The second in a series, MoMo & Coco will continue to attempt to debunk the myth that “fortune cookies” and “banana fritters” are a “Chinese” dessert, or worse, that they are the be-all and end-all of Chinese desserts — as tragically believed and opined by so-called professional food writers (here and here). In this special review, we detail desserts in a typical Chinese New Year banquet, an often neglected aspect in any reference source on Chinese New Year delicacies. Note that this is not an exhaustive guide — over 5,000 years of culinary tradition and thousands of kilometres of geographic separation between one Chinese community and the next simply cannot be captured in a mere online site such as ours.
CHINESE NEW YEAR DESSERTS
New Year cake (nian gao, 年 糕)
Literally translating to “Year Cake,” Nian Gao is traditionally, a glutinous rice flour, brown sugar pudding with a temptingly squishy feel and deep brown colour. As you can expect from the vast regional spread of Chinese communities however, there are numerous variations of nian gao — in our travels, we have noticed a predilection towards a paler yellow-brown colour in nian gao from northern China, compared to the deeper browns of southern China. Also, nian gao can manifest in symbolic shapes, such as carp or lotus buds, or be stamped with imperial-era seal designs. When cooked, it possesses a sweet caramel flavour and very glue-y, sticky texture. It can be eaten steamed and plain, which seems to be the preference of mainland and Hong Kong Chinese people. In Malaysian-Chinese and Singaporean-Chinese communities, the more common practice of eating nian gao is by sandwiching it between yam and sweet potato and deep-frying the three layers (terribly addictive!), or shrouding and steaming the nian gao in coconut flakes.
“Eight Treasure” pudding (ba bao fan, 八寶飯)
Anyone with a neuron of cultural awareness would know that the number “8” is considered to be a very lucky number for Chinese people. Traditionally made and served only to the highest echelons of Chinese society, Eight Treasure Pudding is today, a Chinese dessert well-loved by especially mainland Chinese people (it doesn’t seem to be as popular in overseas Chinese communities). Its Western equivalent is the Christmas Pudding, albeit with not a drop of alcohol. Symbolically white as jade, white glutinous rice is mixed with sugar and lard and sometimes, osmanthus syrup, hollowed out and filled with red bean paste, and steamed for some time. The “eight treasures” are the eight types of jewels that one imprints onto the cake, usually prior to steaming. Our pictured version features honeyed dates, preserved qingren (lover) plums, preserved xuehua (snow flower) plums, glace cherries, preserved gold raisins, preserved kumquat, candied lotus balls, preserved green apple plums. Note that each component is a tone of red or yellow (auspicious colours) or green (vitality), “preserved” is preferred over “dried,” and each component has a meaning — sweet life, prosperity, harmony, longevity, success etc. We also carved out from the kumquat, the Chinese word for “peace.” When unwrapped, the smell of an eight treasure pudding is quite simply, intoxicating.
“Dragon Beard” candy (long xu tang, 龙须糖)
Sighted and sampled in a small town near Shanghai and another on the Yangtze, and understood to be “big” in the Canadian Chinese communities, dragon beard candy is a candy like no other. Once upon a time, it touched the tongues of only imperial princes. Its name is straight out of the most fantastical story. Its appearance is the chrysalis of a silk worm. It has to be eaten in one bite, or else the consumer risks being showered with an explosion of dandruff-like flakes or creating his/her own dragon beard. It is made of hundreds of sugar strands crafted with the artistry of a glass-blower and stretched and pulled like a noodle. Its taste is a heavenly light cloud that quickly melts into slight chalky sweetness before revealing a crunchy centre of crushed roasted peanuts and sesame seeds. And before you know it, it’s all gone! The best of the best must be eaten within an hour and is exorbitantly priced. Dragon, silk, heaven — there cannot be a better way of ushering the new year and giving thanks to one’s ancestors. Pity that it is an almost extinct Chinese delicacy.
More a Malaysian/Singaporean Chinese Chinese New Year dessert than a mainland Chinese dessert, pineapple tarts are pretty, bite-sized morsels. The pastry is a melt-in-the mouth sensation — the equivalent of Scottish shortbread, but softer and with a greater depth of buttery flavour. For something so small, it is endowed three times over with symbolic significance. First, its general appearance is that of a budding lotus flower, for honour and purity. Second, it is yellow, for wealth. And third, the Chinese words for “pineapple” — yellow pear — is a fruit associated with good luck. You see, every Chinese food has historical and spiritual significance. Note that this dessert is commonly eaten during the rest of the year in a ball or roll shape.
Love letters (kuih kapit)
One of the many beautiful desserts in the Malaysian Nyonya-Chinese kuih repertoire, kuih kapit is one Chinese dessert that is not focused on the wish of material wealth. A light, slightly sweet, crispy biscuit, kuih kapit is made from a very labour-intensive process of mixing eggs, coconut milk, rice flour and tapioca flour, casting the batter into elaborately embossed moulds in the shape of a small fan, about the size of a lady’s palm, and when cooked, ever so carefully but very quickly folding it. One of our most cherished childhood memories was our old grandmother giving us a recycled Milo can stuffed full of kuih kapit, and on opening it, a hong bao (red packet) wedged into the folds of one of the kuih kapit. The equivalent in East Asia is the egg roll, a dessert imbued with a delicious political history of being used to convey messengers against marauding Mongolians.
“Red turtle” cake (紅龜粿 and ang ku kuih)
Originating from the Fujian province and carried onwards to South East Asia when many Hokkien people of that province emigrated, the Red Turtle Cake is perhaps the one new year dessert that has a significant presence in both mainland China and overseas Chinese communities today. As its turtle shape symbolizes longevity (because turtles have a long lifespan) and its startling red-orange colour is auspicious, it is a preferred choice of tidbit for many new year rituals. That is to say, during the new year, it is eaten by the spirit world, rather than the living world. It is a glutinous lump embossed with symbolic Chinese characters, and can be filled with a starchy mung bean or red bean paste, or sometimes a smoother peanut paste filling (our preferred filling). Its sticky character is said to glue the spirits’ mouths to prevent them from cursing or otherwise saying bad things, whereas the sweet filling influences them to bestow blessings on the family.
I actually really like nian gao dipped in beaten egg and fried. Oh my kingdom for a slice of that! 🙂
Great post. I too share the same gripe about how the western world view Chinese desserts!
I also really love the ‘kwok jai’ during Chinese New Year. Those little pastries filled with crushed peanuts and sugar…not sure what the English name for those are…