Wednesday, May 22, 2013

More Popular than Fortune Cookies: Cantonese Desserts

I grew up in a household where my mother always coached us that we should begin reading any menu from the bottom up, because that way you could know what to save room for. In addition, my maternal clan prides itself on an affinity for chocolate. These confessions aside, my mother had a strict rule for her three children: If you did not have fruit for dessert at lunch time, you had to have it at dinnertime. My little sister, who will graduate from law school tomorrow and has always been re-writing the rules, would sometimes "fib" so that she could have ice cream or some non-fruit desert item. I remember vaguely some rather complex legal maneuvering to prove that fruit had been consumed at her primary school cafeteria. I am sure that the standard of proof was not "beyond a reasonable doubt", but what would you expect from a mother who professes a hatred of vegetables and a distaste for most anything that does not come from a dead animal or the dessert menu.

Glutinous rice balls in mango with a scoop
of mango sorbet, 28yuan in Changchun and
38 yuan in Beijing
There is a gorgeous little boutique that has opened up a block from where I work. It is a Cantonese dessert restaurant that satisfies the fruit requirement and also would lead most customers to want to begin with dessert. There is really no other choice.

Most American "Chinese restaurants" offer some riff of Cantonese or Sichuan food, two vastly different cuisines. In my limited experience, though, most of them are long on ginger ice cream and fortune cookies, but short on any other options for dessert. Well, in China, dessert is certainly a rarity, but not as uncommon as somebody who has heard of a fortune cookie. Aside from some bakeries and Western-style cake shops, I don't know of any other strictly dessert restaurants in our city.

Deborah (Jingjing), my girlfriend, and I first went to this Cantonese dessert restaurant a few months back just before they ripped out its innards for a high-class remodeling effort. When she told me that she had walked by and it was gone, I was disappointed. Today, I found that it was just having a face-lift. These places are, from my quick survey of the web, beginning to catch on elsewhere in China. Beijing Today ran a story over a year ago about three new places opening there:

"Cantonese desserts, especially sweet and iced ones like herb jelly teas, are hard to find in Beijing.
Following in the footsteps of Manji, a dessert chain that opened on the mainland, Hui Lau Shan, another well-known Hong Kong brand, opened three stores in Beijing last week. They have 100 desserts made from mixed fruits and homemade ingredients."

On your next trip to Changchun, I hope that you will check it out on Xikang Lu between Tongzhi Jie and Lixin Jie.

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