. Here right here we have a grass jelly soup that’s served hot, and it’s Xian Cao.

Rico Gagliano: You’re right. I also see there’s an almond soup here, and a black, glutenous rice soup as well.

Jim Thurman: Seemed to have discontinued here.

Rico Gagliano: People are not so much into the glutenous rice as they are into the grass jelly. And I also noticed that on the tray with these desserts came a couple little packages of coffee creamer. Are we supposed to add that [creamer] to this?

Jim Thurman: If you’d like it sweeter still, yes.

Rico Gagliano: Do I want it sweeter still?

Jim Thurman: I think not.

Rico Gagliano: I’m doing it anyway. Hold on a second. This is just, you know, one of those foil-topped little plastic cups of creamer. All right, I’m dumping it in here. I’m lactose intolerant, so I’m taking one for the team.

[Tastes grass jelly.] Oh actually I really like that. Actually, it kind of mellows out the sweetness. I feel the creaminess kind of mellows it out a little, nonetheless, it is still pretty sweet though.

Jim Thurman: Believe it or not it’s considered to have healthy properties. Lowering blood pressure, helping with diabetes…

Rico Gagliano: Really?

Jim Thurman: Well, that’s in its less sweetened form.

Rico Gagliano: I would think without the sugar, for God’s sake.

Jim Thurman: Yes.

Rico Gagliano: Nobody out there eat this Jell-O like substance to cure your diabetes.

Jim Thurman: I don’t know if that’d be a good idea.