Bowl of cubed herbal jelly being scooped up by white spoon
Guilinggao, The Traditional Chinese Medicine That Moonlights As A Well-Known Dessert
At a Hong Kong-style cafe, you might encounter a dessert called guilinggao (龟苓膏), known as tortoise jelly in China. This super simple dessert has an impressively complex history.
Guilinggao consists of cubes of chilled black jelly, with a jiggly texture and earthy, bitter, and herbal flavor, drizzled with sugar-and-water simple syrup and served in a bowl.
In the Qing Dynasty, this dish was a staple of traditional Chinese herbal medicine. It was far more involved to make, using the crushed shells of golden coin turtles.
The shells would be cleaned, air-dried, crushed into a powder, then mixed with liquid and a medley of about 15 different medicinal herbs. The mixture was then slow-cooked.
Hours of gentle simmering evaporate the liquid and produce a dark jelly. Sometimes, tree bark, flowers like honeysuckle, and spices were added to the jelly as well.
Guilinggao gained huge prominence during the Qing Dynasty in the 1800s. The tale goes that Emperor Tongzhi experienced a miraculous recovery from smallpox after consuming it.
The dish is considered to have "cooling" properties that clear bodily "heat," to help rigid muscles and joint pain, promote blood circulation, and reduce inflammation.
Today, golden coin turtles are endangered, so most guilinggao is made from a vegan powder that can be prepared like JELL-O: mixed with boiling water and cooled until set.
The jelly is also sold canned or refrigerated. Besides syrup, you can eat it with honey or condensed milk, or in fruit parfaits, shaved ice, boba drinks, and Chinese dessert soups.