This first article of a series will attempt to debunk a seemingly widely-held belief that “Asian desserts” constitute an amorphous, lacklustre, barely passable food group (see eg, these ignorant “professional” food critics here and here). In this piece, MoMo & Coco will outline the common sweet irresistibles found at yum cha (also known as dim sum, ban ming or fan cha). Although it is now very much integrated into the eating routine of many Asian families across the globe, yum cha is a dining experience originating from the Southern Chinese province of Guangdong, popularised through the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau. It should be remembered therefore that the desserts featured in this guide are uniquely characteristic of these particular provinces in China, and although they may now be a common sight, they do not constitute the be-all and end-all of that silly, uneducated, almost xenophobic phrase, “Asian Desserts.”
YUM CHA DESSERTS
Egg custard tart (dan ta)
By contrast to most Chinese foods, the egg tart does not have a lengthy history. Originating from around mid-20th century, and arguably as a result of Portugal rule over the Macau province, it is a sort of “fusion” dessert. For the sake of accuracy, the egg tart is therefore of Macanese rather than Cantonese heritage. However, we feature it in this guide to yum cha desserts, because of its pervasiveness in the yum cha ritual. The yum cha egg custard tart (dan ta) is not the same type of custard tart more familiar to the Western school of desserts. Instead, yum cha egg custard tarts are little bite-sized cups of puff pastry filled with an egg-y custard. The custard is far less sweet and less creamier than its typical Western counterpart and may even taste somewhat savoury to those more inclined with a sweet-tooth. The custard should not be runny, nor overly dense. While it shouldn’t taste like it, it should have a creme brulee texture. Firm and smooth. The tart’s pastry should be flaky and airy, but not in the same way as a French pastry. It is characteristically less buttery. The better ones are served piping warm, with a high egg custard ratio to pastry. Although MoMo & Coco prefer the ones with a brulee-ized surface, it is more common that yum cha egg custard tarts arrive with an unburnt surface.
Custard bao (nai huang baozi)
Some ubiquitous food items have very interesting stories behind them. For example, the croissant is supposed to symbolise the eating of the Islamic crescent. Tea was apparently discovered by a half-animal divine creature who could see the cleansing effects of tea churning through his transparent stomach. We were once told the story that a great military strategist during the Three Kingdoms Period in ancient China “invented” the baozi to resemble his soldiers heads (complete with topknot no less) as an offering to appease the spirits. Indeed, the other name for (unfilled) baozi is mantou (lit trans: head)! Bamboo trays steaming with round pillows continue to be a heart-warming sight throughout China. For the record therefore, NY’s Momofuku did not invent the bao…nor did Melbourne’s Golden Fields, and if we read another so-called professional food critic who believes otherwise…they have their own head wrapped in a bao! In China, for daily, take-away purposes, the da bao overflows a large fist size and is ideal for lunch, while the smaller sized ones are more commonly seen in restaurants and are more appropriate as snacks. Furthermore, the filling of a baozi can point to the origin of it. Northern China is home to plain, unfilled baozi in many shapes, whereas in the South, because of a richer history of agricultural produce, baozi are formed with a myriad of fillings, from pale chicken, pickled vegetables, rice soup, and meatier barbeque pork (char siew) baozi. At yum cha (and sometimes in Chinese restaurants), there may be sweeter bao on offer including: dousha baozi (red bean paste bao), lianrong baozi (white lotus paste bao), zhima bao (sesame paste bao); and naihuang baozi (yellow milk/custard bao). If you visit Malaysia or Singapore, the kaya version is i-n-c-r-e-d-i-b-l-e.
Sago/tapioco sweet broth (si mai lo) and other sweet broths (tong sui)
Two misconceptions must be corrected in relation to “sago broth.” Firstly, soup or broth in the Chinese culinary culture is not the thick, creamy concoction dished up in the European culture. If a European cannot fathom sipping a thick soup for dessert, a Chinese most definitely cannot. Secondly, sago is another name for tapioca, not tadpole. Think of it as a different version of caviar, salmon roe and all those fancy little opaque orbs that are dribbled indiscriminately in many dishes nowadays. Part of a Cantonese dessert repertoire of sweet soups (tong sui), sago broth is another ubiquitous dessert dish offered at yum cha. It can be lukewarm, cold or hot. It can be excruciatingly sweet, slightly gingery, sometimes in a mango syrup or coconut cream, or just plain funny-tasting water. The sago can be chewy, gluey or soft, teeny or large. Almost every restaurant serves a different variety. Other types of sweet broths available at yum cha may include red bean, mung bean or black rice in a slightly thicker soup. These versions impart a more savoury accent than sago soup, and cubes of taro or sweet potato may also feature. Tong sui generally, is popular in Hong Kong/Guangzhou, but not so in other parts of China. It also appears in Malaysia/Singapore with regional ingredient variations and under different names.
Tofu broth (dou fu fa)
The serving of dou fu fa is inelegant. Large vat, long scoop, splish and splosh, it comes with some very evocative imagery, from Oliver Twist, refugee ration queues, to school canteens. If served warm, in a slightly sweet, slightly spiced, gingery, clear water broth, upon which floats a mass of silken, slippery tofu, it is the perfect end to yum cha. Like a slightly sweet brew of tea, eaten with a shallow scoop, requiring no further clumsy chopstick usage. The problem is that many restaurants in Melbourne overbalance its components: the broth is often sooooo sweet that it requires a pot of the strongest tea to balance it out…and worse, induces a terrible plaque invasion in one’s mouth. Otherwise, the tofu is just the wrong type! Yes, dear readers, the tofu eaten in soups, in fried dishes, in this dessert, by Northern Chinese, by Southern Chinese, by Japanese, by those tree-hugging, left-leaning vegetarians are all different types.
Pudding (mango, coconut, or almond)
If you talk to a Londoner, pudding is a rich cake saturated in a similarly rich sauce. If you talk to a Hong Kong local, pudding is something between custard and jelly, but definitely not flour-based cake. At yum cha, puddings are usually infused with sweet mango, refreshing coconut or the twang of almond. It may be presented as a mix set in a bowl or as a pretty moulded shape. Variety abounds, but the best renditions are ones with a moderate flavour and a light, smooth texture. Too strong a flavour in a mango or almond pudding especially is quickly nauseating, and too heavy a use of gelatin is an obvious crime. Evaporated milk is optional — we advise it only for the very sweet-tooth-inclined.
Yum cha Cantonese cakes
Although we will be publishing a separate, more comprehensive guide on Asian cakes/pastries, we will feature a few here, the Southern Chinese ones that may pop up at yum cha from time to time.
- RICE BASED CAKES – these can come in many forms. One variation is a hard, solidifed rice-based jelly. The more commonly-seen version is presented as a Swiss-roll-style or as balls injected with subtly sweet pastes of black sesame, red bean or pandan cream. Sometimes, these cakes are dusted with desiccated coconut or crushed peanuts. They are a Southern Chinese version of Japanese mochi, but with a softer, less chewy texture. The purpose of these types of desserts are not to end the meal on a sweet note, but rather to ensure that one has no more stomach space left. 😛
- PASTRY-STYLE AND SPONGE-STYLE CAKES – aside from egg tarts (see above), there may be a variety of pastry and sponge cakes, though MoMo & Coco have seen this more overseas than at yum chas in Melbourne. We have seen glossy, sweet brioche-like buns that are actually fried man tou buns, which you dip in a dish of evaporated milk. We have also seen pastry cakes that are clearly a fusion of French patisserie technique, and usually feature custard or red bean paste. Other cakes are more typically Cantonese/Southern Chinese in character in that they are plainer in flavour and are steamed or boiled, rather than baked. The resulting texture is a very light, airy sort of cake. Ask for the almost chiffon-like mai lai go, ji dan gao, and the thready, slightly sticky, rice-sugar cake slice, pak tong koh.
Other yum cha dessert offerings
Other yum cha dessert offerings are usually of Western foundation with Cantonese flavours, and include a bowl of multi-coloured jelly (sometimes plain, sometimes with fruit pieces or osmanthus blooms embedded within) or mango crepe wraps. Well-loved among East Asians, green tea icecream with its typical astringent, slightly bitter taste is another example.
In Asia during Chinese New Year or around some festivity, yum cha restaurants often offer an extended variety of sweet irresistibles too. MoMo & Coco have yet to see this in Melbourne’s yum cha restaurants.
General recommendations for yum cha in Melbourne
As long as there is variety, as long as the food comes out fast enough and not soggy, overcooked or undercooked, as long as our teapot is maintained filled, as long as bookings are taken, yum cha is generally carefree. Although MoMo & Coco don’t believe that there are any really outstanding yum cha restaurants in Melbourne, you can’t go too wrong with the following, albeit sometimes with variable adequacy:
- Golden Leaf, Burwood
- Tao Tao House, Hawthorn
- Treasure, Forest Hill/Glen Waverley
- Imperial Chinese Seafood (formerly known as Imperial Kingdom), Glen Waverley
- The “Doncaster Triad” – Plume, Golden Dragon Palace, Taipan
- Wonderbao, CBD (for daily treats, not sit-down yum cha).
Whatever you do, treat Melbourne CBD’s yum cha restaurants like Chernobyl.
General recommendations for yum cha overseas
MoMo & Coco do not pay too much attention to restaurant names etc when eating overseas. Ordinarily, we leave it to our relatives and friends to show us the best of their little worlds, and they are almost always are guaranteed beauties. Sometimes, we do remember some of the stand-outs, and for yum cha (savoury and desserts), we remember yum cha at:
- Four Seasons, Central District, Hong Kong;
- Mandarin Oriental, Central District, Hong Kong;
- China Club, Central District, Hong Kong;
- Crystal Jade, Xintiandi, Shanghai;
- Yauatcha, Soho, London (strictly for the French-Chinese desserts though).
So, fellow dessert lovers, what is your experience of desserts at yum cha and what is your favourite yum cha restaurant in Melbourne or elsewhere?