Made with natural ingredients such as fruit, herbs, and flowers, these beverages can be easily found at your local supermarkets at around 1/10 the price of your beer at a bar, with 10 times less calories, and 10 times more super health and cooling power. More importantly, these taste better than your average Aqua-Cola. Live a little. Try these out.
酸梅汤 - Suanmeitang, Sour prune drink
History: The origin of Suanmeitang can be traced back to Song Dynasty, more than a thousand years ago. As is the case with a lot of foods and drinks that have become fads over the years, Suanmeitang has official imperial affirmation and was favored by Qianlong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty (he thought it kept himself fit, apparently). From this celebrity emperor endorsement, the drink soon became popular, most famously being manufactured by an old Beijing sweets shop, Xinyuanzhai (信远斋). Nowadays, Suanmeitang is widespread across the land and can be found at every supermarket and Chinese restaurant.
Ingredients: Sour prune, hawthorn, sweet osmanthus, rock sugar, liquorice root. Mmmm.
Health benefits: Hey, where shall I start? It beats the heat, it boosts your appetite, and it's also said to be a natural cough remedy. It's even good for easing motion sickness and hangovers.
The Xinyuanzhai version is quite hard to find, but we managed to get a bottle on Yihaodian. It has a smooth and rich flavor, noticeable fragrance of sweet olive, and tastes 100 times better than restaurant/supermarket bottled ones.
绿豆汤 - Ludoutang, Green Bean Soup
History: The practice of cultivating the green bean (or mung bean) originated in China -- you're welcome. Although no one can say precisely who invented green bean soup, the usage of the green bean as a remedy for cooling off had been recorded in Compendium of Materia Medica, written during the Ming Dynasty, and it is also said that Chinese novelist Pu Songling used bowls of green bean soup to exchange stories with strangers, thereby collecting all the five hundred supernatural tales which made into Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio during the Qing Dynasty. Can't guarantee that a bowl of green bean soup will make you a famous novelist, but it's sure to bring a smile to a Chinese face.
Ingredients: The recipes of green bean soup varies by region -- some even put seaweed in it -- but a common variation uses green beans, lilium bulbs, pearl barley, and sugar. Add some glutinous rice and it becomes another popular food in summer: green bean congee.
Health benefits: It’s good for your stomach, eases edema, bloating, and acne conditions. All in all, drinking green bean soup is seen as a natural way to cleanse and revitalize your system.
Almost every convenience store has green bean soup. This brand (pictured) has been around since I was a kid. They make the simplest variation of green bean soup, and it only costs 5rmb.
龟苓膏 & 烧仙草 - Guilinggao & Shao Xiancao
History: Technically, these aren't drinks, they're jellies, but Guilinggao (and Shao Xiancao) can be seen at almost every milk tea shop, and both are really popular for cooling off in the summer. The former, Guilinggao, can be traced back 800 years to two imperial physicians who improved on an even older recipe by adding powdered turtle shell to an ancient mesona chinensis benth (Xiancao) concoction.
Ingredients: Although it no longer uses powdered tortoise shells, Guilinggao, also known as "tortoise jelly", is made with Chinese roots smilax glabra (tu fu ling, 土茯苓), rehmannia root, honeysuckle flowers, Chinese mesona, dandelion, and a variety of herbs.
Health benefits: Guilinggao has long been praised for its effectiveness in improving skin conditions and digestion, thus it has become a favorite of many young ladies and is marketed as such. The various herbs in Guilinggao and Shao Xiancao also help cure mouth ulcers. It tastes a bit bitter but pleasant and is often served with honey or condensed milk to enhance the flavor.
Guilinggao at local supermarkets usually looks like this, accompanied with honey or creamer. The price is around 6rmb to 8rmb. We would recommend an older brand called Zhi Zhonghe (致中和).
大麦茶 - Damaicha, Roasted Barley Tea
History: Roasted barley tea is a common summer beverage in China, Japan, and Korea. It’s said that the Japanese created it back in the fifteenth century, but there’s also different stories about its origin in both China and Korea. One Chinese recipe is said to have been created by factory workers from Tsingdao Brewery, who have ready access to lots of barley and, therefore, the resources to make a summer drink. Anyhow, its history is as long as, if not longer than, green bean soup, as it also appeared in the Compendium of Materia Medica.
Ingredients: Roasted barley and boiling water. That's it. Unlike Suanmeitang, even though it’s commonly served in Chinese restaurants, there aren't that many bottled roasted barley tea brands available at local supermarkets. Maybe it seems a bit lower-class to young hipster Chinese?
Health benefits: It has antioxidant properties and is caffeine and tannin-free, so it’s one of the few teas that won’t leave any tea stains on your teeth or in the cup. Aside from its cooling effect, it also helps digestion, prevents tooth and throat problems, and cardiovascular diseases.
There are some bottled Damaicha available, but we’d prefer to make it directly from roasted barley tea bags. It has a hint of sweetness and very mild peaty flavor -- a sugar-free, good alternative for plain water.
冬瓜茶 - Dongguacha, winter melon punch
History: Winter melon, that mysterious big melon with deep green skin and white pulp that barely has any taste, made its name in East Asia as a cooling punch. Technically, Dongguacha is not a tea, but a winter melon-flavored sugar water. It has over a hundred years of history in Taiwan, and it bears the honor of being “Taiwan’s national tea treasure”. The recipe of winter melon punch was recorded in the oldest pharmacy monograph Shennong Bencaojing, written between 200 and 250 AD. It's been around. Nowadays, you can find it in the fridge at the local convenience store. Or as a melon punch cube (pictured).
Ingredients: Most varieties have winter melon and brown sugar.
Health benefits: It’s a healthy drink throughout the year, a natural way to stay hydrated, detox your liver and lungs, good for easing heat rash, and sore throat.
We bought this winter melon punch cube on Amazon.cn for 22.5rmb/550g, it’s from Tainan, made with watermelon and cane sugar. It's a bit hard to crack it but smells fantastic.
菊花茶 - Juhuacha, Chrysanthemum tea
History: Chrysanthemum is China’s "Top 10 Most Famous Flower" -- an accolade indeed -- and it appears in both the Compendium of Materia Medica and the Shennong Bencaojing, two very important ancient cocktails guides. Chrysanthemum tea dates back to the Qing Dynasty and is well-known for it's beauty as it blooms in your glass. There's lots of variations and it's widely available.
Ingredients: Dried chrysanthemum flowers and sugar.
Health benefits: Chrysanthemum tea is said to be great for enhancing eyesight, thus it's favored by a lot of office workers who stare at computer screens all day. Aside from it’s cooling effect, it also aids in easing your sore throat and fever, and it contains anti-oxidants which can be good for your skin.
The one we used here is chrysanthemum buds (taijv, 胎菊). If the chrysanthemum had bloomed more than once, then the bloom itself is called hang baijv (杭白菊) -- not as good as taijv. Taijv taste sweet and gentle and doesn’t need to be served with sugar.
金银花露 - Jinyinhualu, Honeysuckle water
History: As one of the most common healing herbs in China, the origin of honeysuckle water has long been lost to the tides of history. As far as we know, the Shennong Bencaojing has documented its health benefits, and the Compendium of Materia Medica dubs it jin yin hua (gold silver flower) and praises its cooling effects. So people has been using it for health maintenance since at least Qin and Han dynasties.
Ingredients: Honeysuckle and water. Straight. No chaser.
Health benefits: Honeysuckle water is considered to be good at clearing toxins, thus most frequently used to cure heat rashes for children. It’s also helpful if you have a fever or sore throat. Like a lot of herbal medications, it can defy aging and help weight loss.
Honeysuckle water can be easily found at local supermarkets and drugstores for about 8 - 12rmb. The one we had here was purchased at a drugstore. It has a strong honeysuckle flavor and tastes very sweet.
银耳百合汤 - Yiner Baihe Tang, Lilium bulbs and tremella fuciformis soup
History: Like honeysuckle water, it’s hard to say when this popular summer soup recipe first appeared in our kitchens. Lilium bulbs and tremella fuciformis soup (sometimes we add lotus seeds) is a famous Han dessert. It’s served often at weddings too, for its name resembles the blessing word "百年好合" (happily ever after).
Ingredients: Lilium bulbs, tremella fuciformis, jujube, dried longan, and rock sugar.
Health benefits: Good for cough relief and asthma due to its effect on clearing lungs, and it’s also beneficial to the stomach and digestion.
We got this simpler version from a Chinese fast-food chain for 6rmb. It only has tremella fuciformis (white wood ear, 白木耳) and jujube. It tastes alright for a dessert.
I mean for 6rmb you can't really ask for more, can you?