Summer is full of wonderful desserts. A swirly soft serve atop a stale cake cone is a classic, while popsicles that dye our tongues unnatural shades of blue and red feel nostalgic. Icebox cakes are a picnic staple and trifles layered with berries celebrate the season’s produce. But my favorite summer treat is none of these things. It’s not colorful—it doesn’t woo you with flashy appearances. It, almost always, comes in a can. It’s grass jelly.
Growing up, my grandma would stock up on cans of grass jelly at the local Chinese grocery store. On hot summer days, she’d crack the cans open and shake the jelly out into bowls filled with ice cubes. If we were extra good, she’d sprinkle brown sugar or add fleshy spheres of lychee to our bowls—but I was perfectly happy enjoying the herbaceous flavor of the jelly on its own.
Made from leaves of the Chinese mesona plant, grass jelly is a common summer treat in countries throughout Asia—especially in places where the heat can be stifling. “In traditional Chinese food culture, grass jelly is believed to have many cooling effects,” explains Annie Choung, a customer marketing specialist for Taiwanese dessert chain MeetFresh. “In the olden days, many older folks would eat grass jelly served with ice cubes to cool down from the summer heat.”
The flavor is light. Some people liken it to licorice, others saying it’s vaguely grassy. Choung describes it as having a “very mild herbal taste [that] is not overpowering or potent, although the herbal-ness may have a unique flavor for some first-time consumers.”
At MeetFresh, which has locations across the globe, bowls of grass jelly are served with bouncy taro balls atop grass jelly-infused shaved ice. The dark jelly can also be ladled into creamy milk teas. “It [pairs] well as a topping with all kinds of shaved ices and tea drinks, especially winter melon teas. You can enjoy it with a combination of red beans, peanuts, taro chunks, and even ice cream,” Choung says. Although it’s traditionally a summer treat, grass jelly can also be enjoyed year-round with hot versions that arrive like steaming dessert soups.
The grass jelly from MeetFresh is exported as a liquid and cooked into its jelly texture at franchises around the country. At 46 Mott, a Cantonese bakery in New York’s Chinatown, the grass jelly is actually made in house. Eight-ounce containers of the dark jelly sell for $2.50 a pop, and customers buy it in droves. “It’s our best-seller,” says Patrick Mock, the manager of 46 Mott. “It even outsells our tofu pudding and soy milk.”
Mock is a lifelong Chinatown resident, who’s been enjoying grass jelly for as long as he can remember. “While everyone was eating colorful Jell-O, I was eating grass jelly. That was my childhood,” he says. “That slippery, gel-like texture is very refreshing.”
Making grass jelly from scratch requires time and elbow grease, but the results, to Mock, are worth the effort. “It’s tedious to boil, lay down the grass jelly, [and] scrub it to get the gelatin-like textures out of the grass. But the texture becomes more elastic-y—it bounces back a lot more compared to the canned ones,” he explains. The color, he says, is also different—more of a golden brown rather than a near-black shade.
MeetFresh is a global giant compared to 46 Mott’s humble brick and mortar, but Mock welcomes the competition and the added awareness that the chain brings to this traditional dessert. “It’s a different perspective of the same products,” he says. “Overall, it just brings more audiences to grass jelly—which is a good thing.”