Desserts are a big deal in Hong Kong, and in Cantonese cuisine, rich meals of roast meats or satisfying dim sum are usually finished with sweets, which tend to be less cloying and lighter than their western equivalents. The city is full of shops devoted exclusively to these concoctions not just enjoyed post-dinner, but often on their own as a treat at anytime of day.
As a subtropical city, Hong Kong summers can be brutally hot and humid, but luckily, a number of these local desserts will satisfy your sweet tooth while also keeping you cool. In Chinese medicine, the balance in the body between hot and cold is all-important and these desserts are made with ingredients believed to have a cooling effect, whether they’re served hot or cold.
Mung Bean Soup or Mung Bean Porridge
Mung bean soup is made with dried mung beans, soaked until soft, and then boiled until the mixture is a velvety porridge consistency. In Chinese medicine, mung beans are considered a cooling ingredient and when prepared with kelp pieces and dried mandarin peels, the effects are intensified, helping with heat exhaustion, indigestion and other ailments associated with hot weather.
This iconic summer dessert can actually be enjoyed both cold and hot, without hindering the effect, as the cooling properties are attributed to the ingredients themselves, rather than the temperature at which the dessert is served. The taste is grassy and nutty, with added rock sugar for sweetness.
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Also called ‘cold noodles’ or ‘fairy grass’, this sweet treat is made with a herbal mixture that has been set into a delicious, albeit mysterious-looking, black jelly. Grass jelly in its simplest form is served with evaporated milk or ice cream but is also often served with toppings of fresh fruit or sago pearls. The herbs in the jelly offer a grassy flavour but also a touch of smokiness and a tea-like bitterness, and are meant to be cooling for the body.
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If you love tofu, then you have to try dau fu fa or tofu pudding. This dessert is essentially an ultra light, soft and silken tofu that is served either chilled or steaming hot, considered a cooling summer sweet either way. The tofu has the characteristic nutty, soybean flavour that we love but is sweetened and usually topped with palm sugar or gingery sugar syrup.
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Although Hong-Kongers love sago, this dessert actually has Southeast Asian origins and is popular around the globe. The sago beads are boiled until soft and chewy, and toppings like coconut milk, glutinous rice balls and fresh fruit can be added – the more the better. If you haven’t noticed by now, Hong Kong desserts are all about texture.
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Mango Pomelo Sago 楊枝甘露
One special version of sago that deserves its own mention is mango pomelo sago, or ‘willow tree manna’, named after a healing potion used by the Guanyin goddess in Chinese mythology.
This dessert consists of fresh mango, pomelo and sago beads sitting in a bowl of mango-infused coconut milk. The combination was created by Lei Garden Chinese restaurant in 1984 and proved so popular that the recipe was shared all over town. It can now be found in most local dessert shops.
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Lei Garden’s mango pomelo sago was only the beginning of Hong Kong’s love affair with fresh mango desserts. In the 1990s, herbal tea shop, Hui Lau Shan, successfully rebranded itself as a trendy dessert hotspot by introducing a menu of mango desserts and drinks. From the aforementioned mango sago to mango mochi, sweet rice cakes filled with cubed mango, to mango boba, mango-flavoured bubble tea, the shops are always full of the aromas of fresh mango and are packed nightly with after-dinner crowds.
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Ice Pops and Ice Cream Bars
Another dessert staple, essential to Hong Kong summers and beachside fun, are old-school ice pops. What makes this classic summer treat uniquely Hong Kong are the flavours we all know and love from childhood: taro, red bean, the chocolate-covered vanilla ice cream bar and the fung sin ice cream bar (mango ice in the centre, then vanilla ice cream, all covered with banana chocolate). These flavours are so iconic that creator, Nestle, recently brought all the flavours back, in limited-edition vintage packaging.
IG photo by @hkfoodtalk
If you enjoyed reading about these iconic summer desserts, but you’re hungry for more local food, have a look at our guide to the best cooked food centres in the 852, and if it’s something more savoury you’re after, check out our guide to Hong Kong-style barbecue.