Summer is here and people everywhere will be cooling down with refreshing beverages. Before you reach for a sugar-loaded soda, consider changing things up with some Asian alternatives that are delicious and far healthier. According to Dr. Daniel Hsu, specialist in Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (CAM), acupuncturist, and expert in Asian lifestyle, fitness, nutrition, food and wellness, “These are the treats that kids of all ages in Asia, which has incredibly hot summers, look forward to when the mercury starts rising. They’re as popular as lemonade or iced tea in the West.”
Check out Dr. Hsu’s favorites and why you should give them a try:
1. Grass Jelly or Xian Cao
This dark green or translucent black gelatin is made from the stalks of mesona chinensis, a member of the mint family. It is enjoyed in every Chinese-speaking country, as well as Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand and Brunei. It can be eaten by itself with some syrup, combined with fruit and sweet beans, or used to make cold drinks. Traditionally touted for its summer heat-relieving properties, grass jelly has also been found to be rich in Quercetin and Oleanolic acid. Quercetin is a powerful antioxidant that can help prevent heart disease and cancer, relieve allergies and lower LDL or bad cholesterol. Oleanolic acid has shown promise in fighting diabetes and metabolic syndrome. But all science aside, grass jelly drinks are truly delicious.
2. Bubble Tea
Invented in Taiwan in the 1980s, bubble tea, also known as pearl milk tea or boba milk tea, is immensely popular in the Far East and Southeast Asia, as well as some parts of Europe. In Germany and Austria, you can even find it at McDonald’s. Originally a simple hot drink made of Taiwanese black tea, tapioca balls and condensed milk, bubble tea now comes in hundreds of varieties. You can get it iced or as a smoothie, with fruits as common as strawberries, apples and peaches, or more exotic Asian fruits, such as passion fruit, lychee and jackfruit. Other popular flavors include taro, chocolate, coffee, lavender, rose, violet, almond, ginger, sago palm, aloe and even egg pudding,
3. Mung Bean Soup
Mung beans are legumes native to India, used in cooking all over Asia. Herbalists use them for hot, inflammatory conditions, fevers and “summer heat” (a pathogenic factor in Traditional Chinese Medicine). You would think that a soup would be salty and savory, and usually hot. But sweet mung bean soup is served cold, and is delicious and simple to make because it only has two ingredients: mung beans and water. Of course, a sweetener can be added to taste. Mung beans are a great source of healthy vegetable protein, and high in potassium, magnesium, vitamins B and C, and fiber.
4. Sour Plum Drink or Suan Mei Tang
This cooling summertime drink has been popular in China for over 1,000 years. Sweet, sour and salty all at the same time, sour plum drink is made from smoked Chinese plums mixed in water with hawthorn fruit, sweet osmanthus, licorice and brown sugar. The Chinese have traditionally considered it to be not just a classic drink but also a healthy one, as it can aid in digestion and fatigue by reducing lactic acid buildup.
5. Thai Basil Seed Drink
Basil seed is very popular in Southeast Asian and Indian beverages. In Thailand, the drink is called nam manglak and flavored with rose water and honey. India has a similar version called falooda. Sweet basil seeds look like tiny frog eggs when soaked in water. Biting into the crunchy dark seeds with spherical jelly coatings will reward you with a mildly aromatic floral flavor. The seeds are high in calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron and vitamins E and B6. They are also rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and soluble fiber.
6. Nam Bi Tua
Bi tua drink from Thailand is made from pandan leaves, which are widely used in Southeast Asian cooking. It adds a wonderful, nutty, fragrant flavor to rice dishes and cakes. The Chinese call it xian lan ir, meaning “fragrant orchid.” When used for bi tua drink, it adds a bubblegum-like flavor as well as a beautiful bright green color.
7. Nimbu Pani or Shikanji
This is a popular North Indian and Pakistani lemonade made with lemons, mint juice, roasted cumin powder or jeera, and black Indian salt or kala namak — a cooling herb traditionally used in Ayurvedic medicine to aid digestion.
8. Indian Buttermilk or Chaas
Very popular all over India, chaas is made of yogurt flavored with mint, ginger, roasted cumin powder, curry leaves and black salt. The fragrant spiced buttermilk is a classic cool beverage traditionally used to aid digestion. It can also be blended with ice to make a delicious, exotic flavored smoothie.
9. Young Coconut Ice or Es Kelapa Muda
Coconut ice is one of Indonesia’s all-time favorite beverages. This delicious, very refreshing mixture of nutrient-rich coconut water, coconut flesh and vanilla syrup is often spiced up with cinnamon and cloves, and always served ice cold.
10. Air Mata Kucing
Nestled in the middle of Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown is Petaling Street. This bustling glass-covered outdoor market houses Malaysia’s most famous peddler of ice-cold air mata kucing, a Chinese herbal drink used to reduce heat in the body. Along with winter melon slices and palm, cane or rock sugar, this cola-colored hot weather favorite is made from two classic Chinese herbs: loh hon kor or luo han guo, otherwise known as Buddha fruit, a natural low-calorie sweetener (300 times sweeter than sugar!) and loong ngan, long yan or longan fruit.
As the heat rises this summer, hydration is essential, so remember to drink plenty of water. For a real treat, not to mention a variety of nutrients and beneficial herbs, keep cool and drink to your health with one of these Asian favorites. Bottoms up!