As foreigners in China, it is easy to be, as many of my friends would say, ‘tricked’ into buying cakes and other desserts. It only takes a few delusional purchases to realize that recognizable desserts taste very different in China. Of course cakes in China will never be same as those abroad, but following a lot of negative dessert anger, it was time Chinese dessert got a mascot. When satisfying your sweet tooth, don’t choose the look-a-likes, embrace the local options.
The most typical ingredients for Chinese desserts are glutinous rice and sweet bean pastes, as seen across other Asian cuisines. These desserts are also all rising in popularity across the world, starting with a spread through East and Southeast Asia.
Tanghulu (糖葫芦) is a common and very traditional Chinese treat consisting of fruit (often Chinese hawthorn, but also mandarins, strawberries or kiwi) on skewers covered in a sugar glaze and sold on the streets. The name means ‘sugar bottle gourd’, and newer versions can be found with a chocolate coating, or with sesame sprinkles in addition to the sugar glaze.
Tangyuan (汤圆) is a soup like dessert made from glutinous rice flour mixed with small amounts of water to form balls, which is then cooked again and served in boiling water. It comes in various sizes, and is often eaten during the lantern festival (Yuanxiao),during the winter solstice, (Dongzhi), or during wedding ceremonies. Its name represents family union, and is thus also popular during family events. In Southern China, sweet fillings are preferred while in the North, fillings are more savory, with ingredients ranging from minced meat to vegetables. I’m definitely in favor of the sweet version – especially the kind that is found in Sichuanese restaurants. It pairs with spicy food wonderfully.
3) Almond jelly (also called almond tofu)
With roots in Cantonese cooking, Almond jelly (杏仁豆腐) has a deceiving name as it is usually made using apricot kernels rather than almonds, and does not contain any soy beans. It is found in most dim sum restaurants, generally topped off with wolfberries. Its popularity has spread to neighboring countries such as Japan, Malaysia and Singapore.
4) Dragon’s beard candy
Dragon’s beard candy (龙须糖), or Chinese cotton candy, is a handmade traditional art form with roots that reach deep into China’s ancient past. It is similar to spun sugar, and is known for its rich and sweet flavour, but has a chewy texture. It has to be eaten quickly though, as it is very sensitive to temperatures as well as increases in moisture. Dragon’s beard candy was also popular at the Korean royal court, and has spread in popularity around the world in recent years. This dessert is also incredible to watch being made; there ain’t nothing quite like it!
5) Grass jelly
Grass jelly (仙草), or liangfen, is not to be confused with the Chinese starch jelly dessert, which is also called liangfen. Grass jelly is made by boiling the stalks of a mint-like plant in potassium carbonate with a little starch, and then allowing the whole mixture to cool down to room temperature. It has a slightly bitter taste, and is often served with soy milk, chilled in a bowl, and sometimes topped off with fruit. It is also often used in bubble tea but I like mine is simple fruit teas.
6) Tortoise jelly (also called guilinggao)
Tortoise jelly (龟苓膏) started off as medicine, but is also served as a dessert. It is traditionally made from a powdered plastron, or the bottom shell of a turtle. It no longer contains any turtle shell (well not when sold commercially, thank god), but has retained its medicinal legacies. Guilinggao is said to be good for one’s skin and complexion, and supposedly helped the ancient Tongzhi Emperor cure his smallpox.
7) Custard tarts
Custard tarts (蛋挞) are very popular with foreigners and mainlanders alike. As they originated in Portugese-occupied Macau, they are extremely compatible with European tastes. They are sold on the street and in smaller bakeries, and are also popular in Macau and Guangdong restaurants. I admit, I even like the ones at KFC’s.
8) Black sesame soup
Black sesame soup (黑芝麻糖) is typically sold hot, containing crushed black sesame seeds in a flour form. This dish sometimes also contains the earlier mentioned tangyuan. It can also be found in supermarkets in an instant powder, you just have to add hot water. In traditional Chinese medicine, sesame is used to warm the body, replenish blood, relax the bowels and nourish hair. It is said to help with anemia, constipation, dizziness and tinnitus, although some people may find that the black color puts them off.
9) Red bean soup
Red bean soup (红豆汤) has a sweet taste, is extremely popular in China and contains red beans, longan, sago and pandan leaves. It is also very popular in Cantonese cuisine, being made a bit differently with rock sugar, sun-dried tangerine, mandarin peels and lotus seeds. It is often served as a dessert at the end of a restaurant or banquet meal.
Douhua (豆花) is a Chinese dessert made with soft tofu, originating in China’s Western Han dynasty. It takes on a different taste depending on where in China you area as each region has adapted it. For instance, in the North, it is eaten with soy sauce, in Sichuan, it is made without sugar and eaten with chilli oil, soy sauce, Sichuan pepper, scallions and nuts, in Hubei it is made only with sugar and in Cantonese kitchens it is served with sweet ginger or a clear syrup, sometimes as a mixture with black bean paste or with coconut milk.
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Keywords: glutinous rice; sweet bean pastes; Dragon’s beard candy Chinese desserts
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I am not sure what it is called but I like it when they get the melted sugar and run it of a spoon to make patterns. I only are it once, i enjoyed watching it be made more. I think most people have experienced the suprise of seeing something with chocolate then upon taking a bite realising it was red bean. Not bad if you are expecting it but a let down if you were expecting chocolate.
Apr 28, 2014 07:45 Report Abuse
I like eating some of these Chinese desserts for my breakfast, late lunch, early dinner and midnight snacks options though I want to make it clear I don't take them all in one day. I tried to improve on them to enjoy them. After all, I am here in China to immerse in their culture. 2 cups of Guilinggao with or without honey for my breakfast, good for skin and good for losing weight; Tangyuan cooked in soymilk or coconut cream for late lunch; red bean soup (boiled red beans, lotus seeds, cubed sweet potatoes, sago with soy milk or coconut milk) for after-class late lunch; Douhua (soft tofu with soy sauce, spicy vinegar, dried small shriimps, scallions, ginger) with boiled tea eggs, skewered tofu and Taiwanese sausages for early dinner; and Guilinggao (again!) for midnight snacks.
Feb 21, 2015 12:07 Report Abuse
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