In midsummer, just after the cicadas have issued a few choruses, on the streets and alleyways, up and down the slopes of stairs, on mountain paths and riverside wharves.
Everywhere throughout Chongqing, the ice jelly stalls appear.
There are too many iced treats in the summer – ice creams, popsicles, cold drinks – so peddlers have to yell to stand out from the rest of the crowd and make sales.
But their calls of “ice jelly, brown sugar ice jelly” are sufficient to attract customers.
If the scorching thirty-eight-degree heat is the summer’s theme song, then cool, refreshing ice jelly with a sweet, lingering taste is its moving refrain. Just one bowl is enough to make you fall in love with this hot and humid season.
Ice jelly is a famous traditional snack in Sichuan and Chongqing, and is especially welcomed in summer. Prior to the 1980s or 1970s, the key ingredient used to make ice jelly was the seeds of shoo-fly plants—or “ice jelly seeds”.
These seeds have an 18.6% oil, 11.1% saturated fatty acid, and 20.8% linoleic acid content, along with some of the effects they bring with them, such as diuresis, relief from internal heat, fever, and inflammation. For this reason, these seeds may be used to treat fever, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcers, and more.
Residents of Beibei, Hechuan, and Wanzhou like to make ice jelly at home and share it with their neighbors. Not only does it satisfy the appetite, it also promotes the ancient art of ice jelly production.
First, women soak the shoo-fly seeds in water. After a sufficient amount of time, they filter out the seeds and add just the right amount of coagulant.
When the jelly has set, its crystal-clear, gem-like appearance and smooth texture will come together in that thirst-quenching and healthy summer treat.
These days, ice jelly is getting fancier.
The peddlers along pedestrian streets at Jiefangbei, Yangjiaping, and Guanyinqiao add tens of thousands of ingredients—including hawthorn flakes, tangyuan (glutinous rice balls), sesame, and crushed peanuts—to their ice jelly.
The adding of these extra toppings and ingredients, definitely affects the customer, for the wonderful colors it produces in the jelly, engaging both the eyes and the appetite.
Recommended flavors include rose, osmanthus, lily, or traditional brown sugar. You’ll be far from satisfied if you only try one.
These alluring ice jelly creations cost over 10 yuan per bowl. Throughout the summer, young girls and boys will mutter that one simply has to try them all.
Those that are truly business-savvy sellers will suggest mixing and matching flavors: “How about fragrant osmanthus and rose, or brown sugar and lily?” Simply listening to these words, one’s mouth begins to water.
Ice jelly in the mountainous areas of Chongqing is of a different sort.
Chongqing is a city floating in the mountains and shrouded in trees. Gele Mountain, Nanshan Mountain, Huangge Ancient Road, Zhaomu Mountain, Tieshanping Forest Park, and Jinyun Mountain are all found across its green and vast terrain.
Chongqing residents enjoy going for walks in these areas, with small groups of friends on the weekends or after getting off work. Though refreshing for the spirit, it exhausts the body.
Just as they are wondering where to find a place that sells cold food or drinks, a peddler comes into view and asks: “How about some ice jelly? It’s cool and refreshing; the brown sugar will support your health.”
As he speaks, the peddler opens a tightly covered basket; sure enough, there’s ice jelly inside. “It’s not expensive,” he says, “one bowl, just five yuan.” Of course, they will accept.
The transparent ice jelly, with its original flavor, topped only with brown sugar and sesame seeds, separates into large crystalline lumps and slides around in its plastic bowl.
“Perfect!” exclaim the satisfied hikers.
If some picky customers complain about the simplicity of ingredients, the peddler won’t be annoyed, but will just kindly tell them:
“This ice jelly was hand-crafted from the seeds of shoo-fly plants and traditional brown sugar. What you’re tasting is the original flavor, not those showy and overpowering toppings. Who knows how they’re making the ice jelly sold in cities!”
His words make people laugh.
If you make it to the mountain’s halfway point, or as far as the top, you will find vendors selling ice jelly, as well as ice creams and liangxia (iced rice pudding in the shape of a shrimp).
They call out: “Handmade ice jelly! Handmade ice jelly!”. This is their “feature product”.
If curious tourists sit down and ask them how the ice jelly is made, the vendors will not hesitate, all starting to talk at once. You won’t be able to make out who is saying what, only catching the phrase “ice jelly seeds” over and over.
But if you buy a few more bowls and strike up a conversation, any vendor will be happy to explain it more clearly.
After gathering some ice jelly seeds from the shoo-fly plants, they use a piece of gauze to tightly tie up about a hundred grams of seeds. Put this in a basin containing about five kilos of water and knead the ice jelly seeds repeatedly, as though washing clothes.
As the starch comes out the seeds, the water will become cloudy and foamy. Stir the water for about ten minutes until all the bubbles have disappeared. Then pour the whitewash into the water.
It’s just like making tofu: although the whitewash, containing calcium carbonate, is inedible, it acts to change the chemical composition of the ice jelly seeds, turning them into a solid byproduct. Now by waiting for another two hours, you should have a successful batch of ice jelly.
As clear and clean as jade, this food is the delight of gourmets. Spoon it up in a bowl, top it with brown sugar syrup, hawthorn flakes, and sesame, and your sweet and delicious ice jelly is ready to eat.
If making it yourself, 100 grams of ice jelly seeds yield five kilos of ice jelly. Unless you have a rather large family, however, it would be quite a waste; ice jelly only has a shelf life of one day, after which it loses its shape.
But now supermarkets offer a variety of instant ice jelly powders: just buy a bag, take it home, mix it with water, and wait for it to boil. It’s easy, delicious, and there’s no waste. Even busy working mothers can instantly satisfy their kids with this trick.
The river is mighty, the heat oppressive. As evening falls, Chongqing people like to play along the riverbanks where the air is cooler, accompanied by a bowl of ice jelly.
“Ice jelly! Ice jelly with brown sugar!” This sound at one’s ears is like sweetness already melting into one’s mouth and touching one’s heart. Breezes off the water and appealing ice jelly, these are the beautiful experiences of a summer in Chongqing.
The Chongqing People’s Auditorium welcomes many visitors in the summer, when it feels so refreshing to have a nice bowl of ice jelly.