Fortune cookies may be the first thing you think of when it comes to sweet treats at the end of a Chinese meal. However, these curvy, crunchy cookies beholding a message of your fortune were invented in the United States. The concept of a sweet dessert end to a meal is more a direct influence of Western culture, as most Chinese sweets are served with tea or are precursors to fresh fruit that is the true mark of the meal finale.
When it comes to Chinese desserts, there are a myriad of choices from more familiar forms like cakes, tarts, pastries, puddings to jellies, shaved ice, and even hot or cold sweet soups.
Often seen at dim sum restaurants, mango pudding and almond jelly are popular chilled treats. The delicate textured mango pudding consists of mango puree, condensed milk, and agar-agar, a common thickener used in Chinese desserts, but is sometimes replaced with gelatin. Similar in preparation and texture to the all-American jello, almond jelly is cut into cubes and mixed with fruit cocktail.
The egg tart (蛋挞 or dan ta) is synonymous with dim sum. A golden yellow orb of smooth egg custard is surrounded by scalloped, flaky pastry. This dessert actually originated in Portugal and England, and found its way into Hong Kong via nearby Macau during the island’s Portuguese colonization.
Another sweet item always found at dim sum is the sesame ball (芝麻球 or zhīma qiú). These large fried balls of glutinous rice dough are recognized by their balloon-like appearance spotted with sesame seeds. The center is typically filled with either red bean, yellow bean, or lotus paste. With frying, the dough expands and hollows out its center.
Chinese Mooncakes and Sesame Balls
The time is fitting for Chinese mooncakes (中国月饼 or Zhōngguó yuèbǐng) as they are the symbol of the Mid-Autumn Festival, which just occurred in San Francisco, and is also held in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore to celebrate the autumn harvest during the full moon. Festivities around this time include gathering friends and family and sharing mooncakes, pastries enveloping different kinds of fillings with the most popular being red bean or lotus seed paste. The pastry top displays decorative detail and Chinese characters for longevity or harmony. At the center is salted duck egg yolk, symbolizing the full moon. The cake is meant to be sliced into wedges revealing a sliver of the yolk appearing like a moon.
During summer, it’s all about shaved ice (刨冰 or baobing). Similar to Italian ice or granita, it starts simply with shaved ice. In the Chinese version, toppings include condensed milk, different flavored syrups, fruit, and even adzuki red beans.
Check out some of these desserts in their traditional or inspired forms from China Live coming soon!