Header photo courtesy of Ariyani Tedjo (via Shutterstock)
Originally published by Inés Fung. Last updated by Annette Chan.
When we think of desserts, it is cakes, puddings, and ice creams that usually spring to mind. In Hong Kong, however, the perfect end to a meal almost always comes in the form of a bowl of warm soup or sweet custard. These traditional Cantonese desserts are collectively known as tong sui (糖水)—quite literally translated as “sugar water”—and are a must-try if you want to eat like a true Hongkonger.
Not only are Cantonese dessert soups delicious, but they’re also (allegedly) good for you. Each shop has their own secret recipes, some even passed down through the generations, but the base of most consists of milk, beans, herbs, and fruits. They’re available year-round, but as the temperatures drop, the demand for a heartwarming bowl of tong sui rises.
Don’t know where to start? We’ve created a handy guide to Cantonese desserts for you so you can focus on the most important thing: satisfying your sweet tooth!
Mulberry mistletoe tea is probably one of the best-tasting traditional Chinese herbal remedies out there—this sweet tea, which is made from a parasitic plant that grows on mulberry trees, is often accompanied with slow-cooked lotus seeds, red dates, and a hard-boiled egg. Given the seemingly discordant combination of ingredients, this isn’t exactly a beginner’s tong sui—but according to traditional Chinese medicine, mulberry mistletoe tea can boost iron, reduce blood pressure, and ease joint pain—which is why pregnant women are often encouraged to consume it as a healthy, nourishing dessert.
The lotus seeds, red dates, and egg are also believed to have balancing, soothing effects on the body, like relieving heartburn, alleviating excessive bleeding, and reducing stress, to name a few.
Try one of the most famous mulberry mistletoe teas in town at Yuen Kee Dessert, an old-school dessert shop in Sai Ying Pun that has been around for more than a century. The lotus seeds here are especially famous for being perfectly tender, rather than grainy—and the tea itself is also beloved for its subtle herbal sweetness.
If you’ve been shopping around the Ladies’ Market in Mong Kok, another excellent option is Ho Kee Dessert on Fa Yuen Street.
Yuen Kee Dessert, 32 Centre Street, Sai Ying Pun | (+852) 2548 8687
Ho Kee Dessert, G/F, 119 Fa Yuen Street, Mong Kok | (+852) 2394 1494
We’ll admit it: sweet almond soup with egg whites isn’t the most visually appealing thing in the world—boiled egg whites bobbing around in a white soup just don’t pop the way that cute glutinous rice balls or vibrant mango sago do. But those who love it really love it. This soup, which is often also referred to as a tea, has a thinner consistency than most other nut and seed pastes (露; lou6)—such as the famous black sesame soup or walnut soup—and is said to be beneficial to maintaining a radiant complexion.
One of the most refined examples around can be found at upscale Cantonese eatery The Chairman. The soup here has a sweet, intoxicating almond fragrance, silky-smooth egg whites, and absolutely no trace of bitterness.
Another good rendition can be found at a congee chain, of all places—Sun Kee Chicken Congee, which hails from Yuen Long, is famed for its rice porridge, but regulars often like to end a meal with a complexion-boosting egg white and sweet almond tea ($19)
The Chairman, G/F, 18 Kau U Fong, Central | (+852) 2555 2202
Tofu pudding is a smooth and silky beancurd concoction steamed in wooden or bamboo barrels and most commonly served with ginger syrup or red sugar. It’s a simple dessert that really showcases the versatility of tofu as a key ingredient in Chinese food. Have it hot or cold—it still melts in your mouth.
If you find yourself in Tai Po, check out Granny’s Tofu Pudding, a stall that’s famous amongst local foodies for their heaping bowls of tofu pudding. There are only about four seats inside the stall so you’ll have to enjoy this fragrant treat standing up.
Legs too tired? Kung Wo Beancurd Factory in Sham Shui Po is a blast from the past with heaps of seats where you can sit down and enjoy your favourite soybean products, but especially their tofu pudding. They recently got a nod from the Michelin guide, too.
Staunch islandsider? Get your fix at Dream Tofa, a narrow blink-and-you’ll-miss-it hole-in-the-wall on Lyndhurst Terrace that is one of the best places to get a proper tofu pudding in Central.
Granny’s Tofu Pudding, Shop 2A, Tai Kwong Lane, Tai Po
Kung Wo Beancurd Factory, 118 Pei Ho Street, Sham Shui Po | (+852) 2386 6871
Dream Tofa, Shop 6, G/F, 1 Lyndhurst Terrace, Central | (+852) 2346 8889
Red bean or mung bean soup is definitely an acquired taste, but it’s one of the healthiest dessert choices around. The beans are cooked down with sugar and water, and medicinal herbs and dried fruits are usually added for flavour. Mung bean soup is sometimes served with kelp as well. The resulting texture is a bit sandy, hence its name in Cantonese literally meaning “bean sand.” Red bean soup is good for reducing bloating, while mung bean soup has been found to aid those with high blood pressure and cholesterol problems.
A lot of local families make red bean soup and mung bean soup at home, but if you’d prefer to let someone else do the heavy lifting, head to Kai Kai Dessert in Jordan, a traditional Cantonese dessert shop that had queues going down the street after being recommended by the Michelin guide. Order the red bean & mung bean soup combo ($22) for double the benefits.
Another traditional shop to hit up for a hearty bowl of sweet soup is Luk Lam Dessert. Luk Lam offers heaps of customisation options, allowing you to add on ingredients like glutinous rice balls and even unusual choices like ice cream and Oreo bits to your bean soups.
Kai Kai Dessert, 29 Ning Po Street, Jordan | (+852) 2384 3862
Luk Lam Dessert, 77–79 Un Chau Street, Sham Shui Po | (+852) 2361 4205
Black sesame soup is a polarising dessert, but you’ll quickly learn to not judge it on its dark appearance. A rich and velvety soup made with both white and black sesame seeds, black sesame soup is super beneficial for nourishing your body inside and out as well as promoting hair growth.
Dai Leung Hung Fai Kee is a bit off the beaten path but famous for their hand-ground seeds and nuts soups. Batches are made fresh daily inside the cosy shop and the rich pastes can be made from black sesame, sweet almond, walnut, and peanut.
Dai Leung Hung Fai Kee, 8 Chuen Lung Street, Tsuen Wan | (+852) 2419 7711
Glutinous rice balls are typically eaten during Chinese New Year or Mid-Autumn Festival as a symbol of familial reunion and love. These soft and chewy morsels of goodness are usually packed with black sesame paste, red bean paste, or peanut paste, then wrapped in a layer of glutinous rice flour. You can indulge in the rice balls plain or have them added to Chinese dessert soups like black sesame soup or sweet potato soup. Careful not to burn your tongue, as the perfect rice ball should have the fillings spilling out when you bite into them.
Fook Yuen in North Point is famous for their homemade glutinous rice balls. Handrolled fresh every day with all of your favourite fillings, Fook Yuen’s rice balls come in portions of four or five and are served in your choice of base (we like the almond milk, which doesn’t overpower the sweet dumplings). Fook Yuen also offers a dry version of the dumplings, where you toss them in ground peanut, coconut shavings, and sugar. The crowds brave the cold to sit in the makeshift open-air dining area outside Fook Yuen just to get their fill of these moreish glutinous rice balls, so you might want to get take-out.
Fook Yuen, Shop I-1, G/F, Lei Do Building, 7 Fuk Yuen Street, North Point | (+852) 3106 0129
Those with lactose intolerance will never know the simple joy of steamed milk or egg custards. Like most Chinese desserts, it’s made with humble ingredients and can be whipped up in a jiffy. These sweet steamed custards have the same base: milk, eggs, sugar. The ratio is adjusted depending on what the end product is, and in the case of steamed milk custard, ginger syrup is often added for a spicy kick. Served hot or cold, steamed egg and steamed milk custards are a simple comfort.
We can’t mention steamed custards without talking about the two iconic restaurants that are on every foodie’s Hong Kong must-eat list: Australia Dairy Company (not actually Australian) and Yee Shun Dairy Company. Both serve up a mean Hong Kong-style breakfast (ADC has some of the best scrambled eggs in town) and their own styles of steamed custards.
If you’re going to get one thing from either dairy company, go for the double skin milk egg custard, a silky curd concoction made with buffalo milk, egg whites, and sugar. The double skin comes from the layers that form during the cooling of the boiled milk then the cooling of the cooked custard.
Australia Dairy Company, 47 Parkes Street, Jordan | (+852) 2730 1356
Yee Shun Dairy Company, locations across Hong Kong
Mango sago is possibly the most iconic Cantonese dessert. As a dessert so easily recognisable and truly from Hong Kong, mango sago is popular around the world in its wild variety of forms (mango sago bubble tea, anyone?) and is usually a foreigner’s first foray into Chinese-style sweets. Made with succulent mangoes, fresh pomelo, and chewy bits of sago (tapioca pearls), this dessert is served cold with evaporated milk or coconut milk drizzled on top.
If you’re not a fan of mangoes, sago pudding (西米露) can be made in combination with other fruits like taro, cantaloupe, or honeydew melon, or simply cooked in coconut milk. Sago pudding is a great way to end a big meal as it helps aid the digestive process as well as strengthen the spleen.
Kowloon City dessert granddaddy Tei Mou Koon may be famous for their traditional and more medicinal tong sui options, but they also serve up a mean mango sago. If you’re out with family for an authentic Thai dinner in the area, the little ones won’t have to worry about not having dessert options.
Tei Mou Koon Dessert, G/F, 47 Fuk Lo Tsun Road, Kowloon City | (+852) 2382 5004