Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Shan Fen Yuan—Easiest of All

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.)


  1. Hello Jim:
    Your blog advertises itself as 'the off-beat' and for we, who have never come across this amazing drink before, this post certainly lives up to that description!

    To be honest the appearance did, before we read further, slightly put us off most likely because of the not dissimilar appearance to tapioca, something of which we are not very fond, or indeed frog spawn. That said we are left most intrigued by this very unusual drink and would most certainly be willing to give it a try.

  2. Hello Jane and Lance, Please do try shan fen-yuan. It really is very agreeable and the taste is like lemonade, which of course the liquid part is. If it seems too thick just add a little more water. I always like drinks on the weak side, anyway. I also bet you could find it ready to drink in the Asian sections of London or Budapest. It even comes in cans, although of course fresh is better.

    By the way, Western tapioca may be a gloppy, thick pudding, but here they make it as a thin, sweet, cold soup, and it is much better, so don't give up on tapioca until you try it Asian-style.

  3. Oh my...if I saw that (before being educated by you, I wouldn't go near it! However, it sounds most interesting, and I love the soothing qualities you mention. I think I will try it the next time my family gets together. They always tease me because I am not adventurous when it comes to food. This will surprise them!

    1. Hi Jen, They'll all end up thanking you for it. And certainly you, who care so much about the best nature has to give, will appreciate the fen-yuan.

      If you run into any difficulties making it (although not likely), I am just an email away.

  4. I love this, thanks for sharing the recipe. I have had it but so often these are not things I would think to try making myself. :)

  5. Hi Ann, I had a feeling you would have encountered this. Some specialties are too strange or difficult to make at home, but not Shan Fen Yuan. I find it goes down easily, so it might be a good think to have around while expecting.

  6. Hello, Parnassus,

    I admire how much you have embraced local Chinese cuisine! I know from having lived in the Far East how easy it is for Americans to insulate themselves from everything foreign to them. And here you are sharing the wonders of shan fen-yuan! I will make an effort to buy the seeds and give your recipe a try. Do you think I'd be able to find them at a Vietnamese market?

    1. Hi Mark, I know people here like those you mention, but I first learned to eat shan fen-yuan in Cleveland, courtesy of foreign graduate students. I am sure you can get them at the Vietnamese grocer. (I meant the seeds, not the graduate students!) You can show them the Vietnamese name mentioned above, but the bag will probably say Sweet Basil Seeds in English.

      Good luck.

  7. That it has medicinal qualities is a boon. I've seen it here in Bangkok, but I've never tried it. Perhaps I should give it a go for medicinal purposes, (although a slug of scotch has that too, when prepared in hot toddy style!).

  8. Hello Columnist, Fen shan yuan is so good that I hesitate to call it medicinal; I would call it soothing instead, or we can compromise and revive an old term and label it as demulcent.

  9. Very interesting!! I've not heard of this drink. Will ask Mom and Dad why they never made it for us.

    Have you ever visited the DC area? There is a large population of Taiwanese Americans living in Rockville, Maryland. And many own restaurants, cafes, grocery stores, and bakeries. I'll be sure to ask for Shan Fen Yuan next time.

    Thanks for sharing the recipe!

    1. Hi Loi, It has been a long time since I was in the D.C. area--I am way overdue. I recall that almost everything I particularity wanted to see, such as the Folger Library and the Dayton Miller collection, was closed or otherwise off limits.

      This would be a good time to patronize those bakeries, especially since Mid-Autumn Festival is coming up soon, and so the Moon Cake season has officially opened. My personal favorites are the lotus seed paste with the salted egg yolks.

    2. Moon cake is big in my family!! We cut each cake into 4 squares and fight over the pieces with the egg yolk :)

  10. Why I am I have trouble with the idea of this drink? Ok I'll try it, but don't make me like it. Thanks for dropping by. You are so right about the drama I had to do something special after the 29 steps to the front door. K

  11. Sorry Kevin, but I have to make you like it. How can someone who likes the bizarre and outré so much in his house not also welcome a little novelty in his food?

  12. Dear Parnassus,
    I feel that I might have trouble overcoming the frogspawn connotations however I would give it a try. Actually I needed a big cup of Shan Fen Yuan this week as I am suffering from bronchitis. I will ask some of my Chinese parents if they can obtain it and if they (or I) can, then I shall put it to the test and let you know.
    Bye for now

    1. Hello Kirk, I am sorry about your bronchitis. The shan fen-yuan is very soothing, but if your throat is really bothering you, should should ask your friends to get you some pi-pa gao (枇杷膏) which is like cough syrup. They will know exactly what it is. Please recover soon.

  13. Hello Parnassus,
    Thank you for a wonderful post-- I'm off to market in search of the shan fen yuan seeds... I know they will be a favorite for my family who adore all things Asian! Isn't it wonderful to think of all of the people you've inspired to try something new and delicious? Thank you & best regards from Michigan, Erika

    1. Hello Erika, That is a problem with Asian stores outside of Asia--there are so many interesting ingredients there, but often no indication of how to use them, and no prior introduction to lead you to them. I'll admit that shan fen-yuan might be a hard sell for some people, but those perhaps are the very people who need to try something new.

    2. Hi Parnassus,
      I agree--we visit our favorite Asian markets and pick things up armed only with our sense of adventure! Still, we have discovered many wonderful treats in this unscientific way... I'm sad for those who spend their lives afraid of new flavors and experiences, limiting themselves to broiled chicken and potatoes--what a bore and a waste!
      Best regards,

  14. Hello Parnassus

    Thank you for the introduction to this unusual (for me) drink. I will be searching for some seeds when next in this section of shops in Toronto. It is simple to make, which I love

    Helen xx

  15. Hi Helen, I am absolutely sure that you can get the seeds in Toronto. Shan fen yuan is as close as it comes to instant, and yet is unusual and enjoyable.

  16. I am left flummoxed by this drink. Who came up with this idea? I am always left wondering with so many recipes if the first time was an accident. Seemingly in this case a pleasant accident. I may have a hard time with the slime aspect of this drink, but I have never been known to shy away from a challenge. I will give it a go :-)
    Have a great weekend.

    1. Hello Di, Perhaps it was noticed when the seeds fell off a plant into a puddle, or when they were soaking them for planting.

      Asians really like soft and jelly-like textures, so this is a natural for this area. My next effort I plan to report on is the "jelly fig". Wish me luck.

  17. Wow, i never had this before. This is great, so tasty. I just love it! I will try .

    1. It's always fun trying something new. Thanks for stopping by.

  18. Hello Jim,

    What a fascinating drink, one I was unaware of prior to you alerting me to this post. I shall have to track down these seeds and make a batch at Halloween as you suggest. My daughter and her friends will be intrigued and "grossed out" at the same time.

    1. Hello CD, This is a really fun drink, and after a couple of times, it won't seem that strange and you will find it soothing and refreshing. Probably the seeds will be even easier to get in California than over here! --Jim


I would love to know what you think. Please feel free to comment--no tricky security words required! Any difficulties or questions, email at: clavicytherium@yahoo.com