Trick or Treat: 7 Traditional Hong Kong Sweets To Try
Celebrate Halloween with a tinge of nostalgia this year as we sample old Hong Kong’s favourite sweets
Before western confectionery brands like Hershey’s, Cadbury’s and Haribo arrived in the city, Hongkongers in the Sixties and Seventies would head to small, family-owned grocery stores—known in Cantonese as see dor—when a hankering for treats hit. Alongside newspapers and household essentials, these shops specialised in distinctively Asian snacks not only designed to satisfy a sweet tooth but also to treat a variety of medical complaints.
While celebrating Halloween this year, why not go all out with a Hong Kong theme? You can’t go wrong with these corner-shop mainstays.
This iconic Shanghainese confection is older than the People’s Republic of China. In 1943, a Chinese merchant travelling through Europe tried a milk-flavoured sweet and liked it enough to formulate his own version upon his return home. Those early confections were called Mickey Mouse sweets owing to the use of Disney’s cartoon character on the wrapper.
However, after the Cultural Revolution, when western iconography fell out of favour, the mascot was changed to a white rabbit. White Rabbit sweets are known for the edible rice paper around a milky chew made with sugar, cream, milk and cornflour.
The snacks’ instantly recognisable and undeniably retro red and blue design has inspired a raft of modern incarnations—from cake, bubble tea and ice cream to streetwear, accessories and beauty products. In 1972, the bunny even made it to the news when US President Nixon was given White Rabbit by China’s first premier, Zhou Enlai, during Nixon’s landmark visit to Beijing.
Life Buoy Biscuit
Biscuits aren’t a Chinese concept. However, these adorable Guangzhou biscuits reflect the modest lives of the masses before the 1980s when imported British biscuits, such as Jacob’s, were unaffordable to most people. On Lok Yuen, originally a local western restaurant, started inventing a cheaper, simpler version of biscuits, which were made with just eggs, flour and sugar. The mixture is made into the shape of a small doughnut, boiled, blow-dried and baked to create a biscuit with a light, dry texture.
They were first served at Oi Kwan Hotel after 1949, where a lot of expats from the Soviet Union stayed. The biscuits were made popular overseas when these expats, who grew fond of them, brought them home as souvenirs.
The Fruit Of The Eight Immortals
These small, jet-black cubes might not look like the most appetising snack on the list, but are worth trying, especially for a Halloween challenge. The hard cuboid sweets, which smell like mint and tangerine, are chewed to soothe coughs and sore throats—similar to Fisherman’s Friend in the West.
The recipe varies according to region, but in general, the sweet is made by stuffing herbal ingredients, including chen pi (dried tangerine peel), the crow-dipper plant, fungi and liquorice into a grapefruit or chayote (a type of gourd).
After being dried outdoors, the resulting black substance is divided into little pyramids or squares. Here’s one sweet you probably shouldn’t binge on: crow-dipper, aka pinellia ternata, is slightly poisonous, so they aren’t recommended while pregnant.
We have this snack on hand as much for the beautiful packaging as the taste. Pak Fa Fui’s chewy preserved apricots come in little paper boxes printed with a picture of the Queen Mother of the West, a goddess of Chinese mythology who is said to have feasted on apricots on her birthday.
For more than a century, Pak Fa Fui, established in 1903 in Macau, has been manufacturing soy sauce as well as a multitude of preserved fruit snacks and other Chinese confectionery, but the brand is best known for its apricots, which are thought to protect people who eat them from plagues and natural disasters.
Some types of Chinese confectionery aren’t only a cure for a sweet tooth; they can be medicinal, too. These coin-sized red discs are made by baking the crushed and boiled fruit of the Chinese hawthorn tree.
They originate from the sugar-coated haw sticks, which were a popular street snack during the Song dynasty, and pop up in the seasonal flower market during Lunar New Year. With their sweetness and acidity, haw flakes, according to traditional Chinese medicine, help aid poor digestion and get rid of bruises. Many Hongkongers will have memories of being given haw flakes as a treat when visiting Chinese medicine shops as a child.
Another confectionery that has medicinal value is chen pi mui, or plums preserved in sundried tangerine peel jam. Plums are first soaked in water then preserved with tangerine peel jam, sugar and raw ginger, before being spiced up with liquorice and baked. Dried tangerine peel, which is believed to relieve coughing and inflammation symptoms, is one of the most widely used ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine.
Apart from traditional confectionery, it recently has also been used in modern mooncakes. Plums, on the other hand, help with digestion. These two ingredients have become a classic combination in confectionery, which Chinese medicine shopkeepers give to parents who have a hard time convincing their children to drink bitter herbal teas.
Candied Roasted Peanuts
A favourite of all ages, the crunchy, nutty cubes, glazed with a sweet amber coating, are especially popular during Lunar New Year due to their sweetness and golden colour, which are considered auspicious. But making this brittle— whose ingredients generally include peanuts, maltose and white sugar—is not easy. If the temperature is too high during the roasting process, the candy will become too hard.
While candied, roasted nut bars are common worldwide, the Hong Kong version only uses peanuts, and is famous for adding a sprinkling of sesame seeds as a final touch for an even nuttier flavour.
See also: 7 Things You Will Only Find In Hong Kong
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