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November 28, 2010

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Desserts are for indulging

IT'S a sweet life. So you won't hear me complaining about going out and sampling a bunch of scrumptious desserts and telling the world about it.

But there is one thing I am very careful about when writing about food. As much as possible I avoid the word "perfect" to describe food since nothing is actually "perfect." However, for me, sweet desserts can be an exception. As a dessert addict, I dedicate myself to finding that "perfect" sweet. To taste authentic Yorkshire Pudding, I spent two hours on a train going from London to York; to taste a Chinese cake made from a mysterious herb, I took a six-hour trip from Shanghai to ancient town Nianbadu in the remote mountains at the junction of Zhejiang, Jiangxi and Fujian provinces.

Most sweet teeth like me are optimists since we firmly believe the existence of niceness and pursuing it persistently. However, sometimes, sweetness troubles us. Over indulgence for a sweet tooth like me can lead to weight gain because of all those annoying calories; blood sugar cannot be easily controlled, and it can empty the wallet pretty fast as it's hard to find inexpensive chocolate truffles that taste great.

I tried to resist desserts. But I failed, miserably. Thus, to eat or not to eat, it's still a question.

This week, we introduce some Cantonese desserts, which include soups, cakes, jellies, pudding and dumplings. Each has different texture and taste and Cantonese desserts are quite popular in Shanghai these days.

These desserts have four main features. First, tropical fruits are widely used. While most desserts rely on sugar for sweetness, Cantonese desserts are based around the flavor of the main ingredient. Mango, coconut and durian are all common ingredients.

Second, various grains such as red beans, green beans and glutinous rice are popular. Since ancient times, Chinese people have loved using grains in dessert as they "absorb the essence of heaven and earth" and are rich in nutrition. It is said that in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) people cooked sweet red bean porridge in the winter to give thanks for the harvest and pray for next season's crop.

Cantonese are also big believers in eating particular desserts in the right season. The theory is that temperature and humidity change people's requirements for food. For example, in summer, Cantonese tend to eat herbal jelly and lotus seed soup, both of which, in Chinese medical theory, can remove heat and dampness from the body. While in winter, jujube, ginger and black sesame are always used in sweet soups to nourish the body and resist the cold.

Lastly, since Guangdong and Hong Kong were important foreign trading ports over the centuries, the Western influence is rather obvious. The famous Cantonese fruit pudding and egg tart are classic examples.

Dessert plays an essential role in the daily life of Cantonese people. Retired parents will often wait for their children to return home from work so they can eat dessert together and talk. It's all really sweet, when you think about it.

Shanghai Salad

When foreigners flooded into Shanghai in the 1920s and 30s, they brought their food culture along and cuisines from all over the world were bountiful.

Various Western cold salads with lettuce and other ingredients became popular. And Shanghai housewives did some mixing and matching, combining French fruit salad and Russian potato salad. Then they added red sausage and green beans to make it more colorful and called it Shanghai Salad.

Today, Shanghai Salad is popular on family dining tables.


Two potatoes (medium), half cup salad dressing (adjust amount to taste), one and a half teaspoons mayonnaise, one red sausage (made with pork and flour, widely available), one apple, a few green beans.


1. Chop potatoes, sausage and apple into small cubes.

2. Boil potatoes and green beans for five to 10 minutes.

3. Combine cooked potatoes, green beans, apple and red sausage in a bowl, stir in dressing and mayonnaise.

4. Refrigerate and serve chilled. Honeymoon Dessert

It's a sweet shop only serving Cantonese desserts, but it offers more than 100 options on the menu.

Among all the sweet treats here, the sweet potato soup is a must try. The potato is soft doesn't require chewing. The soup is sweet, but is balanced nicely with ginger. Ginger, in Chinese medicine, is believed to stimulate yang, a warm body energy linked with vigor and vitality. Thus, this seasonal dessert is only available in autumn and winter.

Also worth recommending is black glutinous rice with toddy palm in vanilla sauce. The sweet taste of this dessert is very similar to vanilla ice cream, yet lighter. Black glutinous rice itself has a light taste but when combined with sugar the flavor is enhanced. Chinese people likes to eat black glutinous rice in winter as it can nourish the kidney and enrich the blood. The toddy palm tastes like coconut and smells a little bit like milk.

Our final recommendation is the sweet ball coated with crushed peanuts and sesame. This has a delicate, glutinous taste without sticking to the teeth. The peanut and sesame give a nutty, fatty aroma.

Address: B1/F, 1689 Sichuan Rd N

Tian Shui Ya Ju

Durian is famous for its pungent, unpleasant aroma, but the spiky fruit is rich in fiber, protein and vitamins.

Tian Shui Ya Ju will make you forget about the smell as its durian cake is lovely.

The outer layer of the cake is crispy and you can smell the egg and butter. The stuffing is sweet and clear, containing a light durian flavor.

For people curious about durian, but are afraid to try due to the smell, this cake is ideal as an introduction to the fruit.

Papaya stewed with snow frog here is very popular. The appearance of the dish attracts the eye. The papaya is seeded and sliced in half, like a small boat. Inside the boat is the cotton-like snow frog, being cooked with sweet water. According to traditional Chinese medicine, snow frog can nourish the yin and add moisture to the lungs. The snow frog soup tastes sweet, and, not surprisingly, has a strong papaya flavor. The whole dish smells a little like the mixture of cream and cucumber.

Crispy durian cake (4 yuan); Papaya stewed with snow frog (38 yuan)

Address: 3/F, 98 Nanjing Rd E.

Lei Garden

This Cantonese restaurant has a high reputation across Asia with six branches in Hong Kong and another in Macau, which has earned one star in the Michelin guide. However, its Michelin glory is far overshadowed by its Cantonese desserts, especially its mango dessert.

Chilled mango sweetener with grapefruit and sago is a delight - not too sweet and a surprising variety of flavors.

The cold soup starts out sweet, but then tastes a little sour. After finishing the entire portion, there's a light bitter taste mixed with a hint of sweetness.

According to manager Li, Luzong mangos from the Philippines provides the sweetness. The sour and bitter taste comes from the grape fruit, which is used to balance the sweet.

The mango pudding is placed in a beautiful cocktail glass, revealing a charming yellow. The texture is rather soft and creamy. The pudding dissolves in the mouth quickly. Some cream in the middle increases its sweetness. The strong aroma of tropical fruit can easily allow the mind to roam as though you were living in the jungle.

Chilled mango sweetener with grapefruit and sago (28 yuan/US$4.2); Mango pudding (30 yuan)

Address: 3/F, 8 Century Avenue


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