If you don’t know what grass jelly and taro are, the words themselves may not strike any sort of appeal to your palette… If you do know what they are, you will know why my craving for this delightfully, refreshing dessert forced me to attempt this copycat recipe.
A few years ago, I first experienced taro ball desserts at 龍門客棧 (“Dragon Inn”) in Taichung. I believe they have since closed down… although I’m not positive. If you see it, you must try their house special!
Basically, there is red bean (sometimes know as azuki bean), taro balls (the slightly purple balls), sweet potato balls (yellow ones), congee (white bean-like things), cream, grass jelly and other items! It’s f*cking AMAZING.
More –but not by much– recently (and the last time I was in Taiwan, a couple years or so ago), Meet Fresh (鮮芋仙) dominated through great products and the power of chain stores. In my opinion, the “Dragon Inn” had so many more levels to it’s yumminess that it’s a bit different from Meet Fresh’s most likely equivalent, the 鮮芋仙招牌 (sorry, I honestly don’t read that much Chinese, so I’m not sure what that says). And since that is the easier recipe…
First things first… what is even in that 鮮芋仙招牌 (I think it’s the grass jelly house special)?! With the handy help of Google translate, I deciphered out: grass jelly, grass jelly “slush” or “shaved ice”, fresh taro balls and cream. In addition, you can also see from the photo at right that there are sweet potato balls and tapioca pearls (also known as “boba”).
Using the Internet and Google as a resource, I was able to find a couple of taro and sweet potato ball recipes. It took a bit of sleuthing to hit the right search terms, but here are a couple that I found: one English and one Chinese. I also scoured up a three-part YouTube video of a (apparently) well-known chef making the items.
My copycat attempt…
1. Peel sweet potatoes and slice for faster cooking. Do the same with taro, if applicable… I bought a package of frozen pre-sliced taro (hence, not applicable).
2. Steam sliced sweet potatoes and taro until soft. After they are cooked, reserve some of the water from the steaming.
3. Place the two in separate bowls and mash them with sugar (some recipes called for caster sugar, some for regular white granulated sugar — I used regular). Do this while it’s hot for ease-sake; it’ll be easier to mash and mix with sugar while it’s warm. Oh, I do everything by taste. Hence, I didn’t measure out any quantities.
4. Add sweet potato flour to the mix and (optionally) a bit of cornstarch. Add a good amount of sweet potato flour to the mixture to make sure the mixture turns out somewhat elastic and smooth. If the sweet potatoes or taro seem a bit dry, add a tiny bit of the water that was reserved. If the mixture seems too wet, add more sweet potato flour. Do this with caution as you don’t want to add too much water and flour or you will cancel out the flavor of the sweet potato or taro in the process.
5. Mix until all the sweet potato flour is incorporated into the sweet potato or taro mixture. Again, you want a smooth, somewhat elastic consistency. If mixing with a spoon or other utensil becomes tiresome, feel free to knead the mixture like a dough. Actually, the consistency become almost like a bread dough…
6. When the “dough” is ready, flatten out onto a surface or small baking sheet. Cut the “dough” into small squares. I tried to cut them about 1cm by 1 cm, but it varied because I rushed through the process from hungry anticipation…
7. Take each “square” and roll it in your hands to form a ball. Or, if you’re lazy, skip this step. That’s okay, too. The end product just cooks in the form of a square, or whatever shape you leave it… You could also roll it out into a snake and just cut them into sections… However way you like, the end product, most likely, will be the same.
8. If the balls are too sticky, toss them around in a bit of cornstarch.
9a. Freeze! If you aren’t quite ready to eat them (big meal just before or snacking in anticipation gotcha full…), you can freeze the sweet potato and taro balls. I recommended putting them flat in the freezer, so they won’t stick to each other while freezing in the process. Then, once frozen, place them in a baggie to save room (after they are frozen, you don’t need to worry about them sticking to each other).
9b. Cook! If you are ready to make them, bring a pot of water to boil. Add a pinch of salt to taste. Once the water comes to a boil, toss in the desired amount of taro and/or sweet potato balls you’d like to consume. The balls will sink to the bottom of the pot and rise when cooked. Leave it boiling, by the way… well, until you are completely done cooking. I like to leave them floating on top for 30 seconds to almost a minute, assuring they are thoroughly heated throughout before I take them out.
10. Toss the cooked balls into a bowl of iced water. This will cool them down quickly and give them a more chewy consistency (or in more FOB-y terms, it’ll be more “QQ”).
11. After you’ve taken the balls out from the water, add sugar to the water. Stir to incorporate, creating a sort of simple syrup. Then, cool this mixture down.
12. Now, for the rest of the dish… I took some grass jelly (available canned or in tofu-like packaging at your nearby Asian supermarket), hacked it up just a tad and froze it. After it froze most of the way through, I mashed at it to try and recreate that “slush” and shaved ice texture.
13. I took the cooled simple syrup from step 11, spooned about a tablespoon into a bowl, topped it with a few sweet potato and taro balls before adding some grass jelly slush. Then, I opened another can of grass jelly and spooned a few thick slivers on top. Add a bit of cream (and diet-ed down with a bit of milk) and it’s ready for eating!
14. Okay. I forgot to add tapioca pearls. I didn’t realize that until I saw the Meet Fresh photo while doing this blog. Next time, tapioca pearls!
So how did it all turn out? Well… better than I thought it would, how’s that? It’s nowhere near as awesome as “Dragon Inn” or Meet Fresh, but perfecting may require a few more trips back and forth to Taiwan… and $$$dough$$$ to fund all these trips, of course.
If anyone else has any tips for copycatting any Meet Fresh or “Dragon Inn” desserts… PLEASE SHARE! Utah is not exactly flooding in the ethnic desserts oasis… much less anything from Taiwan. Help is definitely appreciated 🙂