Dessert in Western countries is typically sweet foods like ice cream, doughnuts, cookies, and candy. In China, dessert strays away from these super sugary concepts — even cake is turned on its head and means something different. Dessert in China can be either sweet or savory, and many times, it’s both, making for a delicious combo that satisfies both kinds of cravings. These are eight Chinese desserts you need to try on your next visit.
1. Mooncake, or yuèbing
One of the most well-known Chinese desserts, yuèbing, otherwise known as mooncakes, are traditionally eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival. This festival is right up there with Chinese New Year in terms of significance and is celebrated during the middle of autumn when the moon is at its fullest. It’s thought that the moon is closely tied to the seasons and agriculture, so the Chinese would offer a sacrifice as thanks to the moon during the autumn season. The festival became official during the Tang Dynasty. Part of the sacrifice is mooncakes, which are offered up and then eaten. During this time, people also give them as gifts to friends and family to wish them good fortune. Mooncakes are a round (like the moon), soft pastry. The fillings vary by region, from ice cream to custard to ham, though the original is sweet lotus seed paste and salted duck egg yolk.
2. Sweet rice balls, or yuanxiao or tāngyuán
Sweet rice balls can be eaten year-round but are especially important during Chinese New Year festivities when they’re shared between families to bring harmony and happiness in the new year. The round shape is meant to represent family completeness. The official name used for this dessert depends on what part of China you’re in. It’s called yuanxiao in the north and tāngyuán in the south, though yuanxiao came first. These sweet rice balls are particularly prevalent during the Lantern Festival that rounds out the new year celebrations due to sharing a similar name (it’s also known as the Yuanxiao Festival).
The glutinous rice powder used is what makes them sweet, and the fillings can further add to the sweetness (like with fruit or bean paste) or add a savory element with nuts.
3. Dragon’s beard candy
Dragon’s beard candy is akin to cotton candy, though where cotton candy is large and fluffy, this Chinese confection is small and thin. The name for it comes from its similarity to depictions of dragons; the sugary strands are so wispy that they resemble dragon whiskers. The making of dragon’s beard candy is also considered an art form in China as it’s made by boiling a mixture of sugar into a gel-like substance, which is then made into a ring that’s folded and pulled over and over in figure eights until there are a number of tiny strands. But it’s not all sugar and potential cavities; after, there are hundreds to thousands of strands, and a filling (nuts are common) is added on top and then rolled so that it’s inside the candy.
4. Prosperity cake, or fao gao
A typical Chinese New Year pastry, fao gao has a number of English names — prosperity cake, lucky cake, and fortune cake. Its purpose is to bring luck when eaten, and it’s often gifted to others during the holiday. The word fa has a double meaning, both “prosperity” and “raised,” while gao means “cake.” The traditional way of making these cakes is by mixing rice flour, cake flour, and baking powder with sugar and hot water, and then putting it into cupcake molds. The batter is steamed, which makes the tops open up into four different sections. The cakes can come in a variety of colors, and while they look soft, the insides are quite thick.
5. Sugar painting
We’ve all seen artwork of food that looks so appetizing that we want to eat it. In China, there’s a form of art that you actually can eat, if you don’t mind eating pure sugar. Sugar paintings are exactly what they sound like: paintings made out of liquid sugar. It’s thought that these edible works date back to the Ming Dynasty when sugar figures were part of religious rituals.
They’re typically found in street markets, parks, and, because of their popularity with kids, around schools. Artists can usually be found at a stall with their canvas of choice, either a slab of marble or metal. The liquid sugar has to be made first, so usually there’s a pot on the side where the sugar is cooked and melted down. Afterward, the artist will drizzle the hot sugar onto the “canvas” in the shape of whatever the buyer wants — butterflies, dragons, bicycles, flowers, etc. — and the shape can be either two or three dimensional. Then, the artist will attach a stick to it and remove it from the workspace with a spatula so that you can take it on the go.
6. Sweetheart cake, or lou po beng
There are several legends and variations that surround sweetheart cakes, but the most common one is of a married woman whose father fell ill. The family was poor and used a majority of their money to pay for treatment, and this is where many of the legends vary. Some are vague and simply, saying that the woman sold herself as a slave to buy more medicine, while others are more specific and say that she sold herself to their landlord — though whether it was to pay bills they couldn’t afford due to using all their money for medicine or to get more medicine depends on the legend. Another place where they deviate is on the husband’s involvement, though most say that upon hearing what his wife had done, he worked hard to make enough money to bring her back and created lou po beng as a result.
Sweetheart cakes originated in the Guangdong province (formerly known as Canton, making them a Cantonese dessert). Traditionally, they’re made with a flat and flaky dough that’s filled with candied winter melon, glutinous rice flour, and sesame seeds.
7. Black sesame soup
Soup isn’t normally thought of as a dessert option, but black sesame soup in China is a dessert sought after for its health benefits. Served hot, all that’s needed to make the soup is water, rice, sugar, and, as the name suggests, black sesame seeds. In addition to giving the soup its opaque color, black sesame seeds are rich in nutrients that promote healthy hair and skin, blood flow, and bowel movements.
8. Hong Kong-style egg tarts, or dàntǎ
Egg tarts can be found all around the world, though they’re particularly popular within China as a dim sum option and can accompany any meal. There are different versions within China itself, but the most common is Hong Kong-style egg tarts, which have a British influence. Hong Kong-style egg tarts have a glossy finish, are flatter, and are sunken into the crust, which is made from puff pastry (with a more bowl-like appearance) or shortcrust pastry (like a pie crust). They’re also completely yellow. The taste is thick and almost jello-like. Prep time for this dessert can take hours, so they’re usually prepared in advance for purchase.