A Trifecta of Traditional Taiwanese Sweets

Shaved ice, which has been enjoyed by Taiwan residents for over a century, remains a favorite among many. Photo: Steven Crook

Aiyu and mesona jellies and shaved ice, snacks ubiquitous at night markets and storefronts across Taiwan, have been popular with Taiwanese palates for over a century. The enduring popularity of these treats is closely tied to the island’s unique history.

Taiwanese have been enjoying refreshing dessert-like snacks since long before refrigerators became commonplace. One such delicacy, fashioned from the fig-like fruit of Ficus pumila var. awkeotsang, is known to locals as aiyu dong (愛玉凍), and to English speakers as aiyu jelly. It is regarded as a must-try because it is seldom seen outside Taiwan and a few places in Southeast Asia.

Another treat, made from the stalks and leaves of Platostoma palustre and called xiancao dong (仙草凍) by Mandarin speakers, is often inaccurately and unappetizingly translated as “grass jelly,” even though the plant (also known as Chinese mesona) is nothing like a grass. It is in fact related to basil, mint, and sage.

Along with shaved ice (cuo bing 剉冰, literally “chiseled ice,” or bao bing 刨冰, “planed ice”), aiyu jelly and what we prefer to call mesona jelly constitute Taiwan’s trinity of traditional summer sweets. Supermarket and convenience stores throughout the island stock ice cream, yet per capita spending on frozen dairy desserts is less than a quarter of what it is in the U.S. Thanks to a high rate of lactose intolerance among Taiwanese and some creative reinvention, the treats featured in this article seem to be holding their own in the ongoing battle for popularity among sweet dishes.

Aiyu jelly

Ficus pumila var. awkeotsang is a creeping vine that thrives in woodlands between 1,200 and 1,900 meters above sea level. In March, the vines produce huge numbers of small flowers. Fruit, some as big as a fist, begin to appear in May. In June, following pollination, the fruits form the tiny seeds from which the jelly is made.

Workers peel the skin off the Ficus pumila var. awkeotsang to begin making aiyu jelly. It is a meticulous process that includes air-drying the tiny seeds of the plant for up to 10 days. Photo: Steven Crook

The fruit has several different names in the Austronesian languages spoken by Taiwan’s indigenous tribes. The Bunun call it tabakai. Among the Rukai, its name is twkunuy. The Truku know it as runug, while the Saisiyat call it rapit. Among the Tsou people living near Alishan – for whom harvesting wild aiyu has been a significant source of income since the 1895-1945 period of Japanese colonial rule – it is skikiya.

According to Lien Heng’s General History of Taiwan, the first person to recognize the culinary and commercial potential of aiyu dong was a Fujianese trader. During the first few years of the reign of the Emperor Daoguang (1820–1850), this nameless individual was traveling through what is now Chiayi County’s Dapu Township, searching for produce he could sell at a premium in his native province when he noticed clumps of jelly in a creek surrounded by aiyu vines. 

The trader is said to have taken some fruit back to his lodgings, where he made jelly from the seeds. He found the taste to be delicious, especially when a little sugar was added. Legend has it that he named the treat after his daughter, Ai-yu.

By the time of the Japanese takeover, aiyu seeds harvested on the island were regularly shipped to buyers in Fujian and Guangdong. However, not until 1904 was Ficus pumila var. awkeotsang recognized by pioneering Japanese botanist Tomitaro Makino as a distinct plant.

Since World War II, much of the aiyu consumed in Taiwan has been harvested from land managed by the Council of Agriculture’s Forestry Bureau. Entrepreneurs bid for the right to collect the fruit, then hire indigenous villagers to gather it, usually around October. Like picking tea, the work is monotonous and tiring, but those with experience are paid well.

Photo: Katy Hui-wen Hung

In the late 1980s, government policies boosted aiyu yields and the popularity of aiyu jelly. Indigenous farmers were encouraged to switch from betel nut to high-pectin, fast-growing strains of aiyu, which they cultivated on concrete posts or companion-planted with mango trees. Because wild aiyu tends to grow high up in woodland canopies, growing vines closer to the ground makes harvesting safer and easier. In 1989, when the Ministry of Economic Affairs launched its One Town One Product (OTOP) project to promote local produce, aiyu was chosen to represent Alishan Township.

Despite an association with aiyu that goes back to the period of Japanese rule, if not earlier, Tsou elders say they did not use the seeds to make jelly until they learned the skill from their Han compatriots. In the distant past, aiyu had a very different significance for the tribe. Knowing that the fruit attracts Pallas’s squirrels (sometimes called red-bellied tree squirrels) – which in the Tsou’s traditional religion is the preferred offering to the millet goddess – tribesmen planned hunting expeditions to coincide with aiyu season.

Aiyu is cultivated in hard-to-reach locations. However, visitors passing through places like Lijia (里佳) near Alishan and Meilan (梅蘭) in Kaohsiung’s Taoyuan Township during harvest season have a good chance of seeing villagers turning hundreds of the fruit inside out to extract the seeds. Air-drying the tiny brown seeds takes up to 10 days; over-drying diminishes the pectin content.

To make aiyu dong, the seeds should be placed in a cotton or nylon jelly-strainer bag, thoroughly soaked, then left to stand in cold water for five minutes. The ratio of seeds (measured in grams) to water (in cubic centimeters) should be 1:50 or 1:60. The water must not be tainted by oil, and if water purified by reverse osmosis is used, the aiyu will not jellify.

The jelly-strainer bag is then rubbed and squeezed so the seeds release the pectin. At room temperature, it takes around half an hour to solidify. If not eaten immediately, the jelly can be refrigerated.

Roadside and night-market aiyu jelly vendors typically serve the dish iced with a dash of lime or lemon juice and a little honey. In Wulai and some other indigenous communities, aiyu jelly is occasionally served with a brown sugar syrup and maqaw (Litsea cubeba). The lemony tang of maqaw, sometimes called “mountain peppercorn,” goes well with aiyu. Some people like to mix it with tea or even beer – but these beverages might mask the delightfully subtle taste of the aiyu.

Aiyu seeds can be found in some supermarkets, ordered through websites such as shopee.tw, or purchased direct from specialist farmers such as Yangui Aiyu Orchard (雅慕伊愛玉農園, www.yangui.com.tw) in Alishan’s Tefuye Village.

Mesona jelly

The color of mesona jelly beguiles: a glistening black, with hints of brown and dark green – and that’s before the addition of adzuki beans, mung beans, peanut powder, or chunks of sweet potato.

When consumed in jelly or liquid form, mesona is claimed to be an effective treatment for fevers and sore throats, and to be rich in antioxidants, fiber, calcium, and phosphorus. On its own it is not fattening, but the toppings might bust your daily calorie budget.

Just like aiyu, mesona jelly – which is well known in the southern half of China as well as in Taiwan – owes some of its current popularity to the OTOP program. Guanxi in Hsinchu County, renowned for the quality of its Platostoma palustre since the Japanese colonial period, was enrolled in the scheme, and local businesses continue to make the most of this connection, selling everything from bowls of chilled jelly with sweet toppings to “grass jelly cappuccinos.”

An instant mesona-jelly powder, developed by National Taiwan University’s Experimental Farm in conjunction with the university’s Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, is sold by the Guanxi Farmers Association. It can be used to make jelly, tea, or savory dishes such as pork ribs or a medicinal chicken stew called yaoshan xiancao ji (藥膳仙草雞).

Guanxi is not the only place in Taiwan associated with Chinese mesona, however. For much of the 19th century, a neighborhood called Xiancaopu (仙草埔), which is near Tainan’s Guanziling Hot Springs (關子嶺溫泉), was renowned for its xiancao (and also its lime quarrying).

Unlike aiyu, mesona added to water needs to be both heated and mixed with a starch to jellify. In Taiwan, the thickener is usually tapioca or potato starch. Shops in Guanxi that advertise “old-time flavor” (古早味) may instead use wheat starch, as well as sugar and sodium carbonate (which influences viscosity).

Warm mesona (燒仙草), enjoyed as a liquid rather than a jelly, has gained a following since it first appeared in Yuli in Hualien County about three decades ago. This wintertime favorite often comes with aiyu jelly, glutinous rice balls (tangyuan, 湯圓), whole peanuts, taro balls, and other sweet morsels.

Shaved ice

The history of shaved ice in Taiwan is inseparable from the island’s colonization and industrialization experiences. This foodway arrived from Japan – where shaved ice desserts, known as kakigori, have been enjoyed for almost 1,000 years – during colonial rule. It then spread from the elite to the masses after World War II as ingredients and appliances became more affordable.

At Taipei’s tourist-oriented shaved-ice parlors, mango ice (芒果冰) is nowadays the most popular iteration, and at certain shops customers can ask for lychees or chunks of dragon fruit to be thrown on top. But for most of the 100-plus years that icy sweets have been enjoyed in Taiwan, fresh fruits were seldom used.

The island’s first ice-making plant may have been the one set up in 1896 in Dadaocheng in Taipei by tea merchant Lee Chun-sheng (李春生) and his British business partners. In the 1910s, the Taiwan Daily News (the era’s leading newspaper) reported on the neighborhood’s thriving ice-dessert scene.

In the early days, shaved ice was often served “clear” (清冰), flavored with nothing more than syrup. Adding a few drops of banana extract to a plate of shaved ice created a dish that Japanese expatriates adored for its “quintessentially Taiwanese flavor.” At that time, and until well into the 1960s, Taiwan was the number-one supplier of bananas to Japan.

Four Fruit Ice (si guo bing, 四果冰) was another favorite among Japanese visitors or residents in Taiwan because it featured fruits seldom available in Japan itself. This dish consists of ice shavings and a combination of candied fruits – typically plums, dried carambola, dried mango, and shredded papaya.

Other old-school shaved-ice toppings include adzuki beans, aiyu jelly, mesona jelly, and silver-needle rice noodles (米篩目, known to Hoklo speakers as bí-thai-bák).

In the 1950s, when American farm produce began to be imported, sweetened condensed milk and canned sweet corn joined the list of common ingredients. The former appears in more than half of the 38 different combinations that customers can order at Kaohsiung Popo Shaved Ice (高雄婆婆冰), one of the South’s best-known cuo bing shops. The menu there makes no mention of sweet corn, but it does list durian, mango (both fresh and pickled), mulberry, plum, pudding, and egg yolk.

A poster at Kaohsiung Popo states how many calories, and how many grams of fat and protein, are contained in the shop’s most popular combos (some of which are large enough servings to satisfy multiple diners). Several deliver over 400 calories. Eight Treasures Ice (八寶冰) packs 559 calories; glutinous rice balls, syrup, and tapioca balls are probably the guiltiest parties. Egg yolk and condensed milk (雞蛋煉乳冰) is the option with the fewest calories (222), but if you want to avoid fat, taro paste with adzuki beans (芋泥紅豆冰) is a better bet.

Whatever they order, customers at Kaohsiung Popo can choose between the crunchy traditional shaved ice (刨冰, bao bing) or what the English-language menu calls “milk ice” (雪花冰, xuehua bing), which has a fluffy texture that some liken to that of cotton candy.

As the name implies, dairy (in the form of condensed sweetened milk, cream, and/or whole milk) is a key component of xuehua bing. White sugar is another. If there is a generational difference in shaved-ice eating habits, it is that young people are more likely than older folks to order xuehua bing. Perhaps this means that local consumers yet to be won over by ice cream are actually meeting it halfway.