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Jelly plants and plant jellies

May 28, 2011

All jellies give your stomach a sensation of being full, while in reality it is just water bound to the jelly fibers. Therefore sugar-free jellies are good for people suffering from obesity. In the west we commonly buy purified pectin (polysaccharides from fruits such as citrus) or gelatin (collagen fibers from animals) for making jellies.

Plant jellies are common foods in China and Southeast Asia. Two sources of jelly is agar (the red sea alga Gelidium amansii) and the ’Chinese Jelly Leaf’ Platostoma palustre (=Mesona chinensii), called ’chao-kuai’ in Thai. It is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae), so the other English vernacular name ’jelly grass’ should be avoided. Its jelly is commonly seen in the form of black cubes in Thai desserts. The jelly can be combined with fruit juices to add more flavour. It has cooling properties and is often served with ice.

The famous ’Jelly Nut’ is a fruit from a Thai tree (phung thalai), Scaphium scaphigerum (Malvaceae). This tree (sometimes called ’Marshmallow Tree’) is common in the south of Thailand, but grows here at Dokmai Garden where we can irrigate it. In Thailand its jelly is used for making a coughing medicine.

A less known source of pectin for making jelly is Cyclops barbata (Menispermaceae), called ’monoi’ in Esan langauge. A central Thai name is ’bai kon pit’. One English name is ’Green Jelly Leaf’. This is how they use the plant in Esan (the northeast of Thailand):

Take 6 leaves and crush them in 2 dl of water. Sieve the liquid and quickly mix with fish sauce, salt, galanga root and fish or frog meat. Within 5 minutes, the dish will turn into jelly, thanks to the polysaccharides extracted. Nived Seehamongkol said this is a cooling dish which is good in the hot season, and to calm down an upset stomach (the fibers will bind water and make the stool more firm). The plant is a liana native to Thailand and Southeast Asia, and prefers a sunny position in your monsoon garden. If you wish to see it, simply visit Dokmai Garden.

Personally I agree with Khun Densak,  the head gardener, that Cyclops barbata jelly should be enjoyed without meat. Indeed it is cooling, and has a pleasant taste in its pure stage. Chili enhances the experience.

Text and photo: Eric Danell

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