One Year In: What It’s Like to Live in Hong Kong (Part 4 – The Sweet Side of HK)

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Cafes, Cuisine

As my friends (and dentist) can attest, I have an unabashed sweet tooth. No matter how full I may be, I appear to magically grow a separate stomach just in time for dessert! There’s always room, and a dessert menu is always worth at least a glance. Are you with me?

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Join me, as I first explore the more local side of sweet HK!

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I didn’t think it was possible to live in a city with more bakeries and patisseries than, say, New York or Paris. But HK may be a contender at least in quantity, somewhat to my surprise. We can’t walk a block without coming across something sweet!

Sometimes, these are local shops, serving local desserts. Despite the somewhat negative stereotype that clouds mostly western perceptions about Asian desserts, HK has done little to minimize my guilty pleasure. Some of the local sweets really do hold their own. And there is a fun element of novelty, at least to Chinese-dessert-virgins (you know what I mean).

I would be hard-pressed to identify anyone who doesn’t enjoy a Hong Kong egg tart – all creamy, custardy, buttery/flaky crust goodness – in my opinion, best when fresh out of the oven and still slightly warm. And at around 4 HKD (0.50 USD), they are dangerously inexpensive. You might order just 1 your first time, but good luck sticking with that when you return!

Savoring HK egg tarts at dim sum palace, Lei Garden

Savoring HK egg tarts at dim sum palace, Lei Garden, in Wan Chai

Justly famous (and incredibly delicious) HK egg tarts from Tai Cheong Bakery - absolutely craveable!

Justly famous (and incredibly delicious) HK egg tarts from Tai Cheong Bakery in Wan Chai – absolutely craveable!

HK really loves their eggs – as proven by that other famous egg-related sweet, the egg waffle. Deceptively simple and almost banal in appearance – when prepared properly, they are slightly crispy on the outside, tender and airy on the inside (believe me, not everyone gets it right). They’re sort of the ‘bubble wrap’ of desserts – but leave the ‘popping’ for your mouth, not your fingers! I often pick up hints of vanilla and almost floral flavors, but those nuances are likely in my vivid imagination. The fun, bulbous shapes make tearing off a golden sphere almost impossible to resist – but that approach is almost pointless, as you’ll likely devour the waffle in its entirety anyway. But go ahead – tell yourself that you’re ‘just going to try a little’! I won’t betray your truth.

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Preparing to chow down on an egg waffle – puffy, crispy, tender sweetness!

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The perennially-busy Lee Keung Kee stall outside the Wan Chai MTR station, serving up street snacks including egg waffles

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Another iconic HK treat is the ‘pineapple bun’ – also deceptive, but this time because the pineapple portion is a total misnomer. It is only named that way due to its appearance – that extra-golden, puckered, crunchy top that never fails to crumble uncontrollably. The crumbs are part of the fun – but they won’t help you show off your graceful side (read: maybe not the best option for a 1st date)! The rest of the bun is softer, less sweet, and more bread-y.

In a bold, additional cholesterol-pushing move (beyond the lard that is part of the crunchy top – try to wipe that part from your memory), most cha chaan tengs (super casual Chinese tea restaurants) serving pineapple buns aren’t content to leave them be – but instead insert a slab (not a mere sliver) of butter to melt inside. In my opinion, just a touch of butter does the job, though – if you even need it.

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Crunchy-topped ‘pineapple buns’ (named so only for their appearance) from Kam Fung in Wan Chai

Continuing in the theme of oddly named sweets, ever tried ‘dragon’s beard’ candy? I liken it to a nutty version of cotton candy – airy, messy, traditional fun.

'Dragon's beard' candy, a local sweet - something akin to peanut-y cotton candy

‘Dragon’s beard’ candy, a local sweet – something akin to peanut-y cotton candy

One of the many things I love about being in HK is the discovery of novel flavors. Osmanthus has become a new favorite. If you’re not already familiar, its fragrant, sweet-smelling flowers (native to east Asia) are often dried and gently integrated into florally nuanced desserts like the simple osmanthus jelly, which also often contains wolfberries (you may know them as goji berries) and is usually a finishing touch after a belly-swelling dim sum lunch. Think of it as a more refined, prettier, tastier version of Jell-O. If you get a chance, also try osmanthus tea – it is revelatory and just may change how you perceive herbal tea.

Fragrant, floral osmanthus jelly at the famous Tim Ho Wan

Fragrant, floral osmanthus jelly at the famous Tim Ho Wan (here, the branch in Central, in the depths of the Hong Kong MTR station)

Another dim sum option is sweet buns (get your mind out of the gutter – and don’t let the image below taint your perception!). These are generally fluffy, steamed buns filled with a sweet paste, such as red bean or lotus seed. An acquired taste for many, they are a more subtle dessert option.

Peach-shaped, lotus-seed-paste filled steamed sweet buns (which I thought were pretty, 'til Mark pointed out the resemblance to diaper rash)

Peach-shaped, lotus-seed-paste filled, steamed sweet buns at the always-satisfying, insanely popular Din Tai Fung in Causeway Bay (I thought they were pretty, ’til Mark pointed out the resemblance to diaper rash!)

Cha chaan tengs and cafés also serve other local sweet treats – such as the perhaps less-pretty-but-mighty-enjoyable puddings, like the mango tapioca version below. Slightly fluorescent in color (that can’t be natural), they make for a cooling dessert in the middle of an always-intensely-hot-and-humid Hong Kong summer day.

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Less-than-pretty, but still quite tasty, chilled mango tapioca pudding

A quick story – one day months ago, I stumbled upon the Central Farmers’ Market at the Star Ferry Central Pier. A very energetic, lovely lady who spoke about as much English as I do Cantonese (unfortunately for me, about 5 words’ worth) saw me curiously eyeballing a pile of intensely red, spiky bulbs – clearly of plant origin but unidentifiable to me. Not only did she advise what they are (roselle, actually native to Africa and now available throughout the world), she also provided me with a simple tutorial (aided by lots of sign language) on how to turn these little wonders into not 1, but 2 different treats.

Gorgeous, curious roselle - lovely for making sweet-and-sour pickles and intensely red hibiscus-like tea (not necessarily together!)

Gorgeous, curious roselle – lovely for making sweet-and-sour pickles and intensely red hibiscus-like tea (not necessarily together!)

The first – some of the tastiest little pickles I have ever tried. The second – a lovely, red-hued herbal tea. Interested in trying? Simply rinse, peel off the red leaves, dry for several hours, then add rock sugar to the leaves in a sealed Mason jar. In a few days, the sugar dissolves, the innate acidity of the bulbs provide a pleasant dose of sourness to balance the sweetness of the sugar, and voilà! Colorful, sweet-and-sour pickles! And these aren’t your average pickles – more like juicy, organic sweet tarts. I’m thinking of starting a business to sell these en masse, ’cause I could eat them all day long!

While you wait for your pickles to almost self-manifest, steep the remaining portions of the bulbs in piping hot water, and you’ll soon enjoy a bright, floral tea not unlike hibiscus (roselle is part of the same family).

While not a typical dessert, HK’s famous milk tea is so sweet, it should probably be inducted as an honorary member of the category. Recipes and techniques implemented to generate this concoction differ. Historically, there are even tales of stockings being used to strain the tea, but don’t get grossed out – they’re not stockings that have been worn obviously, and they’re not really even used anymore. All formulas consist of some form of tea – traditionally with simple black tea of the Lipton variety, some with additions like floral rose tea, and usually topped off with a heavy dose of sweetened condensed milk (or sometimes the fresh variety instead).

But HK milk tea is not to everyone’s palate – Mom found this just way too sweet and milky for her taste (she’s more of a purist). And diabetics must steer clear. Once in a while, though – I find that milk tea does indeed hit the sweet spot. As a quick breakfast or an afternoon pick-me-up, many locals jolt themselves awake with this, chasing a classic snack like the aforementioned pineapple bun.

I’m lucky to have one of HK’s better versions (of both the milk tea – try the cold version, and the buns) just a couple blocks away, at the friendly neighborhood joint, Kam Fung. The lovely gentleman in the front of the house even gently corrected me when I asked for pineapple buns – but ignorantly pointed at the completely wrong pastry!

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The basic but friendly Kam Fung in Wan Chai, churning out local snacks and one of HK’s better milk teas (blending black and rose teas for a more nuanced flavor)

Another local and creative tea option is ‘bubble tea’. Fun to say, more fun to drink – and eat!

Eat? Let me explain. The ‘bubble’ in ‘bubble tea’ does not come from air. The ‘bubbles’ are actually weirdly (and I do mean weirdly) chewy but somehow satisfying, spherical, tapioca ‘pearls’, that rest comfortably at the bottom of your cold cup of tea or exotic fruit juice – until you unceremoniously suck them up through your oversized straw (the latter is fun in and of itself). It’s what I call the ‘chewy drink’!

Sweet-and-sour roselle 'bubble tea', with clear tapioca 'pearls' at the bottom (weird - yes, tasty - absolutely!)

Sweet-and-sour roselle ‘bubble tea’ from Gong Cha, with white tapioca ‘pearls’ at the bottom (weird – yes, tasty – absolutely!)

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Popular Taiwanese ‘bubble tea’ chain, Gong Cha, at their storefront in Wan Chai

Yes – I said it’s weird. But so good! Once you get past the shock of a tapioca ball ricocheting off the back of your mouth after your initial, over-enthusiastic straw-suck, I think you’ll be surprised (maybe even a bit embarrassed by) how much you enjoy this local ritual. And with options like milk tea, peach oolong tea, lychee juice, passionfruit/mango fizz, and ginger chocolate as your base (and those are just some of the options at one of our favorites, the not-so-subtly-named Come Buy), I can almost guarantee you’ll find something that suits your whim of the day.

Classic milk tea with black tapioca 'pearls', from Taiwanese chain, Come Buy

Classic milk tea with black tapioca ‘pearls’, from Taiwanese chain, Come Buy

‘Bubble tea’ originates from Taiwan – no surprise there, as Taiwan just might be the king of odd but somehow still appealing desserts – like baobing or ‘snow ice’ layered with super sweet syrups, fruit, mochi, sweet beans, grass jelly (yes, it exists) and/or condensed milk. Not for everyone, it is truly the ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ of desserts!

Yours truly, enjoying a roselle 'bubble tea' from Gong Cha, chock full of clear tapioca 'pearls'

Yours truly, enjoying a roselle ‘bubble tea’ from Gong Cha

All these fascinating, whimsical local treats aside – as an ABC (American-born Chinese), with my taste lying somewhere between the east and the west, I think I can objectively still say that the French and Italians are the ones who rightfully own the art of pastry. On that sweet note, I’ll leave you hanging for now. Stay tuned for my next post on the western side of sweet HK!

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All images © 2014 deb fong photography

 

Related posts:

One Year In: What It’s Like to Live in Hong Kong (Part 3 – The Food Scene)

One Year In: What It’s Like to Live In Hong Kong (Part 2 – Cocktailing and Wining in HK)

 

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Globetrotter based in Hong Kong, travel and street photographer, Getty Images contributor, award-winning blogger of WanderFong.com - seeking true beauty in travel and life!

17 thoughts on “One Year In: What It’s Like to Live in Hong Kong (Part 4 – The Sweet Side of HK)”

  1. Now you’ve got me craving some dessert before dinner!

    I remember trying “Dragon’s Beard” candy in South Korea (or something similar)… Where do you buy it in HK?

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    • Alas, I’ve only seen it so far at the street market during Carnival. I’m sure it can be dug up in the depths of HK somewhere – maybe in Mong Kok?

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  2. Yummy!! I love all Cantonese desserts that have mango on them, haha. I am also a big fan of bubble milk tea 😀

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  3. I love this post! I don’t know where to begin, you have my mind on dessert overload.

    1) I love all the Chinese buns, but especially the white sweet ones filled with a creamy egg custard that you get at dim sum restaurants. I forgot the Chinese name, I’ll have to ask my father in law!

    2) bwahahhahaah you thjnk those peach buns look like a diaper rash?! Hahah girl you haven’t seen enough diaper rashes… rashes often have little prickly spots on them and the skin can get red and irritated. So tell your husband to stop thinking baby’s bottom and that those white buns are just imitation peaches! Lol!!!!

    3) I love gong cha! The milk tea in HK is so cheap and they give you a tall cup! Unlike here in boston where it costs 3.50 for a cup and half the time the tea isn’t strong enough (my pet peeve)

    4) I love Lai cha/ hk style milk tea. So good! I can’t find any place in the US that can duplicate the boldness of the black tea (Lipton tea American version is so weak it tastes so bland!) but in toronto they have some authentic Cantonese shops there and their hk milk tea tastes just like hk!

    5) did you mention the old Skool Chinese desserts like walnut or almond soups? I went to one of those ol Skool dessert shops on my last trip and was pleasantly surprised.

    Can’t wait for your next post! 🙂

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    • I couldn’t cover all of the lovely sweets out here, but those are good reminders! I haven’t found the nutty soups yet – at least not anywhere really good. And I know the custard buns you speak of – now I have a craving 🙂 Thanks for reading, as always – the ‘western’ side of sweets will be up next!

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  4. Yes, yes, Deb, I am totally with you when you say that there is a separate stomach for desserts. How can there not be 😉
    I generally find Asian desserts not sweet enough for my Indian-trained palate… but I do LOVE the mango puddings. And the portuguese-style egg tarts are to die for. Bubble tea is popular in Singapore too… I discovered my favourite flavour there… green apple yakult. Go figure!
    Waiting for part 2 of this post.
    P.S. Dragon’s beard sounds interesting to try. I’ve always shied of the egg waffles, cos it sounds like it might be too “eggy”… is it?

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    • Hi Kan, yes, they are on opposite ends of the sweet spectrum (East Asian vs Indian). Egg waffles are not for everyone but less eggy than egg tarts. Sort of like a Chinese version of Madeline’s or financiers.

      I’m not even sure what yakukt is but look forward to trying!

      Too busy working/traveling, so part 2 has been very delayed. Getting there! Thx as always for stopping by!

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