Ice-cream is great and nothing beats two cheeks of fresh Queensland-grown mangoes to cool you down, but when the temperature rises and I need to really chill, I eat jelly. However, if you think packets of crystallised powder mixed with water is the easiest way to make it, think again.
The summer starts for me when I see tennis on the telly and my mum starts stocking the cupboard with cans of jelly. That's right: cans. And this jelly isn't flavoured with the likes of raspberry, orange or even mango. No. The jelly I'm talking about is flavoured with aiyu.
Found in Chinese grocery stores, aiyu jelly derives from the creeping fig. The fruit is only found in Taiwan and some parts of East Asia with the same climate.
Chinese dishes come with interesting stories and aiyu jelly is no different. Apparently, early in the 1800s, a businessman was walking around a creek in Chiayi in Taiwan (as you do). He drank from a creek to quench his thirst. The water he drank was sticky and almost gelatinous. When he looked up, he noticed hanging creeping figs dropping their fruit sap and juice into the creek. Having a knack for business, the man tinkered with the fruit, served it as a drink with honey and lemon and named it after his daughter, Ai Yu.
"The flavour of aiyu is hard to describe, but it's almost tropical and reminiscent of a pineapple-cross-fig, if such a glorious fruit would exist."
What makes aiyu so special is that the creeping fig is one of those magical plants where the seeds of its fruit contain pectin, the very same ingredient used to make and solidify jelly. When the seeds are rubbed together, pectin oozes out so that jelly can be made naturally.
The flavour of aiyu is hard to describe, but it's almost tropical and reminiscent of a pineapple-cross-fig, if such a glorious fruit would exist. Because aiyu isn't sweet, honey and sugar are added to make a quintessential Taiwanese dessert known as aiyu dong, aka aiyu jelly (愛玉凍).
The dessert is highly sought after in Taiwan because of the sweltering and humid summers. It's particularly loved by night-market revellers who indulge in one too many fried foods. Its sweetness offsets oily food and is a welcome relief to strong flavours such as stinky tofu.
Although I've never made aiyu jelly from scratch, the canned aiyu jelly is just as good as the real thing. What better way to quench your thirst, like the original ai-yu founder did, by popping open a can.
My favourite way to serve aiyu jelly is how they serve it in Taiwan: cut aiyu jelly into bite-sized pieces and place in a large punch bowl. Add a simple homemade sugar syrup and mix. Before serving, squeeze a generous amount of lemon or lime, according to your taste. Is there a better way to get you through yet another scorching Aussie summer? Game, set and match.
Aiyu jelly punch with lime
- 1 can aiyu jelly
- ½ cup white sugar
- 1 cup water
- 1 lemon or lime
- Large ice cubes
- Cut the aiyu jelly into bite-sized cubes or strips and place in a large, clear punch bowl.
- Make a sugar syrup by combining the white sugar with the water. Bring to the boil and simmer until all the sugar has dissolved. Set aside to cool.
- When cool, add enough of the sugar syrup to achieve a luscious, sweet punch-like consistency. I always add extra chilled water or large ice blocks to the aiyu punch to make it a drink.
- Squeeze in enough lemon or lime to cut the sweetness and chill until ready to serve. You can also add large ice cubes to keep it cool if serving at a barbecue or other outdoor gathering.
Note: Aiyu jelly keeps in the fridge for 3-5 days.