Would it surprise you to learn that the iconic symbol of Chinese food, the humble fortune cookie, isn't Chinese in origin at all? Like General Tso's chicken, the fortune cookie is an invention that has its roots in North America instead. So, what should you serve if you are looking for an "authentic" Chinese dessert to put on your table? Here are 3 traditional Chinese desserts that come complete with their own custom or story for you to try:
1.) Moon Cakes
Traditionally eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival in China, moon cakes are round pastries with thin shells, and contain dense, sweet fillings, typically made from lotus seed paste or red bean curd. Some versions include a salted egg yolk in the very center, as a symbol of the moon. The tops of the pastries are usually imprinted with Chinese characters representing "harmony," a rabbit (sacred to the moon), or the Moon Goddess Chang'e.
These cakes are offered not just to friends and relatives, but to Chang'e, the merciful moon goddess who looks down on mortals (since she used to be one) with sympathy for their struggles. They are given in exchange for good fortune and safety for members of the household.
2.) Sticky Cakes
These sweet, sticky cakes are made from brown sugar and glutinous rice flour, and include dates, nuts, sesame seeds, and other dried fruit that's available. These sweet and sticky cakes are designed to serve at celebrations and special occasions, but are especially made for New Year celebrations, so that they can be served to the household Kitchen God.
Every New Year, the Kitchen God tells the Jade Emperor of Heaven how the family has behaved. A favorable report means good luck for the year, but a dismal report brings bad luck. To court the Kitchen God's favor, the custom is to offer these sticky pastries up as a bribe. That way, the Kitchen God will report your good behavior to the heavens (or at least have his mouth too full to give a bad report).
3.) Wife Cakes (Lou Po)
Wife cakes are small, flaky pastries about the size of a doughnut, and are often filled with a candied mash of winter melon, glutinous rice flour and even coconut, though regional recipes vary. Originally Cantonese, the dessert is still popular in Hong Kong and mainland China.
The legend behind these treats is that they were made by a poor man in honor of his wife - who had sold herself into slavery in order to buy medicine to save the life of her sick father-in-law. The cakes were so popular that the poor man was able to buy his wife back, along with the needed medicines, creating a happy ending for all.
If you decide to share any of these special desserts (and legends) with your friends or relatives after a traditional Chinese dinner, keep in mind one thing: buy some fortune cookies for those folks who truly feel that no modern Chinese menu is complete without them!
For more information about Chinese cuisine, contact Bamboo Palace Restaurant Chinese Food or a similar location.