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January 23, 2024
Break the Jell-O Mold

Spoon into the deep tradition of jellies made from plants like acorns, cassava, and seaweed.

With its blazing neon colors and gravity-defying buoyancy, translucent jelly often has an association with the ultra-artificial. Think: Lime-green and raspberry-blue hues and flavors not unlike those of Jolly Rancher candies, sometimes molded into uniform squares or Bundt-shaped cakes dotted with suspended orbs of meat, fruit, and the occasional plastic toy. But underneath its kitschy exterior, jelly is really a gifted shape-shifter, derived from nature’s most versatile ingredients.

Of all the jellied ingredients, animal-collagen-derived gelatin is often found in the pantries of professional chefs and obsessive home cooks searching for the optimal jiggle. Mostly sold as a neutral-tasting powder or a thin, translucent sheet that was first invented in the United States in the 19th century, packaged gelatin is deployed to create everything from panna cotta and chicken meatballs to a wobbly fine-dining lobster-broth gelée.

Packaged gelatin may be all the rage in culinary circles, but natural jellies have existed for longer, says Peter Brears in his book Jellies and Their Moulds. In fact, gelatin has existed as long as animals have roamed the earth, in the form of collagen, a stiff, fibrous protein found in animal skin, tendons, bones, and cartilage. The earliest jelly recipes in Medieval Europe used the boiled and filtered stock from calves’ feet, fish carcasses, and leftover meat bones in a laborious process, with results reserved for the elite class. But there’s a whole universe of jiggly treats derived from plants like acorns, cassava, and seaweed, each with a mild yet pleasing flavor extracted from the plant alone.

Southern Mexico treasures a rich pre-Hispanic legacy of developing jellies from corn and sugar. Meanwhile, countries such as Japan, Korea, and China shunned gelatin for religious and health reasons for hundreds of years in favor of jellies derived from local plants.

“If you look at the history of Japan, it was basically vegetarian or pescatarian for 1,200 years,” says Sonoko Sakai, the author of many Japanese cookbooks, like Japanese Home Cooking and the upcoming Wafu Cooking: Everyday Recipes with Japanese Style. “So there is no use of gelatin until the late 19th century.” Instead, plants rich in pectin (like aiyu jelly fig), starch (such as cassava, used to make tapioca), or seaweed-derived agar-agar and carrageenan have propelled this vast genre of jellies from old family recipes and new inventions into the limelight.

There’s a whole universe of jiggly treats derived from plants like acorns, cassava, and seaweed, each with a mild yet pleasing flavor extracted from the plant alone.

In China, infinite jellies are made from all types of plants. “So many plants secrete jellylike pectin,” says Charlene Luo, the founder of Brooklyn-based Sichuanese supper club The Baodega. “And if you go to different [Chinese] villages, they’ll have jellies made from different plants.”

Among the seemingly endless list of jellies, Luo points to the delicate and slippery bingfen as a favorite. Colloquially known as ice jelly, this clear, wobbly dessert from Southwest China forms from the seeds of the flowering Nicandra physalodes, or the shoofly plant. Due to its low calories and high moisture content, a heaping spoonful (or slurp) of bingfen helps cool people during humid and blistering summers. The jelly is virtually flavorless, essentially a blank canvas, so bingfen gets topped with roasted peanuts, haw flakes made from dried Chinese hawthorn, sweetened brown sugar syrup, fruit, and fermented sticky rice.

Using packaged powders often comes down to convenience. Packaged gelatin yields near-instant results—place gelatin in cool water to bloom; add to base to jellify—but the process of making bingfen demands a bit of physical labor and patience. Once the seeds are added to a cheesecloth with water and lightly scrubbed with a porous cloth, they shed their pectin, which eventually sets after whisking in a blend of edible lime and water and waiting a few hours. (Legend has it that a farmer placed a sack of seeds in their pocket, waded into the river, and emerged with a gloopy handful of jelly.)

In Korea, jiggly jelly recalls a humble food that has helped generations persist through famine and war: muk.

Powdered plant-based jelly ingredients exist too, but the difference is often stark. Powdered bingfen yields a completely translucent jelly, Luo says, while the natural version is slightly yellow and includes a constellation of air bubbles from scrubbing, resulting in a delightful texture that dances on your tongue.

It’s no surprise that similar preparations exist in Taiwan, albeit with a different plant: the aiyu jelly fig. It’s a wobbly, pleasantly bouncy jelly most often enjoyed with honey or lemon juice over shaved ice. Sometimes, though, you’ll find it served hot in tea shops, simmered in black tea and drizzled with creamer and black sugar syrup. “The canned and powdered forms melt with heat because they generally contain agar-agar or carrageenan [as an added stabilizer],” writes Lisa Cheng Smith in her newsletter for Taiwanese pantry shop Yun Hai. “But the fresh stuff holds up.”

In Korea, jiggly jelly recalls a humble food that has helped generations persist through famine and war: muk. These jellies often appear in Korean home kitchens, banchan spreads, and after-church lunches as ridged jelly squares or long strands of noodles. Growing up in Rochester, New York, Roren Choi remembers racing her church friends to scarf down slippery strands of dotorimuk, an acorn-based jelly with a slightly bitter yet nutty kick, after services.

“I never thought it was a strange thing. It was just something that had this really addictive, sweet soy, slightly spicy scallion dressing on top of it,” she says. Now Choi, who runs culinary experiences as Magpie and the Tiger with her husband, Caleb Jang, prepares a few versions of muk, including dotorimuk.

Setting a jelly, according to Jang, isn’t as scientific as one might think. “It just requires stirring, but other than that, it’s a very simple ratio,” he says: one part acorn starch to six parts water. He recommends thinly slicing muk to mimic beef tendon’s springy texture and tossing it with salad greens or stir-frying it with toasted sesame oil and gochujang for extra oomph.

The wide world of quivering natural jellies extends outside of Asia too. Travel to Oaxaca, Mexico, and you’ll find nicuatole, a bouncy jelly derived from the very same corn used to make the drink atole. Alone, this warm and luxurious drink makes a perfect morning beverage or a nourishing traditional formula for new mothers recovering from childbirth. With the addition of dairy and sugar, plus a few hours of cooking and chilled molding, the medley of masa and dairy congeals, transforming atole into silky nicuatole.

Bricia Lopez, cookbook author and co-owner of Oaxacan restaurant Guelaguetza in Los Angeles, grew up savoring her family’s beloved nicuatole. Since traditional nicuatole needs only a few ingredients, Lopez says, its wobbly form helps the true essence of corn to shine. “A lot of people actually don’t know what corn is supposed to taste like, but nicuatole is just so pure.” The restaurant uses Lopez’s family recipe, sometimes flavoring the base with coconut and topping the final jelly with shredded coconut or walnuts for extra crunch.

While jellies have a reputation for sweet flavors, Sakai’s recipes delight in both sweet and savory uses. She spends an equal amount of time using agar-agar for extra-bouncy chicken meatballs and supplementing algae-based, citrusy kanten jellies with powdered pectin for extra hold. Given a neutral jellied base, Sakai says, the culinary distinctions can rapidly blur. A recipe for tokoroten, a savory and firm noodle dish mixed with vinegar, soy sauce, and nori, can just as easily become a springy kuzumochi dessert with the addition of a Japanese sugar syrup called kuromitsu, fresh fruit, and ice cream.

These globby, Newton-defying jellies may not resemble anything close to a fresh bundle of produce, but it pays to remember that a whole world of these jiggly desserts exists out there, even under your toes. As Choi sees it, when people begin trying new types of jellies, the focus will inevitably return to local and foraged ingredients. “Acorns are something you step across to get to the mushroom,” she says of finding the key ingredient in dotorimuk.

“Korea came from a foraging history and culture,” Jang adds. “So jelly is one of those examples of using what’s available through nature, and it’s a part of Korean food that’s worth remembering.”