This past weekend, relatives from many cities, including Hong Kong, Singapore and New York gathered in Toronto for a big reunion. It was four nights of dinners (plus one luncheon hosted by yours truly) featuring three nights of Asian food (two nights of Chinese and one of Chinese inspired Japanese) and one catered by DelectablyChic! food contributor, Elizabeth Hill. Two of the three Asian meals were multi-course Chinese banquets featuring very typical desserts, while the last was Japanese-influenced Chinese, with Hong Kong/semi-western style desserts. Chinese desserts, you ask? Yes, they definitely exist (anyone who tells you they don’t is a liar), though typically, there isn’t much to choose from. Most banquets tend to serve the same thing…red bean soup.
Red bean soup (hong dao sah or hong dao jook in Cantonese), like most Chinese desserts, is served hot and is made with red azuki beans, sweetened with rock sugar. The beans are cooked in water, but sometimes, coconut milk is added to the dish to give it a creamier texture. As red is considered the colour of luck in most Eastern cultures, one would always see red bean soup at weddings and birthdays. This dessert is not very sweet to the western palette and some people might find the texture a little bit mushy.
Speaking of birthdays, rather than cake, Chinese restaurants often serve steamed birthday buns (sao bao in Cantonese). Served in steamers, they are about the size of a ping pong ball (but shaped like a peach) and are filled with red bean paste. It isn’t nearly as sweet as western birthday cakes, however and like red bean soup, not for someone with a western style sweet tooth (my parents often complain that western style cakes from non-Chinese bakeries are much too sweet). This, along with eggs are traditional birthday dishes in many parts of China.
Another dessert that one often sees at Chinese restaurants is purple rice porridge (jee mai lo). The rice is actually black glutenous rice, not purple and the reddish shade comes from mixing the rice with either coconut milk or evaporated/condensed milk that is popular in many Hong Kong desserts and drinks. Jee mai lo is actually one of my favourites, but isn’t served as frequently as red bean soup. It’s a bit sweeter too. Texture-wise, being rice, it’s definitely grainy and perhaps a bit chewy. The rice itself isn’t sweet (actually kind of plain), but the liquid definitely is.
Chinese cookie/gelatin plates often accompany dessert soups in multi-course banquets. They usually consist of at least two choices, usually one that is an actual cookie (usually almond) and another that is at least partially made from gelatin. When I was younger, I preferred these over the more soup-like desserts, likely because of texture.
For a more modern and westernized twist, there’s ginger milk custard (geung jup jong nai). You won’t find this at most more traditional Chinese restaurants, but they’re definitely available at many cha chaan tengs and Chinese dessert houses, which are scattered throughout the Greater Toronto Area. The custard, which is made with eggs, milk, ginger and sugar, is a little like crème brûlée (or more likely, the Portuguese dessert, leite creme) in terms of texture, but without the hard top. No double boiler is needed to make this as the milk (always use full fat milk) turns into custard as it reacts with the ginger (recipe here). It’s definitely much sweeter than more conventional Chinese desserts, so if you have a more westernized palette, this is one to go for.
Have you tried any of these desserts? What are your thoughts?