Thirst-Waters: China’s Cool Soft Drinks

[name and email redacted]
King's and Queen's Arts and Sciences Championship, AS LIII

While reading Compendium of Essential Arts for Family Living[1], an anonymous Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) cookbook and household manual, I came across a curious section of 渴水 “thirst waters.”  These are generally fruit syrups which are then diluted into water and drunk as a cool, or sometimes warm, drink.  Even more interestingly, most sources that discuss thirst waters mention that they are called in foreign lands to the west as “sharbats,” the name for the Central Asian drink of the same type.  These beverages seem to arrive in China with the Mongols, and represent an interesting new addition to Chinese cuisine.

I set out to prepare a sample of thirst-waters from recipes, poems, and titles, as well as a very similar roughly contemporary sharbat from the Levant for comparison, in order to explore this drink and its huge geographic range.

Historical Context

While the history of rice wines and teas are better known, other drinks became especially popular in the 13th century  at the end of the Song dynasty as contact with the Mongols increased.  They were sold, iced, in Hangzhou and Kaifeng during the Song dynasty.[2]  They seem to have been particularly popular with the Mongol ruling classes that succeeded the Song - scented with expensive perfumes - but were likely drunk by other classes of society as well, so long as they had access to honey or rock sugar.

Most of the Chinese recipe sources are kind enough to tell us that these are foreign, and that those dirty Mongols call them some variant of she-li-bet.  Compendium gives us 攝里白 which in Middle Chinese is something like “syep li baek”[3], 18th century-but-probably-plagiarized-from-earlier Corrections to the Bencao Gangmu[4] gives 舍里別 “syae li pjet” and Yuan dynasty medical text The Elaborations from the Narrow Room[5] tells us “that which we call 舍利別 ‘syae lij pyet’ is all the juice from seasonal fruits, simmered to syrup and then drunk.”  More recipes can be found in Important Principles of Food and Drink[6] - a Mongolian medical dietary text - among others.  It’s clear that these had at least some medicinal use, since they show up in Important Principles, and Elaborations rails against them from the perspective of a doctor.  Legend has it that sharbat was popular among Mongols because Ghengis Khan’s fourth son was healed with it after the conquest of Samarqand.[7]  Corrections also says that sharbats are “medicinal fruit.”

While they were introduced to China via the Mongols, sharbats actually are members of a much broader tradition, reaching as far west as Andalusia as sekanjabin: sweet and sour syrups diluted into water to drink.

The Thirst-Waters


These recipes and their source texts are all provided in the appendix.  All are Chinese except for the final recipe.  I’ve included a redaction here for brevity.  Where unspecified, I used an aluminum pot over a gas stove.  Stoves were well known in China[8], but of course aluminum was not.  Slow boiling is little affected by the vessel, and the aluminum should impart no flavor in the absence of extreme acid.[9]  A more appropriate vessel would be pottery.[10]

Five-Flavor Berry

Take northern five-flavor berries.  Pour boiling water over them and let soak overnight.  Simmer the juice down and add a small amount of soymilk.  Add honey until it’s sweet and sour, and simmer for two hours.  Serve cool or warm.

Five-flavor berry[11] (Schisandra chinensis) is a gooseberry-like fruit from Northern China said to contain all five Chinese flavors: bitter, sour, sweet, pungent and salty.[12]  It is available from Chinese grocers dried, and I suspect was also used dried given that the recipe works so well to rehydrate it.

I do not fully understand why the soymilk is used, but I have prepared some from dried soybeans.  Tofu is documented by the 10th century[13], and by the 13th century was well established.  Soymilk is an intermediate product in the production of tofu, and I’ve followed the first part of the earliest tofu recipe, from 1596:[14]

Soak the beans, grind them, filter the milk, cook the milk.


Crush fresh grapes and take the juice.  Boil over a slow fire until thick.  Cook and store in a non-metallic vessel.  Possibly serve with honey, rosewood[15] or sandalwood[16] powder, borneol, and musk.

Grape sharbat is also mentioned in The Elaborations from the Narrow Room[17]

Grapes (Vitis vinifera) were not present in ancient China,[18] but arrived from Central Asia in the Han dynasty (202 BCE - 220 CE)[19] and become popular during the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE).[20]  They were mostly grown in the western regions.  I manually destemmed zinfandel[21] grapes and crushed them with my feet as part of wine making, and reserved a few cups for this syrup.  While in period this would likely have been boiled in a clay pot on a stove,[22] because my quantity was very small, I used a glass beaker over a stove.  The instruction to avoid metal is because the acid will attack the metal - ceramics and glass are non-reactive.

I have a solution of rosewood oil, borneol, and ambrette seeds (a period musk simulant[23] - musk is from an endangered species of deer) in rice wine, which you may add to your beverage.  Using rice wine as a carrier is conjecture, and an adaptation to not having actual musk, or powdered rosewood.  I believe that the perfumes were added directly, at serving time, but the ambrette seeds need to be dissolved in something, and pre-mixing is convenient.  The rice wine is fairly neutral in flavor, although it contributes an aroma.


Take Chinese Quinces and peel and pit them.  Slice one part by weight into 1” square thin slices.  Add it to 3-5 parts cleaned honey and simmer for 4-6 hours, not allowing it to boil over, and removing any foam.  Add more honey so that it is between sweet and tart.  It should form flexible strands.

Chinese quinces (Pseudocydonia sinensis) are known since ancient times, mostly in Northern China.[24]  Because they are not cultivated in the US, I have used western quinces (Cydonia oblonga), which are similar (although I have not found Chinese quinces and cannot directly evaluate the similarity), and hard enough to find.  Quinces turn a beautiful red when cooked.  Because my quinces were sweet enough, I only used 3 parts honey.

The recipe instructs you to be careful not to burn it.  I still obtained some caramelized flavors similar to making a bochet (caramelized honey mead), but it is not clear if this is what is intended.  Still, if the author had to say “don’t do this,” one can be sure that it happened in period.


Reconstructions from poetry are inherently inaccurate; however, the following poem fits so well with the above recipes that I feel reasonably confident using it.  While poems may of course be figurative, I think this poem is using a literal depiction of making a beverage as a literary devices to set a scene around.


Lingnan Good-for-“Meng” Fresh Thirst-Water Poem

Guangzhou’s garden tender brings forth thirst-water

heaven’s winds, summer heat, good-for-“meng” fruit

a hundred flowers brewed into sweet dew-syrup

In the southern garden, boiled to red dragon marrow [possibly resin from Dipterocarpaceae, called “dragon essence fragrance trees” in Chinese]

This Yuan dynasty[25] poem hints at a recipe: the juice of good-for-“meng” fruit, boiled with honey (the hundred flowers brewed[26] into a sweet dew-syrup) until red.  What’s that fruit?

I think it’s a lemon.  The characters used are similar[27], and it seems that Yuan and Ming dynasty (1368-1644) authors couldn’t settle on a specific character but they’re all “meng.”  This is half of the modern word for lemon in Chinese, but another variant is “limeng,” which closely matches the Persian لیمو "limun."[28]

The 1785 text Corrections to the Bencao Gangmu[29] tells us that this fruit is “similar to a tangerine, but sour,” and that the fruit was used by Kublai Khan for hot beverages.  Or, “similar to an orange, but ripening in the second and third months, yellow, and very sour, and eaten with gusto by pregnant women”.  It also says that the Yuan court planted 800 trees of it in the Bay of Litchis in Guangzhou for the purpose of making thirst-waters to help with the summer heat.  It then explains that this specific poem means to simmer the juice of “li mu” in sugar, and that thirst-waters and sharbat are the same thing, and that the fruit juice can replace vinegar in recipes.  He also clearly plagiarized the story from one of several earlier sources[30], which probably copied it from somebody else.  The earliest reference I can find to the Bay of Litchis story is 17th Century.[31]

How helpful!  This is a post-period commentator but I have seen no sources providing contrary information.  I boiled 350g of linden[32] honey until dark like dragon marrow, and then simmered with an equal volume (about a cup) of lemon juice.  I chose these quantities to arrive at a sweet-and-tart finish.  It has an interesting set of toffee flavors due to the caramelization which are similar to the quince syrup, but very little lemon character.  More like an herbal tea to me.

Just Titles

13th century text Random Notes from the Martial Forest[33] contains a list of several thirst-waters, as does Yuan dynasty medical text The Elaborations from the Narrow Room, which says that they’re bad for you and in the process tells us that these flavors - cherry, apricot, Chinese strawberries, mulberry - existed, and were at least sometimes drunk hot.  These titles provide room for future explorations, since we do not have explicit recipes for them.

Kitab Wasf al-At’imah al-Mu’tada

One part quince juice and 3 parts filtered syrup, in both of which you have boiled pieces of quince until nearly done.  They are taken up, and the syrup takes its consistency.  To every pound of the whole you add two ounces of lemon juice.  Then return the pieces of quince; they improve the consistency.  It is scented with musk, saffron, and rose-water and taken up and used.

The Description of Familiar Foods[34] is an Egyptian or Levantine cookbook from the 12th or 13th century and contains a quince syrup very similar to the Chinese recipes, as well as many recipes which use vinegar as their acid and are more standard sekanjabin.  I based my reconstruction on the work of Ysolte Tayler of Windhill.[35]

While one reading of the recipe is to separately produce quince juice (by boiling quinces) and use that with new quinces, I opted to be more conservative, and boiled one quince in a liter of water, and three in three liters with 4 pounds of sugar to make a syrup.  I combined the two and added the juice of 4 pounds of lemons (initially targeting 16 ounces to match the recipe, but the second half of the lemons was juicier than I expected and I got 24 ounces of juice), and cooked for about 4 hours.  I did not add musk because I was only able to obtain a few musk seeds, and my attempts to grow them did not succeed.  I also feared that they would be drowned out by the existing flavors, and so would be a waste of ingredients.

This recipe produced a much more floral syrup, even before adding rose water.  Perhaps boiling in honey is too harsh?  The byproduct, poached quinces, is also delightful.

Appendix 1 Recipes

Compendium of Essential Arts for Family Living


Chinese Strawberry [Myrica rubra] Thirst-Water


Take some number of Chinese strawberries and press them and take the free-flowing juice.  Strain it until it’s completely clean.  Put it in a sandstone vessel and boil over a slow fire until thick.  Drip into water so that it is not dispersed.  If you do not boil fully, it will sprout a white pellicle.  Store in a clean vessel.  When appropriate, for every jin of strawberry juice [probably pre-boil], add three jin of clean honey, and some borneol and musk.  Warm or cold as appropriate.  If you do not have honey, you may equally use four jin of rock sugar boiled in water.


Chinese Quince [Pseudocydonia sinensis, possibly papaya Carica papaya] Thirst-Water


Take some number of Chinese quince.  Remove the skins, pith and seeds.  Proportionately, take one jin of the cleaned meat.  Cut it into one-cun square thin slices.  First add three jin of honey or four or five.  Boil over a slow fire in a sandstone silver vessel and then filter.  Then, add the quince slices as before.  If when boiling, foam appears, immediately remove it.  Simmer for 4-6 hours.  Taste it, and if it’s sour, add honey.  You want it to be between sweet and sour.  Ladle it out into a cold vessel.  When cold, then ladle it again.  The honey should be thick and hard like threads that do not snap - use this as judgement.  If the fire is too hot, it will burn, and boil over, and not taste as good.  Therefore, scorching will make a burned odor.  But if you use a slow fire it will be good.


Five-Flavor Thirst-Water


Take in proportion one liang of the meat from northern five-flavor fruit [Schisandra chinensis].  Soak in water at a rolling boil and let steep [off the heat] overnight.  Take the juice and simmer it together, and add thick bean juice until it is the right color.   Add well-refined honey so that it’s sweet and sour.  Boil over a slow fire for perhaps two hours.  Serve cool or warm.


Grape Thirst-Water


Take some quantity of fresh grapes.  Crush them and strain off the dregs so that it’s clean.  Boil over a slow fire.  Use thickness as a signal.  Take it out and store it in a clean stoneware vessel.  By no means put it in a copper or iron vessel.  If the grapes are [already] cooked, you may not use them.  When done, you may make wine with it.  When the time approaches, consider adding refined honey and rosewood [Dalbergia hupeana, D. odorifera, or sandalwood Santalum album] powder, and a little borneol and musk.

Random Notes from the Martial Forest


Cooling Waters


















  1. Sweet bean soup
  2. Coconut “wine”
  3. Bean flower water
  4. Pyrus calleryana broth
  5. Brined Prunus mume water
  6. Ginger honey water
  7. Chinese quince [Chaenomeles speciosa] water
  8. Tea water
  9. Aquilaria wood water
  10. Litchi paste water
  11. Bitter water
  12. Golden tangerine rounds
  13. Snow-foam strained skin drink
  14. Prunus mume flower wine
  15. Vietnamese balm [Elsholtzia ciliata] drink
  16. Five-ling [name for a variety of plants including cocklebur and licorice] greatly soothing solute
  17. Shiso [Perilla frutescens] drink

Elaborations from the Narrow Room



Someone said: “Is sherbet not always medicinal broth?  Its aroma is fragrant and pungent, sweet and sour, too extreme for it from the start?  What is it that, without sherbet, we will not attain?”


I said: “That which we call sherbet, is all the juice from seasonal fruits, simmered to syrup and then drunk.


Thick, it is excessive, but blended with boiling water, the people of the south call it “the flavor or white simmering,” and although it is beautifully sweet, its nature is not neutral, rather, it is like a golden cherry [cherry: Prunus pseudocerasus].


Simmering it reduces urination.


We simmer apricots [Prunus armenaica], Chinese Strawberries [Myrica rubra], grapes, and cherries and cause a cold.


Fire accumulates, and arrive at last, a disaster of wet and heat.


It has something indescribable.  Only simmering mulberry fruits is without poison.


It may quench, but as for the excesses of its good flavor, it laughingly commits a crime alongside.


Is this natural?  Or not?

First Selection of Yuan Poems

This poem is attested in a number of sources, although many of them seem to be copying the older ones in turn.  This is the earliest attestation I could find of the poem.


Scrolls 42-43


Lingnan Good-for-“Meng” Fresh Thirst-Water Poem


Guangzhou’s garden tender brings forth thirst-water


heaven’s winds, summer heat, good-for-“meng” fruit


a hundred flowers brewed into sweet dew-syrup


In the southern garden, boiled to red dragon marrow [possibly resin from Dipterocarpaceae, called “dragon essence fragrance trees” in Chinese]


We remove to eat high in the palm pavilion


The Parasol Tree [Firmiana simplex] well presses the cold-blue river dry


The cypress tower’s golden stalk rises without dampness


The blue bridge jade mortar pounds the empty chill


The small ewer seal, a fragrant brocade, pours out


The sound from the surplus sacrifice in the old ding stirs the sleeping


Wine-guests’ state of mind summons wine-weapons


Tea-monks’ artistry ambushes tea-things


Cao Cao’s mouth-sourness attains that of Prunus mume[36]


The Han tomb; lungs flow; who presents a cup?


The melted-away butter has an odd smell


The pool freezes.  The mulberry sea has no dirt


All along, the summer hall evaluates the hot-broth things


The Aquilaria wood and purple Perilla frutescens are rumored to be best.[37]

Appendix 2 Photos

[1] Anonymous, 居家比用.  All Chinese texts are from, and all translations by myself.

[2] Needham, Joseph, Ling Wang, Kenneth Girdwood Robinson, Gwei-Djen Lu, Tsuen-Hsuin Tsien, Ho Ping-Yü, Nathan Sivin, et al. Science and Civilisation in China. Fermentations and Food Science, 2000, page 434.  This is a major textbook on Chinese food science.

[3] This and all other Middle Chinese representations are from Kroll, Paul W., William H. Baxter, William G. Boltz, David R. Knechtges, Y. Edmund Lien, Antje Richter, Matthias L. Richter, and Ding Xiang Warner. A Student's Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese. Brill, 2017.

[4]  趙學敏 (Zhao Xuemin 1719-1805), 本草綱目拾遺.  1765, scroll 7.

[5]  朱丹溪 (Zhu Danxi, 1281-1358), 局方發揮, #29.

[6] 忽思慧 (Hu Sihui active 1314-1330), 飲膳正要, translation from Husihui, Paul D. Buell, E. N. Anderson, and Charles Perry. A Soup for the Qan: Chinese Dietary Medicine of the Mongol Era as Seen in Hu Szu-Hui's Yin-Shan Cheng-Yao: Introduction, Translation, Commentary, and Chinese Text. Routledge, 2016.

[7], accessed November 9, 2018.  This is a news article.

[8] Needham, 80.

[9] Vargel, Christian (2004) [French edition published 1999]. Corrosion of Aluminium. Elsevier. ISBN 978-0-08-044495-6. Archived from the original on 21 May 2016.

[10] Needham, 76.

[11] Plant and animal identifications are primarily sourced from Kroll, but also include the weight of modern language usage, and some other minor sources.  The identifications in this work are broadly uncontroversial, although specifics are noted in the appendix for the curious.

[12] Needham, 91.

[13] With some mural evidence as early as the Han dynasty

[14] Needham, 303.  Translation taken directly from Needham, but from 本草綱目.

[15] Dalbergia hupeana, D. odorifera

[16] Santalum album

[17] 朱丹溪 (Zhu Danxi 1281-1358), #29.

[18] Needham, 44.

[19] Needham, 53

[20] Needham, 241.

[21] Zinfandel dates back at least to the 18th century, and is relatively easy to obtain as fresh, whole grapes.  Mine came ultimately from Lodi, CA, and probably had more sugar and less acid than period viticulture would produce.  I do not have access to specifically Chinese grape varieties such as the Tang dynasty “Mare’s Teat” or “Grass Dragon Pearl.” (Needham, 241)

[22] Needham, 81.

[23] King, Anya H. Scent from the Garden of Paradise. Musk and the Medieval Islamic World, 2017.  11.

[24] Needham, 49.

[25] Compiled under First Selection of Yuan Poems 元詩選初集 from 1784.  The oldest reference I can find to it is The Stone Granary Collection of Poems from the Ages 石仓历代诗选 by 曹学佺 (1574-1646).  I wound up having to inspect the scans manually and corrected many transcription errors.

[26] In Chinese, bees 釀 “ferment, brew” honey.

[27] [氵+𫎇] and 朦 from Corrections, [氵+𫎇] from First Selection, 檬 from Yunnan Notes (李調元 (1734-1803), 南越筆記), and Yunnan Narrative Anthology (嶺南叢述, unknown provenance) and Guangdong New Speech, which is the second half of the modern word for lemon.  These are all transcriptions of the same poem.


[29] 趙學敏 (Zhao Xuemin), scroll 7.

[30] The same sources as in the footnote on character variations.

[31] 屈大均 (Qu Dajun 1630-1696), Guangdong New Speech 廣東新語, scroll 25 #76.

[32] Tilia species are found throughout the northern hemisphere, and while I’m sure I have an American species’ honey, it’s reasonably close.

[33] 周密 (1232-1298), 武林旧事, scroll 6.

[34] Translation by Charles Perry in Rodinson, Maxime, and A. J. Arberry. Medieval Arab Cookery = Al-Ṭabīkh Al-ʻArabī fī Al-ʻuṣūr Al-wusṭá. Prospect Books, 2006.


[36] A reference to this story.

[37] Possibly a reference to a survey in the time of Song Renzong that judged hot perilla water to be the best, text #97, which is some kind of medicinal treatise.