Credit: Julia Thiel

The Chef
: Michael McGill (Old Oak Tap)

The Challenger
: Ariel Bagadiong (Aja)

The Ingredient
: Grass jelly

“I have nothing positive to say about grass jelly,” Michael McGill said. “I think it’s awful.”

Grass jelly is made from the leaves of Mesona chinensis, a plant in the mint family that grows in east Asia. That’s also the main area where the jelly is popular; it’s mostly used in desserts and sweet drinks. McGill thinks adding sugar to grass jelly makes it more palatable—”without it, it’s a disaster.”

The flavor, he said, is similar to anise. “It takes a while to develop on your palate. When you first eat it, it tastes like absolutely nothing. Five, ten minutes later you start to feel a sensation. We were joking yesterday that it sort of tastes like bad sambuca with pennies in it.”

Once the flavor does develop, McGill said, “it stays with you. So for like 20, 30 minutes, it’s all you can taste. We were drinking coffee, or anything to destroy our palates to get rid of it.” McGill and his team experimented with traditional preparations, like crushed ice with watermelon, coconut milk, honey, and grass jelly, and he said that was good—at first. “Again, that anise kind of weird flavor builds on your palate, and then it’s there. Forever.”

He also tried heating the jelly up to make a sauce—”which I don’t recommend. It just became warm jelly. And the flavor, the anise/mint quality of it, just went overboard. It was almost sour. . . . You don’t want it to be the star of the show, that’s for sure.”

McGill ended up using the traditional crushed-ice dessert as inspiration for the ravioli dish he made. He stuffed wonton wrappers with pureed roasted beets, candied walnuts, and the grass jelly, then heated coconut milk with a pinch of saffron and poured it over the top, garnishing the dish with watermelon and more grass jelly. “Think of it like shaved Parmesan on top of your pumpkin ravioli,” he said.

The simplicity of the dish was part of the goal, McGill said. “You can’t get too complex. It in itself is plenty complex and weird.” And the taste of the grass jelly is subtle: “Without knowing what you’re about to get, you might not even realize it’s there.” McGill liked the dish overall, and said the jelly was almost more of a feel than a flavor, sort of a tingle on the tongue.

Despite his lack of affection for the ingredient, McGill said he was happy to have had a chance to experiment with it. “It’s been an adventure. I promise you this, though: I will never eat grass jelly again after today.”

YouTube video

Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon

Who’s Next:

Rodney Staton, a veteran of Bite Cafe, Longman & Eagle, Spiaggia, and Topolobampo who’s now behind the yet-to-open sports bar and restaurant the Ogden, working with calf liver. McGill said that he considered assigning his friend beaver anal glands, which are fairly common in processed foods—but then he decided to be nice instead.