In Singapore, it is not uncommon for my grandparents' generation to speak numerous dialects, but only a smattering of English. So imagine my surprise when I heard a grandfatherly type holler at a coffee shop, "Lao ban, lai yi bei Michael Jackson." ("Boss, give me a glass of Michael Jackson.")
Michael Jackson? What is this, a new type of beer? I stay to look and it turns out a Michael Jackson is no alcoholic drink, but a virtuous concoction of creamy soy milk and squiggles of immortal jelly.
I haven't a clue why the black jelly is considered "immortal" (I suspect ad man involvement), but it is also known locally as chin chow, or grass jelly. Made by boiling the dried leaves and stalks of the Mesona chinensis (a member of the mint family) in water and potassium carbonate, the strained liquid cools and sets to a gelatin-like consistency. Once set, it is cut into ribbons and served bobbing in simple syrup or added to shaved ice desserts like ice kacang.
Grass jelly has a pleasant, lightly herbal flavor that reminds me of rooibos tea—especially the rooibos and honeybush blends. It is this honeybush flavor, or scent, rather, that makes grass jelly such a shoo-in for traditional Asian desserts like Vietnamese chè and Malaysian cendol. Supposedly, Mesona chinensis's high levels of estrogen also makes grass jelly popular among women seeking to conceive, as it is believed to boost fertility (if you ask me, that's just another reason to indulge in dessert).
Dishonest restaurateurs have been known to pass grass jelly off as the far pricier gui ling gao or tortoise essence jelly (made from ground tortoise shells). Gui ling gao is valued in Traditional Chinese Medicine because it is believed to have therapeutic properties. Although similar in texture and appearance to grass jelly, gui ling gao has a far stronger herbal taste and is unpalatably bitter if eaten plain without its traditional sidekick—honey.
In any case, coming back to the Michael Jackson, I was curious enough to order one, and so pleased with the textural delight of slurping up jelly strands in soy milk that I ordered one to go. When I got home, the jelly had colored the soy milk an appetizing latte brown. Even better, the jelly had flavored the soy milk so it now tasted creamy and caramelly. Very nice!
I haven't been able to find ready-to-cook packs of grass jelly here in the States, but I've definitely seen them in the canned drink aisle at Ranch 99. Canned grass jelly drinks are good on their own (albeit a tad sweet for my taste), and if you're up for something new, you can mix in some unsweetened soymilk for your own Michael Jackson.
About the author: Wan Yan Ling can usually be found in the kitchen procrastinating on "real work" or online, tracking down obscure recipes. Ling thinks eating alone is no fun, and she still believes in hand-mixing.