“Aiyu” Jelly: Taiwanese “Soul Dessert” Making Inroads with Japanese Foodies

Food and Drink Culture History

A recent television drama based on the life of pioneering botanists Makino Tomotarō has renewed interest in aiyu jelly, a Taiwanese dessert made from a figlike fruit. The dish enjoyed popularity in prewar Japan but has since fallen into obscurity. Is it set for a comeback?

In the Small-Screen Spotlight

As the recent NHK TV drama (completed the end of September 2023) Ranman had it, in 1896 botanist Makino Tomotarō was trekking through the mountains of Taiwan collecting plant specimens as part of a scientific survey of the island when he fell ill. Delirious with fever, he was nursed back from the brink by locals who fed him a strange jelly-like food made from a native fruit.

Makino, who is considered the father of Japanese botany, went on to identify the lifesaving plant as a member of the fig family (Ficus), christening it Ficus awkeostsang Makino, choosing, along with his own moniker, the indigenous Taiwanese name of the fruit. (Today it is known to science as Ficus pumila var. awkeotsang, but the alternate name with his name attached can still be found here and there.) Known in Japan as aigyokushi and in English as jelly fig or creeping fig, the fruit is used to make the dessert aiyu jelly, also called ōgyōchī in Japan.

Aiyu jelly is commonly enjoyed as a refreshing summertime treat. (© Hitoto Tae)
Aiyu jelly is commonly enjoyed as a refreshing summertime treat. (© Hitoto Tae)

A Native Island Delicacy

The climbing fig species used to make aiyu jelly grows exclusively on Taiwan at elevations above 1,000 meters. It has separate male and female trees, with the flowers of the latter being pollinated by a native variety of fig wasp. The palm-sized fruits grow on vines and are similar in shape and color to mangos. Japan’s cooler climate and absence of pollinators have prevented the plant from being cultivated in the country.

Dried fruit of the aiyu jelly fig. The pods are turned inside out, revealing an array of seeds. (© Hitoto Tae)
Dried fruit of the aiyu jelly fig. The pods are turned inside out, revealing an array of seeds. (© Hitoto Tae)

Japanese interest in the jelly fig first arose in the early part of the last century. Fukuda Kaname, an engineer stationed in the south of Taiwan, brought attention to the plant in his 1921 survey of the economic potential of the island, which was then under Japanese rule. He noted that mixing juice of a pollinated female fruit in water would produce a yellow-colored, translucent extract the consistency of kanten or agar, a traditional jelly derived from boiling tengusa seaweed. The jelly was typically eaten mixed with sugar, but aside from its culinary appeal, Fukuda saw the fruit as having potential for industrial jelly production.

The jelly fig had been used by native Taiwanese long before Makino and others took an interest in it. Naturally rich in pectin, a soluble fiber with thickening properties, it was valued as a remedy for constipation and other intestinal troubles. It was also used to stave off hunger pangs and as a fever remedy, as with Makino. Recent research has uncovered other health benefits, including for weight loss and in skin care.

The name aiyu is purported to date to the Qing dynasty. According to a 1921 account by Taiwanese historian and poet Lien Heng, a merchant from Fujian was travelling in Chiayi in Taiwan when he stopped to drink from a clear spring. Refreshed by the cool water, he noticed seeds floating on the surface, and rubbing these, he was surprised to discover they produced a jelly. Recognizing a business opportunity, he took the fruit back with him to the mainland and had his young daughter Aiyu sell the jelly. The dish was a huge hit, and the merchant named the fruit aiyu in her honor.

Taiwan’s National Dessert?

Horikawa Yasuichi, a Japanese educator who studied the flora and fauna of Taiwan, had this to say about aiyu in a 1942 book on Taiwanese plants: “Taiwan, being a warm country, has a wide variety of cold foods and drinks. Distinct among these are grass jelly and aiyu jelly.” He goes on to describe how stalls set up in the shade of trees or near city gates commonly sold bowls of the dark-colored grass jelly and amber aiyu jelly. These were cut into cubes and sweetened with sugar water. “Each has a distinct, refreshing flavor suitable to the tropical environment.”

Horikawa’s description fits with my childhood memories of growing up in Taiwan in the 1970s. In summer, aiyu jelly was a common sight at markets, including large blocks of the amber extract that were stored in vats of water. Shops would divide these into smaller portions according to how much customers wanted, placing orders in plastic bags. Most Taiwanese have memories of enjoying aiyu jelly bought from the many stalls found at markets, which typically served it chilled with ice and mixed with sugar or honey water.

Blocks of aiyu jelly at a market in Taiwan. (© Hitoto Tae)Blocks of aiyu jelly at a market in Taiwan. (© Hitoto Tae)

A stall specializing in aiyu jelly that has been in business in Taipei for nearly 60 years. (© Hitoto Tae)
A stall specializing in aiyu jelly that has been in business in Taipei for nearly 60 years. (© Hitoto Tae)

Taiwanese fondness for the jelly fig has only strengthened over time. Today it is hailed as a healthy and versatile food. Aiyu jelly is predominantly water and contains a mere 2 calories per 100 grams. Being flavorless and odorless, it is easily mixed with other ingredients, and its texture is soft enough that it can be sipped through a straw, properties that have made it a standard at drink stands and stalls serving shaved ice.

There are, however, several issues with jelly figs that have hampered their broader use in the food industry. One is that pure aiyu jelly tends to lose consistency over time and shrink as it releases liquid. As a result, manufacturers of aiyu jelly often add ingredients like kanten agar and gelatine. Another is the price of jelly figs, which has been on the rise in recent years. Still, nothing compares to the texture aiyu jelly made entirely from jelly figs.

Stalls selling bowls of aiyu jelly for as little as 40 Taiwanese dollars (around ¥200) are still common sights on street corners and at outdoor and night markets, with the most popular shops drawing long lines of customers. Convenience stores in Taiwan also sell versions of the treat. Toppings range from brown or white sugar to honey to lemon, all of which are equally satisfying and illustrate the versatility of the dessert. However, the best way to enjoy the jelly might be with a simple splash of syrup.

Aiyu Jelly in Japan

I do not recall seeing aiyu jelly in Japan when I was younger. But the writer Miyagawa Jirō suggests that it was already making inroads into the country by the 1930s. In his 1941 work Shumi no Taiwan (Delightful Taiwan), Miyagawa describes three shops, two in Asakusa and one in Kanda, that served the dish. One of the Asakusa stores was even open year-round, rather than during the summer season only, as was typical. However, Miyagawa notes that “as a summertime treat enjoyed by Taiwanese laborers, who purchase it from stalls along major roads, the dish will be unknown to most Japanese, even those long-time residents of Taiwan.”

Since those early days, aiyu jelly has retained a presence in Japan, albeit a minor one. For instance, the author Ikenami Shōtarō wrote about ōgyōchi in his work Ginza kioku (Memories of Ginza). He describes an outing with a work college to a shop in the Yanaka district of Tokyo to enjoy a bowl the sweet, gelatinous treat. “I discovered it was the same shop in the alley near Asakusa’s Shōchikuza theater I had frequented in my earlier years,” Ikenami recounts. “It’d been 50 years since I last visited.”

It also makes an appearance in a scene from one of Japan’s most popular and longest running manga, Kochikame, in which the main character Ryōtsu visits a cafe called Ōgyōchi, a real-life shop located in Yanaka, to buy three jellies as gifts for friends. The store, which is still in business, is likely the only one remaining in Japan dedicated to aiyu jelly.

Today, diners have to go out of their way to savor a bowl of aiyu jelly as there are only a handful of restaurants offering it as a dessert option. However, this is gradually changing as interest in bubble tea cools and foodies turn their attention to the next big Taiwanese food item.

A large dish of aiyu jelly garnished with lemons at a shop in Taiwan. (© Hitoto Tae)
A large dish of aiyu jelly garnished with lemons at a shop in Taiwan. (© Hitoto Tae)

The Post-Bubble-Tea Boom?

Aiyu jelly has significant potential to win over Japanese consumers. Its consistency and flavor is similar to popular summer snacks like warabimochi and mizuyōkan, lending it an appeal as a dish that the whole family can enjoy.

NHK’s drama about Makino has also sparked interest in the dish. Several travel companies and hotels have created maps highlighting spots associated with the famous botanist, and thanks to the surge in popularity of bubble tea and other Taiwanese foods the number of restaurants featuring aiyu jelly on their menus is slowly increasing. This renewed interest in in the dessert has lifted it from obscurity, and hopefully interest will continue to grow, making not just aiyu jelly but the dried jelly figs used to make it more widely available in Japan. With luck, a food with a long but forgotten history may once again be a bridge between Japan and Taiwan.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: A bowl of aiyu jelly. All photos © Hitoto Tae.)

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