Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Shan Fen Yuan—Easiest of All

Shan fen-yuan, ready to drink.

This refreshing drink may look odd to Westerners, who think they are seeing frog’s eggs, but in Taiwan it is sold everywhere by street vendors. Shan fen-yuan is also called basil seed drink, and for once this is not a misnomer; it really is made from the seeds of sweet basil, which when soaked in water develop an outer gelatin-like coating.

I dislike using the herby word ‘basil’ to describe shan fen-yuan because the seeds have no real taste or odor on their own. The drink is usually flavored with lemon juice, although it can be made simply sweetened with sugar, and lately I sometimes find myself enjoying it just plain—no flavor or sweetening.
The really fun part of shan fen-yuan, apart from its appearance, is the texture while drinking it. It is hard to describe, but if you drink it quickly, the soft seeds rush through your mouth and create a feeling something akin to caviar, although of course not that flavor. It is extremely soothing, both to the throat and to the stomach, and quickly becomes a favorite comfort food.

The dry seeds as they come from the package.
The shan fen-yuan seeds can be purchased in any Asian grocery, and are amazingly inexpensive.  There is a similar kind with much smaller seeds from South Asia called hạt é  in Vietnamese; these can be used interchangeably. The shan fen-yuan in the package should look like actual little brown seeds;  regular fen-yuan balls (without the ‘shan’) are made from tapioca starch and most be cooked—these go into the famous pearl tea.

Recently I wrote about bai mu-er, which is pretty simple to make, but absolutely nothing could be easier or quicker than a satisfying drink of shan fen-yuan, made right in the glass. Simply place the seeds in a glass, add water, let expand for about 3-5 minutes, add sugar and lemon juice, adjust to your own taste, and enjoy.

By the Glass
Scant teaspoon shan fen yuan seeds (山粉圓)
Heaping teaspoon sugar or simple syrup
Half teaspoon lemon juice
About 1 cup water.

For a Party
1/4 cup shan fen yuan seeds
1/2 cup  sugar or syrup
1/4 cup lemon juice
One half gallon water.

Soak seeds in water for several minutes; add sugar and lemon juice. Adjust to taste.

These are about half ready after soaking one minute.

---Honey can be substituted for the sugar, and in fact honey is often traditional with this drink. 
---If you makes this frequently, it is convenient to use simple syrup, made by heating 1 cup sugar and one cup water. This mixes instantly, and there is never any sugar at the bottom of the glass.
---Be sure to add the lemon juice at the end, or at least after all the water is added; otherwise the seeds will not expand.
---The seeds will expand in any temperature water;  it just takes a few minutes longer in very cold water.
---I like to soak it in about 1/3 room temperature water;  then add ice-cold water when the seeds have expanded. Of course you can add ice cubes, but this impedes you from sipping it quickly.

Shan fen-yuan can also be drunk hot. I mentioned above that it has a very soothing quality, and if you sweeten it with honey, the combination of honey, lemon, hot water, and shan fen-yuan makes a most welcome and effective drink for a cold or hoarse throat.

Be sure to locate a supply of shan fen-yuan now if you are planning a Halloween party or are considering what to take to one.  Its outré frog-eggs appearance, while not remarkable in Asia, will be the hit of the party, and everybody likes it.

Incidentally, ‘fen-yuan’ means tiny round objects in Chinese, and the ‘shan’ in front means mountain. Shan fen-yuan may look strange, but it tastes great and quickly becomes a favorite. Nothing could be faster to prepare or more foolproof, so why not pick up a bag of seeds and try it for yourself.

(All photos by the author.)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Chinese Meander or ‘Greek Key’ Patterns

A bold key design crowns a large, wooden votive vase.
This post is a tribute to Mark Ruffner’s interest in Greek Key designs. These usually squared-off patterns in countless variations have been used since antiquity to create borders and frames in almost every kind of design.

Since moving to Taiwan, I have noticed that these patterns are also ubiquitous in Chinese art.  Here then is a brief look at their appearance on small household articles, ignoring for the present their role in ancient Chinese art and architecture.

While the Greek designs were inspired by a ‘meandering’ river, the Chinese meanders seem to have additional sources and versions, including foliage and natural growth, stylized clouds and animals, and various kinds of waves, lattice-work, cartouches, and paneling.

I have a small collection of Chinese wooden trays, and this simple red and black lacquer one, with its key-design sides highlighted by gilding, is one of the handsomest I have seen.

Click on images to enlarge.

This platform uses the same color scheme to different effect, the black top set off by a narrow band of red, the gilt fretwork base employing different sizes and shapes of links for variety.

Wooden lion finials like these are often found on pieces of furniture, especially those of some religious significance, such as a household shrine. One lion is playing with a ball, the other (presumably a female) is protecting a child, but both are resting on key-bordered plinths.

The keys in this bat panel are formed of individual links, not joined, and are interspersed with flowers and bosses. With its four lucky bats surrounding a central design, this also came from a piece of furniture, most likely a bed.

Although it has some condition issues, this document box is interesting because it has Mongolian writing on the top and bottom. The sides were left over to be decorated with classic meander patterns. Notice that the top is framed with fretwork elements which create a much freer type of border.

Here a key-work  border is used to enclose a panel of text in this small wooden box.

A statue of Guan Yin is set off with this wooden case, enlivened by much gilding and surrounded by the squared key border. (Note, I haven't decided yet whether to clean the ‘patina’ off the glass cover--I should have removed it for the photo.)

A pewter cosmetics box is somewhat crudely decorated by stamping; the craftsman who made it obviously cared little about the close fitting of the corners in the key-work.  

These ceramic pillows were made in large quantities, although recently I have seen a lot of fakes. This blue and white example features a pair of playful lions constrained by a severely classical border.

In addition to narrow borders, the same type of fretwork patterns could be made to cover large areas, and were often used as window or background designs. I hope to return to these is a later post, but here is an example of background fretwork in a medicine tin:

Finally,  although this is not a geometric Greek Key type, I couldn’t resist ending with a more naturalistic border consisting of a peach branch with gilded leaves and fruit, which could be extended indefinitely using the rules that created the formal meander patterns.

This brief look at traditional meander patterns barely scratches the surface, and doesn’t even begin to explore their history and symbolism.  Although the ones presented here are only a tiny sampling of the variety available, let me know whether you find any of these key borders particularly attractive.

(All photos property of the author.)

Monday, September 10, 2012

Royal Jewelry at the Taipei Palace Museum

A carved sapphire bracelet.

I haven't been to the Taipei Palace Museum in a while, but I just visited their exhibit called Royal Style, Qing Dynasty and Western Court Jewelry, to which a friend was kind enough to give me a ticket. There were no major pieces such as the Hope or Koh-i-Noor diamonds, but I'll have to say that the display was impressive and literally dazzling. It was well-staged; the walls, floors and showcases were totally black, with tiny spotlights showing the pieces to best advantage.

It was somewhat of an odd pairing. Half of the exhibit was Cartier jewelry and objets d’art from the early 20th century, and the other half was Ching court jewelry from the 18-19th centuries. There didn’t seem to be any scholarly reason for the mixture—I believe that the museum wanted a crowd-pleaser, and the viewers went for the fun of ogling all those diamonds.

Lovers of traditional diamond-encrusted necklaces, tiaras, stomachers, and bracelets could see many fine examples, all so brilliant lit and sparkling that they almost hurt the eyes. I usually think that tiaras look ridiculous, but here I could see their intended purpose and effect.

Diamond tiaras were in abundant supply. (Click on pictures to enlarge.)

This tiara was set with aquamarines.

143-carat emerald as centerpiece.

Rubies, emeralds, and sapphires in the style known as tutti-frutti.

The sapphire in this leopard-brooch seemed a much lighter blue, and was nearly tranparent.

Jewelry from the 1920’s often took part in the Egyptomania of the period. Some pieces were free interpretations such as these Art Deco masterpieces, while others incorporated actual antiquities, such s these jewel-mounted pieces of Egyptian blue faïence.

There were many small objects, such as picture frames, cigarette and cosmetic cases, and this owl, that you would swear were by Fabergé. 

The second half of the exhibit featured Chinese court jewelry. Some of the pieces, such as the hat below which belonged to Chien Long, are the actual ones seen in paintings of the emperors.

Royal necklace in Jade, coral and tourmaline.

Emperor Chien Long's sable hat.

In this hairpin, jade and tourmaline flowers are joined by a dragonfly, a butterfly, and a lucky bat.

This hairpin features a figure proffering a lucky peach symbolizing longevity.

These enameled hand-hairpins had to be my personal favorites on the Chinese side. When they were inserted so that the pins didn’t show, it must have appeared that the rest of the person belonging to the hand was lost and mired in the elaborate coiffure.


An assortment of carved gemstone pendants.

The quality of this coral phoenix hairpin is amazing.

I particularly found interesting the section of the exhibit showing how the jewels were made, which included many original drawings and castings. Unfortunately, these were not illustrated in the catalogue.

These gems date from an age when court life, first nights and elaborate private parties provided the occasions to display wealth and taste in this fashion. Displaying about five hundred of these jewels together allowed the viewer to concentrate on the design, superb craftsmanship, and overall effect of these pieces that so well illustrated jeweler's art over the last several centuries.

Please let me know if you have any favorite pieces, and what you think of the contrast between the Chinese imperial pieces to the French Cartier ones.

All photos courtesy Taipei Palace Museum