Pudding lover's just deserts
DON'T worry if you have a strong craving for Chinese desserts served at traditional coffee shops or dessert houses, but you cannot understand the Chinese menus pasted on the wall. You can still try the best local desserts if you just learn a couple of phrases.
All you have to remember are a few words such as red (hung) and white (baak) - then learn to say them together.
Hung baak is an exotic mix of two Chinese desserts, red bean sweet soup (red) and beancurd pudding (white). It was invented by the dessert chef at Wah Lai Yuen in Causeway Bay, Tung Kit-hin, 32 years ago and has long been listed as its best-selling dish.
There is no complex formula necessary, just a simple equation - mixing equal proportions of red and white.
'It was just a response to the customers' requests over 30 years ago. Those young eaters always wanted to take both red bean soup and beancurd pudding at a time and I just tried to serve an equal amount of the two desserts together in a bowl to satisfy them . . . and named it with its colour hung baak,' said 69-year-old Mr Tung, who has been working at the restaurant since 1952.
Customers who have never tried this delight might find the combination a bit awkward, but they will be amazed by the unique chemical reaction the two kinds of bean undergo.
'It is a popular choice, especially among young people. The red bean has a rich aroma and the beancurd pudding is light and mild.' The dessert ($15) can be served both hot and cold, but most customers favour a cooling treat, especially in summer.
'The cold ones sell best. But we also serve it hot for the elderly as they prefer to take hot food.' Mr Tung said the shops prepared the two desserts separately every day, using an average of about 10 catties of red beans to cater for high demand.
'Hung baak sells from several hundred bowls to over a thousand bowls a day in our shop,' said Mr Tung.
Getting the right level of sweetness and richness was a key factor in determining the taste of the dessert, and Mr Tung had his own secret to get the best result.
Instead of adding syrup to the beancurd pudding just before serving, like many other shops did, Mr Tung added sugar to the soyabeans when they were cooked so the sugar could be absorbed evenly in the cooking process.
'If you add syrup after the pudding is ready, you easily get it very sweet at the bottom and too light on top,' he said.
The right amount of red bean was also essential - a generous amount to bring out the aromatic fragrance without making the dessert cloying. The two dishes, cooked for several hours and cooled down before they were stored in the fridge, were mixed in equal portion just before serving, said the chef.
For customers who want to sample a variety of colourful sweet treats, Yat Pan Chai, a small dessert house in Haven Street, is one place to head for. Not only can you find hung baak ($8), but whatever colour combinations you can think of - haak baak (black white), luk baak (green white), hung haak (red black).
'We follow our customers' requests. We try to satisfy them no matter how weird their ideas are as long as the bowl is big enough to hold it,' said Li Lau Suk-yee, owner of the dessert house. The basic choices were red bean soup, green bean soup (luk), beancurd pudding, sesame paste (haak), grass jelly, sweet wheat soup and sago soup with coconut milk.
You can order a single item on its own or a mixture of different choices.
'Beancurd pudding is the most compatible option. Its mild taste makes it a good constituent to go with anything,' said Mrs Li.
Its combination with red bean soup was still the most popular choices among those with a sweet tooth, she said. 'The particular aroma of red bean and the purity of the beancurd pudding mix really well.
'Those who dare not try it said they were afraid that eating the mixed dessert would make them sick. But you can actually take it as a kind of dessert made of two types of beans,' Mrs Li said.
'All formula of the delicious combinations were derived from random mixing and trying. We even mix three items together such as red, green with wheat.
'The wheat has a mild taste and chewy texture, and it goes fine with the other two ingredients.
'The trick is simply to mix something of a rich flavour with something delicate and light,' said Mrs Li.
Wah Lai Yuen, 3 Lan Fong Road, Causeway Bay. 2576-6335. Hours: 7 am to 11.30 pm. Yat Pan Chai, 1 Haven Street, Causeway Bay. 2895-6934. Hours: 12 noon to 12 midnight.