When I was young, I used to visit my grandpa, who sold Chinese sweets from an old cart. He was a “manapua man,” predecessor to our modern-day food trucks.
At his house, I would be bombarded by all sorts of Chinese sweets, contributing to my childhood obesity but also providing some pleasant memories.
Ive long been on the hunt for the traditional Chinese sweets I was so accustomed to in my childhood. I finally decided to indulge my inner fat kid and go on a spending spree, a term I use loosely considering most treats ring in around $1, in the hopes of soothing my nostalgia, and maybe even my hunger pangs.
Most of these pastries are made early each morning, so that’s the best time to buy them. Here are my favorite shops for familiar specialities:
Sing Cheong Yuan Bakery
This is one of the few remaining bakeries in Chinatown, and it’s always well-stocked.
Peanut candy: This common Chinese taffy is conventionally studded with peanuts with sesame seed top and bottom. The candy is sold in small squares with the taffy serving as a glue. Try the macadamia nut version for a departure from the original. (65 cents each)
Almond cookie: These cookies explode into crumbs when you bite into them, the crumbs melt in your mouth and the look is interesting. They are the perfect complement to a morning cup of coffee. ($3 for a bag of 4)
Jin doi: The great thing about this treat is watching someone eat it for the first time: Bite into it and the entire thing deflates. Jin doi is a three-inch wide ball of rice flour dough, deep-fried and covered with sesame seeds. The outside is both crispy and chewy while the filling is hardly a bite–usually red bean paste, but I much prefer the coconut at Sing Cheong Yuan. ($1)
Rainbow Tea Stop and Bakery
This tiny booth in the maze of the Maunakea Marketplace is tucked along the short hall between the food court and the stalls selling fish, meats and vegetables.
Egg Tart: Oh, these bring back memories. A well-made egg tart looks like a bite-sized pie with a sweet and creamy center and a flaky, shortbread-like crust. Totally worth the allergic reaction I get to eggs. ($1)
Mochi: Not strictly a Chinese treat, these steamed rice flour cakes come in many varieties. This bakery’s mochi (55 cents) is nice and soft. Sprinkled with coconut flakes and filled with red bean paste, this is one of the most popular styles of mochi there and elsewhere.
You have to leave Chinatown for this treat, but, believe me, it’s worth it.
Rice cake (bok tong go, pak tong go): This treat tastes nothing like rice and nothing like cake. Made from a fermented rice flour batter and a sugar syrup, it is steamed in a tray, not baked. It has a very bright white color, is honeycombed with bubbles and is usually served in rectangular slices a couple of inches thick.
Tip: the thicker the slice, the more sour, Since the fermentation process is more vigorous in the center of the pan, I like to grab the thinner, sweeter edge slices ($1.09 per slice). The owners know what you’re doing as you point to the edge pieces, so don’t take their scowls personally.
You tell us where!
Mooncake: One of the best-known Chinese treats, these elaborately molded cakes are often associated with festivals and eaten more out of a sense of tradition than because they’re a delicacy. A sugar-flour-oil pastry is filled with something slightly sweet: red bean paste, lotus seed paste–and egg yolk. Mooncakes are quite expensive to make and take a lot of time and effort (my grandparents used to scold me for eating them too quickly). The cakes are delicious and the emblems imprinted on the top are very intricate and elaborate (stores such as Bo Wah in Chinatown sell wooden molds).
Sadly, the place that used to make my absolute favorite has closed. I’ve searched, but alas, all the ones I’ve tasted were bland and stale.
If you know where to buy really good mooncakes, email [email: foodie]. We’ll check it out.
Try dim sum restaurants
For the ultimate experience in warm Chinese pastries and snacks (both savory and sweet), visit a dim sum restaurant. It’s always crowded at Fook Lam Seafood Restaurant, but once you get seated, you’ll understand why. You get served within minutes, food is readily accessible and there is always a good supply of what you crave ($3-5).