Gao Jelly is a black, jelly-like substance made from Chinese herbs. Sometimes called Gui Ling Gao Herbal Jelly, it was traditionally comprised of 30-50 herbs. Today it is a popular chilled dessert, obtained from Chinatown shops in cans, plastic containers, or as a powdered concentrate. Because it has a bitter flavor, sugar is often added.
Legends abound around Gao Jelly, the most famous of which concerns the Qing Dynesty Emperor Tongzhi, who ascended to the throne at the age of five upon his father’s death (he reigned from 1861 to 1875). His mother, Empress Dowager Cixi, overshadowed his rule (from “behind the curtain”), and apparently all other aspects of his life as well, for when he had smallpox, he improved by taking gui ling gao but she convinced him to quit. He died soon after and she ruled as regent. (While she apparently used the country’s money for her own lavish desires, she did ban the binding of women’s feet.)
I don’t know if gao jelly heals smallpox, but its traditional ingredients do nourish the Yin and Blood and clear Wind-Heat and Heat toxins. These qualities treat red, itching skin disorders, including acne, which is often what gao jelly is now used for. Supposedly its original main ingredient was the Yin tonic turtle shell from the plastron (bottom shell) of the golden coin turtle (the three-lined box turtle).
Instead, herbs such as honeysuckle, chrysanthemum, forsythia, siler, and schizonepeta are included, all of which clear Wind-Heat. Dandelion is added as it clears heat toxins, plus other herbs such as cooked rehmannia, atractylodes, or reishi for their tonifying properties. Pearl may be added, which enhances its skin beautifying properties. After the herbs are cooked, rice and corn flours are stirred in to thicken the mass to a jelly-like consistency.
In China today, gao jelly is prescribed by doctors who practice herbal medicine. At the Shanghai Longhua hospital where our East West group studied in May 2016, the doctors said the jelly is mainly sold in the winter, as that’s the best season to nourish the body. Even then, it is individually prescribed, including herbs specific for each person’s constitutional health needs. According to our Hong Kong graduate, Peggy Zih, there are different gao jellies for Qi, Blood, or Yang deficiencies and the base of the jelly varies accordingly. Usually the hospital makes up a month’s supply at a time and then the jelly may be re-prescribed and possibly changed if so needed. Overall, the turtle shell jelly is still the most popular one in China, as turtle shell nourishes the Yin and Blood.
An acupuncture friend of mine told me a story about a similar substance she found when studying in China in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. In most food stores she’d see a big pot containing a thick, brownish-black substance. People would come in and get scoopfuls in paper packages and take it home to add to soups and stir-fries. She asked about it and learned that it was made of herbs, bones, eggshells, vegetable cuttings and so forth, all thrown into the pot and cooked a long time.
Rich in nutrients and therapeutic properties, people would use it as a basis for stock, much like an herbally-fortified glace de viande (a concentrated reduction made by boiling meat juices until they are reduced to a thick syrup and used to add flavor and color to sauces, like an ordinary brown stock). She used it herself and upon return to home, made her own and taught her patients to do so as well.
This is similar to old European or pioneer cooking where people kept pots of soup simmering on the stove (or in the stove “well”) for several days. They’d toss in all leftover food scraps, bones, eggshells and so forth to make a rich stock.
You can do the same! Make your own gao jelly by tossing together bones from leftover meals, eggshells, your desired herbs, and cook together on low for a day or so, scraping off any foam as you do so, just as you would make a bone broth (be sure to add vinegar at the beginning to leech the calcium from the bones and eggshells). When it’s done, add rice and corn flour to thicken, strain into a container and cool. Use as soup stock or add to stir-fries or other dishes. In this way you can choose your gao jelly’s therapeutic properties as desired to suit your family’s health needs or to keep you strong through seasonal changes.