Get Ready for the Bingfen Boom
A cooling end to a Sichuan meal full of tingly heat, Bingfen is gaining popularity in the United States thanks to a spate of new restaurants.
On the streets of Chengdu, in China's Sichuan province, narrow storefronts in commercial shopping districts all over the city sell bowls of chilled, translucent jelly with a uniquely slippery and soft texture. The jelly itself is practically flavorless, but it is the perfect blank canvass for a buffet of toppings from rich brown sugar syrup to crushed salty peanuts and sweet fermented rice with a slight, heady sting. This is bingfen.
"It's very delicate. It's like a drinkable dessert," said Zixi Zhou, the co-owner of Jell & Chill, a bingfen dessert shop in New York City. Zhou, who is from Chengdu, opened the shop in late 2019 with her husband, Yu Zhang. It's the first international address for the Chengdu-based chain, which has over 40 locations across China.
Throughout Southwest China, bingfen is known as a quintessential street snack and a local dessert with useful cooling properties. The word "bingfen" literally translates to ice powder, though colloquial translations like ice jelly or crystal jelly are more common. It has been an antidote to the summer heat and humidity, and a foil to a particularly hot meal, for generations. The apparent discovery of bingfen dates back to the Qing dynasty, over 100 years ago. These days, bingfen is also an essential memory for members of the Southwestern Chinese diaspora. "My grandmother always made this dessert for me when I was young," Zhou recalled. "It reminds me of my hometown, my childhood."
In the last decade, the signature spicy, tingling, and deeply savory flavors of Southwest Chinese cuisine have captivated diners across the world. Countless restaurants have opened to satiate a global desire for that inimitable hot and numbing flavor known as "mala." So, too, is bingfen starting to emerge—not just as a rightful post-mala meal pairing, but as a delightful, thirst-quenching everyday treat.
True bingfen is made from the seeds of the nicandra physalodes, or shoofly, plant. The tiny, pebble-shaped seeds are poured into a cheesecloth satchel, soaked, then vigorously scrubbed in a bowl of mineral water until the pectin in each seed is released. Slaked lime is mixed into the pectin-rich water and after a few hours, the liquid sets into a yellowish jelly—tender to the touch, neutrally flavored, and mesmerizingly jiggly.
Some bingfen sellers, like Zhou and Zhang at Jell & Chill, use a traditional technique that infuses tiny air bubbles into the jelly. This gives it a finely effervescent look and a wonderfully light, almost frothy, texture. But this style of handmade bingfen is rarely found outside of China as shoofly seeds can be hard to source (a powdered version is more readily available, but it won't produce the bubbly bingfen). In some cases, konjac powder is used to create a similarly neutral-flavored, clear jelly. For purists, it's not the same.
Regardless of how it's made, bingfen is always served with a flourish of toppings. Unrefined brown sugar syrup with molasses-like flavor is the standard sweetener. Haw flakes, peanuts, sesame seeds, raisins, and sweet fermented rice are traditional toppings (though in China, these vary by province). At Public Village, a Sichuan restaurant in New York City that opened last summer, co-owner Kiyomi Wang adds tamarind water to her bingfen, along with sesame seeds, crushed peanuts, and rose petals. Tamarind is commonly used among the Yi people in China, a community to which Wang belongs. "Our bingfen is slightly different," she said. "When the syrup and the tamarind juice combine, the sweet and the sour produce an appetizing taste."
As bingfen grows in popularity, so too does the diversity of toppings. At Jell & Chill, there are over 10 unique creations including a Cantonese-style version made with fresh mango and mango puree and the "Sugar Daddy" made with coconut shave ice, glutinous rice balls, and a miniature Magnum ice cream bar.
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Despite the sweet toppings, bingfen is seen as a healthier alternative to other desserts. The jelly—made specifically from the shoofly plant and not some other powder—is believed to have decongestant and antioxidant properties, in addition to being low in calories and sugar. It is also considered to be a yin, or cooling, food. The theory and categorization of "cold" and "hot" foods exists in Traditional Chinese Medicine, where, in its most basic form, achieving balance in the body—both internally and in relation to the environment—is the key to good health.
Whether it's the relentless humidity of a Chengdu summer or the intense burn of a spicy, oily hotpot meal, bingfen is believed to "clear the heat." Wang explained it simply, "it is thirst-quenching, summer-heat relieving, and internal heat relieving." There are other kinds of jelly in Chinese cuisine with similar cooling, detoxification, and antioxidant properties. Aiyu jelly, which is popular in Taiwan, is the most like bingfen; it is made from the pectin of creeping fig plant seeds and served chilled with honey syrup and sliced citrus.
Yuecai Xue is a Chengdu native and the chef at Chengdu Famous Foods in Philadelphia, where bingfen is the top-selling dessert. Through a translator (Lee Wong, the owner), Xue noted that bingfen is also loved in China because of its unique texture. He uses the Chinese word shuang to capture not just the sensation, but the feeling of eating bingfen. "It's awesome. It feels great. It's so refreshing," he said. There is no exact English translation for shuang, but think of it this way: what that chewy sensation known as Q is to the bubbles in bubble tea, the smooth feel of shuang is to the jelly in bingfen.
In fact, even Zhou and Zhang of Jell & Chill were at a loss for words when describing what it was like to eat bingfen. "It's like…wow. It's a feeling," said Zhou. Zhang compared it to the sensation that follows a sip of sparkling water. One thing everyone agreed on was this: any way you have it, bingfen is irresistible.