Before and afters
The warmer weather has brought durians to fruit vendors, supermarket aisles and dessert shops across town. The spiky fruit is served in many ways, including with shaved ice, in a pudding (similar to panna cotta) and in cr?pes filled with whipped cream. But for those yet to acquire a taste for the pungent fruit, there are many other sweet things on offer.
New outlets with fresh takes on the classics are drawing in as many pudding lovers as older establishments touting more traditional desserts.
Five Guys Desserts burst onto the already-crowded dessert scene in 2009 with Taiwanese shaved ice. Machines glide across large blocks of flavoured ice, shaving long, sweet slices, a far cry from the old-style gnarly pebbles of flavourless ice topped with syrup. Five Guys, like rivals Honeymoon Dessert and Lucky Dessert, has grown rapidly into a chain of 14 outlets in Hong Kong.
'About 15 years ago, younger people were interested only in Western desserts, such as cake and ice cream,' says dessert lover Cathy Chan Kit-lam, a mother of two. 'Tong shui po [sweet soup eateries] were for the older generation.'
Traditionally, Cantonese desserts consist mainly of sweet soups, that can be herbal, often taking longer to make, or made up of ingredients that are easy to get a hold of, such as mung beans or eggs. As with all foods, the Cantonese always consider the effect of the ingredients on the body, whether the effects are medicinal or otherwise. For example, a classic quick dessert of dried tofu skins, eggs and rock sugar, is commonly eaten after barbecues as it is thought to be able to cool down internal heat.
The most common sugars used in these are rock sugar and slabs of compressed brown sugar, although honey and the natural sweetness of ingredients such as dried dates are also employed, and they tend to be less sweet than Western desserts, especially those which rely on sugar for the physical structure of the result, such as zabaglione or sponge cakes.
Five Guys sells an egg pudding that is steamed inside egg shells. Serving slightly more expensive desserts than its competitors, it aims to excite diners with new ideas. 'We were inspired by a savoury Chinese dish, which has egg steamed with mushrooms inside eggshells,' says Antony Wong Kar-wah, one of the five founders of Five Guys Desserts.
On a busy day, the Causeway Bay branch sells more than 1,000 of these desserts. Another popular item on the menu is chocolate lava cake. While more expensive than many Cantonese desserts, it's still cheaper than at mid-to-high-end restaurants, where lava cake is usually found.
Five Guys' menu moves seamlessly from East to West, and includes everything in between.
Tong shui, or sweet soup, has long been a part of Cantonese cuisine, with classic offerings such as mung bean, red bean, or sweet potato and ginger. Many classic sweet soups are made from nuts that are ground into a paste. Lucky Desserts' chestnut soup and almond milk follows that method and uses no additives or fillers. Tong yuen, glutinous rice balls that are filled with ground, sweetened black sesame, are traditionally served in a simple ginger soup.
Lucky Desserts also makes soft tofu (or tofu fa), another classic Cantonese dessert, adding fruit such as whole mango cheeks.
Some of its most popular desserts reference Southeast Asian tastes. Taking a leaf out of the Thai recipe book, it sells coconut milk with sago and pomelo, served like a cold soup with a big scoop of mango or durian puree - quite possibly Hong Kong's favourite dessert fruits.
At one time the quintessential Hong Kong summer dessert was leung fun, also known as grass jelly. Its flavour and inky hue come from Mesona chinensis, a member of the mint family that is seen to have cooling properties in Chinese medicine. With a light herbal fragrance, it has a subtle flavour and is usually eaten with syrup.
Two or three decades ago, chefs began putting colourful and elaborately cut fruits on top of the dull black cubes of jelly. The now-closed B Tsai Kee in Yuen Long was famous for its 'more is more' constructions - watermelon balls, strawberries, cubes of kiwi fruit and mangoes carved into diamond-shaped chunks - stacked into a colourful pyramid atop a bowl of grass jelly.
Aside from satisfying one's sweet tooth, some Chinese desserts have a medicinal role. Yee Shun Dairy Company's steamed milk puddings, called sheung pei nai, are considered skin tonics. Another pudding, geung tsup jong nai, is good for people with colds and particularly nourishing in the winter months. It is made by mixing ginger juice and warm milk, which coagulate into a smooth curd. Yee Shun also makes chocolate milk puddings.
While milk is not a common part of the southern Chinese diet, Daliang in Guangdong province is famous for its dairy cows. From there, the popularity of milk desserts spread across the region.
Yuen Kee Desserts, which was established in 1855, serves song gei sung cha, a sweet herbal tea featuring song gei sung, or mulberry mistletoe. The most popular version comes with slow-cooked dried lotus seeds and a hard-boiled egg. 'It's supposed to help keep your blood pressure down, and it's good for pregnant women, too,' says Grace Lee Ka-man, who visits the shop at least once a month. 'The herbal flavours are subtle, and it's sweet, unlike Chinese medicine,' she says.
That dessert can be beneficial to one's health may seem counterintuitive, but Mak Tak-sim, founder of Tung Tak Sim Tibet Cordyceps, believes food is the answer to all health problems. Tung Tak Sim specialises in Chinese food therapy - using food to help the body regain a natural balance. Mak explains: 'Most foods we eat nowadays are grown too quickly and with too many pesticides and fertilisers, so we are not getting all the nutrition we need. Many roots and herbs found in the wild make good substitutes for what's lacking in a modern person's normal diet.'
When sudden kidney failure left Mak, a chemical engineer, bedridden and weak from the side effects of medication, he tried to make himself strong using a tonic soup. He combined his chemical research with food with some surprising results. 'The right foods break down and purge toxins, restore our cells and provide them with nutrition,' he says.
Most Chinese dessert shops serve black sesame soup and instant forms can be found in supermarkets, but Tung Tak Sim's version includes ingredients such as Chinese knotweed, dried longan and gingko nuts, and its porridge-like consistency comes from ground sesame. It is cooked in a bain-marie for about six hours 'to ensure the nutritious elements aren't destroyed by high, direct heat', says Mak, and it is sweetened only with honey. 'Sesame is rich in calcium, and longan, for example, is very good for one's kidneys.'
Be it beneficial to one's health or a guilty pleasure, dessert is nearly always a proposition met with glee - that is, unless it includes durian.
Indulge your sweet tooth and make yourself at home
Almond cream (pictured)
190g large Chinese almonds
38g small Chinese almonds
2.5 litres water
- Soak large and small almonds in water for four hours. (Chinese almonds are actually apricot kernels: the large ones are sweet, the small ones bitter.)
- Drain and blend the almonds with 500ml of water until smooth and soft.
- Bring the remaining water and almond puree to the boil and simmer over a medium heat for 10 minutes.
- Add the sugar, stirring occasionally until thickened.
Chilled mango pudding
4 large, fresh mangoes
30g unflavoured gelatin powder or 5 leaves
225g white sugar
360ml warm water
450g ice cubes
150ml fresh cream
- Skin, stone and dice the mangoes.
- Melt the gelatin in warm water, bring to the boil, add the sugar and stir well to dissolve. Remove from the stove.
- Add the mango and ice, stir until all the ice has melted.
- Mix the cream with the gelatin and mango.
- Pour into a mould or a glass. Refrigerate until the mixture is firm.
Green tea pudding
7.5g Japanese green tea powder
720g white sugar
100ml fresh cream
100ml fresh milk
120ml coconut milk
15g unflavoured gelatin powder
- Melt gelatin and green tea powder in warm water and bring to the boil, add sugar and stir well.
- Remove from the stove.
- Add fresh cream, fresh milk, coconut milk and ice, stir until the ice has melted.
- Pour into a container and refrigerate until the mixture is set.
Recipes courtesy of One Harbour Road