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?
Join me, as I first explore the more local side of sweet HK!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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’!
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.
‘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!
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!
All images © 2014 deb fong photography