Although Western desserts have a high level of popularity, sweet food has a long history in China. It might be a little surprising for many to know that ice cream was first invented in China in the late Tang Dynasty before it was introduced to the West by Italian traveler Marco Polo in the 13th century.
Normally, desserts are not regarded as healthy food, but the Chinese philosophy of maintaining good health and aesthetics are derived from the making of sweets. There is a great diversity of Chinese desserts across the country, which are deeply rooted in local cultures and lifestyles. In the north, desserts are oily, but not so heavy in sugar. In the eastern coastal areas, Zhejiang and Jiangsu, people tend to seek for a more sophisticated and artistic appearance for the desserts.
In Sichuan and Chongqing, peanuts, sesame seeds, walnuts and glutinous rice are commonly used; some are spiced with a pinch of salt and Sichuan peppercorn powder to deliver a numbing sensation.
A variety of pastries, dim sum, sweet soup and preserved fruits can always be found at early morning tea in Guangdong.
The double-layered milk custard, or shuang pi nai, originated in Shunde over 100 years ago. Fresh milk and eggs are the main ingredients; they are turned into curds after being boiled and steamed. You can enjoy it while it is still warm, or after it freezes in the fridge. Its smooth and silky texture has made it popular nationwide. Feel free to add fresh fruit, such as mango or strawberries on top to add a little extra flavor.
Sachima is ranked as one of the most favorable sweets in the capital city of China. Originally, it was brought to Beijing by the Manchu people in the 1600s. It is a deepfried pastry traditionally made from flour, eggs, honey, malt sugar, lard and then cut into small cubes. Horse and camel caravans in the trading business used to snack on it on long journeys, which spread sachima to the rest of the country. When it arrived in Hong Kong, it became a lucky food for people who gambled on horses. In modern times, you can discover a variety of new flavors with different nuts and sesame seeds on top or with cheese added.
This classic Cantonese dessert has around 1,400 years of history and is also called ma ti gao by the locals. The mixture of water chestnut powder, water chestnut pieces, water and sugar create a semi-transparent pudding-like cake after cooling from a 30-minute steaming process. Sometimes, dry chrysanthemum or osmanthus buds are added to provide a flourish flavor and an aesthetic appearance to the cake. It is mildly sweetened, offering a combination of soft and smooth texture with crunchy water chestnut pieces in the middle.