|Shan fen-yuan, ready to drink.|
This refreshing drink may look odd to Westerners, who think they are seeing frog’s eggs, but in Taiwan it is sold everywhere by street vendors. Shan fen-yuan is also called basil seed drink, and for once this is not a misnomer; it really is made from the seeds of sweet basil, which when soaked in water develop an outer gelatin-like coating.
I dislike using the herby word ‘basil’ to describe shan fen-yuan because the seeds have no real taste or odor on their own. The drink is usually flavored with lemon juice, although it can be made simply sweetened with sugar, and lately I sometimes find myself enjoying it just plain—no flavor or sweetening.
The really fun part of shan fen-yuan, apart from its appearance, is the texture while drinking it. It is hard to describe, but if you drink it quickly, the soft seeds rush through your mouth and create a feeling something akin to caviar, although of course not that flavor. It is extremely soothing, both to the throat and to the stomach, and quickly becomes a favorite comfort food.
|The dry seeds as they come from the package.|
The shan fen-yuan seeds can be purchased in any Asian grocery, and are amazingly inexpensive. There is a similar kind with much smaller seeds from South Asia called hạt é in Vietnamese; these can be used interchangeably. The shan fen-yuan in the package should look like actual little brown seeds; regular fen-yuan balls (without the ‘shan’) are made from tapioca starch and most be cooked—these go into the famous pearl tea.
Recently I wrote about bai mu-er, which is pretty simple to make, but absolutely nothing could be easier or quicker than a satisfying drink of shan fen-yuan, made right in the glass. Simply place the seeds in a glass, add water, let expand for about 3-5 minutes, add sugar and lemon juice, adjust to your own taste, and enjoy.
By the Glass
Scant teaspoon shan fen yuan seeds (山粉圓)
Heaping teaspoon sugar or simple syrup
Half teaspoon lemon juice
About 1 cup water.
For a Party
1/4 cup shan fen yuan seeds
1/2 cup sugar or syrup
1/4 cup lemon juice
One half gallon water.
Soak seeds in water for several minutes; add sugar and lemon juice. Adjust to taste.
|These are about half ready after soaking one minute.|
---Honey can be substituted for the sugar, and in fact honey is often traditional with this drink.
---If you makes this frequently, it is convenient to use simple syrup, made by heating 1 cup sugar and one cup water. This mixes instantly, and there is never any sugar at the bottom of the glass.
---Be sure to add the lemon juice at the end, or at least after all the water is added; otherwise the seeds will not expand.
---The seeds will expand in any temperature water; it just takes a few minutes longer in very cold water.
---I like to soak it in about 1/3 room temperature water; then add ice-cold water when the seeds have expanded. Of course you can add ice cubes, but this impedes you from sipping it quickly.
Shan fen-yuan can also be drunk hot. I mentioned above that it has a very soothing quality, and if you sweeten it with honey, the combination of honey, lemon, hot water, and shan fen-yuan makes a most welcome and effective drink for a cold or hoarse throat.
Be sure to locate a supply of shan fen-yuan now if you are planning a Halloween party or are considering what to take to one. Its outré frog-eggs appearance, while not remarkable in Asia, will be the hit of the party, and everybody likes it.
Incidentally, ‘fen-yuan’ means tiny round objects in Chinese, and the ‘shan’ in front means mountain. Shan fen-yuan may look strange, but it tastes great and quickly becomes a favorite. Nothing could be faster to prepare or more foolproof, so why not pick up a bag of seeds and try it for yourself.
(All photos by the author.)