Warm weather calls for cooling, refreshing treats: For some Asian American dessert makers that means wobbly, jiggly, jelly-based desserts from Taiwan to Indonesia. You can eat them on their own whether it’s coconut jelly on its own or served with crushed ice and brown sugar. Jellies can be the base for an array of toppings or they can be minimalist shapes like a crystal-clear droplet that displays a flower.
It’s the rolling, slippery, bouncy consistency that’s created many jelly loyalists who seek out jellies at places like the new Roam dessert bar in Long Island City and Fong On, a 90-year-old snack shop in Chinatown. Here’s a guide to these quivering jelly desserts.
Bingfen, Chinese ice jelly
They’re translucent blobs, nearly invisible except for a constellation of bubbles. They’re also practically tasteless, instead highlighting toppings like brown sugar syrup and crushed peanuts, and served icy cold — a perfect follow-up to the spicy dishes like hot pot in the Sichuan and Yunnan provinces where they originate as a street food favorite.
In Long Island City, a sleek new bakery called Roam launched six modern iterations of bingfen in April. They resemble ethereal lava lamps containing layers of fruit purée — like mango and ube — clear ice jelly, crushed ice flavored with passion fruit or lychee juices, and toppings like mochi balls.
To make them, pastry chef Stephanie Liu massages a cloth pouch filled with seeds from the nicandra physolades, or shoofly plant, in cold water, and initiates a chemical reaction that produces a clear gel. She squeezes this out, rubs it off the cloth and into the water, then vigorously whisks in a blend of edible lime and water to solidify the bingfen even more. She sits the foamy mix in the freezer to set.
Grass jelly is a black herbal jelly that originated in Taiwan, and wobbled its way across China and to the tofu shops of Manhattan’s Chinatown, dessert bars, and bubble tea stores city-wide. Some hot pot restaurants stock their buffet bar with it, too.
Since 1933, Fong On has been making grass jelly from scratch with dried Chinese mesona herbs and a generations-old recipe. From the required labor to the scarcity of imported herbs, production is not so easy. During the pandemic, their distributor ran out and couldn’t supply them, and owner Paul Eng’s mom had to scrabble together wholesale amounts from retail purchases by friends and family in China. The supply chain is back up and running, and every Wednesday, the team starts the two-day process.
They boil the herbs for four hours, double-strain any bits out of the infusion, boil it again, add potato starch to thicken it, and cool it for hours to solidify.
Buy a container of it with a side of simple syrup — its purest preparation— or as a topping for Fong On’s housemade tofu. The Taiwan-based franchise, MeetFresh, offers theirs with all the fixings from crushed ice to taro paste and black sesame mochi.
Roam produces two kinds of coconut jellies — a creamy, pudding-like one, and the less common two-layered jelly that Roam calls coconut bomb — and chef Checky Ho helms both of them. For the coconut bomb, he boils coconut water with agar and coconut milk, and pours the blend into small jars, scraping off any foam on top throughout the process.
Once in the fridge, a bright white layer — the coconut cream — rises above a more firm translucent grayish one — the coconut water. They disperse in your mouth in a mishmash of bouncy and coconutty.
Green pandan jelly
These green noodle-like pandan jellies make up the base for iced desserts like Malaysian cendol, Indonesian dawet, Burmese mont let saung, and Vietnamese che banh lot hawked at street carts throughout Southeast Asia.
Fefe Ang, founder of the Indonesian Food Bazaar, a monthly pop-up at the St.James Episcopal Church in Elmhurst, makes hers from scratch. She mixes rice flour, tapioca flour, vanilla, salt, water, and either pandan leaves or pandan extract into a “light green, chewy dough.” She then extrudes inch-long noodles through the cendol press and into a bowl of ice-cold water. For the dessert, she adds crushed ice, the green jellies, coconut milk, and palm sugar.
They can be mistaken for glass paperweights encasing a single pink flower, but they’re agar creations — usually one of many components of Japanese parfaits. At Momoya Soho, pastry chef Norie Uematsu has the jelly take over the base of her parfaits and switches out its flavor seasonally. She’s done yuzu sencha jelly, white wine honey, and for spring, she’s created a base layer of agar, lychee liqueur, lemon juice, and sakura flower petals floating on top. It’s “tricky” to achieve that, she says. “You have to play with the temperature.” She lets that set at room temperature, and then with every order, she lays layers and objects like strawberry compote, guava red shiso mousse, and sakura mochi.