If you go to a Chinese bakery or sweet store nowadays, you’ll probably find they sell the same things the rest of the world sells. But traditional sweet treats in China differ greatly from western styled desserts in flavor, ingredients, and ritual.
In Europe and America, we commonly follow a 3-course meal structure with dessert being the final dish you eat. In China, the dishes all come at once, whether or not it is sweet or savory, so the concept of dessert doesn’t really exist- meaning sweet before savory is totally acceptable!
Some sweet dishes in China are had all year round, but some are saved for special occasions, like New Years. Here are 8 sweet treats you have to make sure you order if you’re going to China anytime soon!
1. Sweet Soup Balls
Chinese: 汤圆 (tāng yuan)
Tang yuan, which literally translates to ‘soup ball’, is a chewy rice ball traditionally filled with sesame paste, though other flavors and fillings are now made. These tasty sweet treats are commonly eaten around the Lantern Festival around the end of Chinese New Year. The roundness of the rice balls is supposed to symbolize the first full moon we see in the first month of the Chinese calendar year.
2. Candied Fruit On A Stick
Chinese: 糖葫芦 (táng hú lu)
Wherever you go in China, you can bet there’ll be someone pushing a cart around the city center trying to sell you a delicious, sugar-coated stick of tang hu lu. An old-time Beijing-style snack, hawthorns (crab apples) are the most common fruit used for these sweet treats, but nowadays you can also find orange slices, strawberries, melons, and many more different types.
3. Eight Treasure Rice
Chinese: 八宝饭 (bābǎofàn)
This sticky rice dessert is an essential part of the dinner table at Chinese New Year with a long history stretching back nearly 2000 years. It’s made with glutinous sticky rice and 8 different types of dried fruits and nuts- hence the name, 8 treasure rice. Commonly you will find bean paste, lotus seeds, and a selection of preserved fruits in this dish though liberties with ingredients have been taken over the years to fit the fancy of modern eating.
4. Egg Tarts
Chinese: 蛋挞 (dàn tà)
Though its origins are traced back to Portugal traders in Macau, nowadays there isn’t a bakery or corner shop in China that doesn’t sell these tasty little sweet treats. Best served hot, egg tarts are creamy custard-filled puff pastries that have been embraced by Chinese culture. Even Chinese KFC sell them!
5. Grass Jelly Dessert
Chinese: 烧仙草 (shāo xiān cǎo)
Grass Jelly is a type of medicinal, health conscious dessert that has caught fire in western countries. On its own the grass jelly has a very light and bitter flavor, but when served with brown sugar, milk, taro and choice fruits like mango and melon, it becomes a very delicious (and healthy) dessert.
6. Deep Fried Mantou
Chinese: 炸馒头 (zhà mántou)
Mantou is one of the most typical staples to a Chinese meal. Seriously. If you’re not eating rice with your meal, you’re probably having mantou, a very plain and mild milk bun- not very interesting. Why not then try deep frying it and dipping it in condensed milk? It’s almost like a deconstructed donut!
7. Caramelized Sweet Potato
Chinese: 拔丝地瓜 (Básī dìguā)
Ever had a potato for dessert? Well, served like this, glazed in caramel sauce, you’ll be left wondering why you’ve never thought of this before. Roasted sweet potatoes are smothered with sugary caramel and stuck together. The caramel should be served hardened, so the dish is crunchy and hardened on the outside and smooth and starchy on the inside.
Chinese: 月饼 (yuèbǐng)
Mooncakes are the sweet treat to have during Chinese New Year. They’re densely stuffed pastries that are beautifully decorated. Traditionally Mooncakes are served with either lotus paste, red bean or dried yolk from a duck egg but nowadays you can find all kinds of flavors including chocolate, chestnuts and even ice cream.