Hongkongers have a sweet tooth. That much is undisputed. Just look around on a typical Saturday night, when young couples and friends flock not to bars but to shops dedicated solely to Cantonese desserts. Specifically, these are shops serving sweet soups and puddings: tong4 seoi2 pou3 (糖水舖, “sugary water shops”).
When the oldest surviving sweet soup shop, Yuen Kee, was set up on Hollywood Road in 1885, two classic dishes were already on the menu: zi1 maa4 wu4 (芝麻糊, black sesame sweet soup), and dan6 naai5 (燉奶, steamed milk pudding). These shops have only grown more popular through the years, and while there are plenty of innovations on their menu, the original duo is still widely available.
You can certainly find it at Tei Mou Koon, a three-decade-old shop in Kowloon City that serves a total of 43 desserts. More than half are sweet soups and steamed puddings. “Sweet soup is derived from soup,” says Judy Fung, Tei Mou Koon’s owner. She explains that while people in the cold climate of northern China consume gang1 (羹), a type of hearty stew simmered with meat, starch and vegetables, people in the balmier climes of southern China consumes soup, whose ingredients are based on Chinese medicine. Although the sweetness of tong4 seoi2 makes it a dessert, Fung says its role is not so different from those of other Cantonese soupes: “[It is] consumed to nourish our bodies and remove excess humidity from our bodies in the subtropical southern region.”
Although tong4 seoi2 refers specifically to sugar and water, there is more to it than just these two ingredients. It comes in several forms. The first type is lou6 (露, “juice”), which means adding sago rice, nuts, fruits or herbs to milk or syrup. The second type is zuk1 (粥, “congee”). It involves cooking tubers, soaked beans, peas or grains until the sweet soup thickens, resembling the rice porridge that is a staple of Cantonese food. The third type is wu4 (糊; “paste”), which refers to cooking grinded nuts or seeds until they form a thick soup.
The character of mai5 (米; “rice”) forms a part of both characters zuk1 (粥) and wu4 (糊). But not all of these congee-like or paste-like soups contain rice; the rice character suggests the same cooking method southern Chinese use to cook rice in making congee, as well as how grains are husked and grinded like rice to create paste.
Black sesame sweet soup belongs to the last category – paste. Black sesame has been one of the main agricultural products of China since antiquity. The Cantonese-speaking areas around the Pearl River Delta developed a particular fondness for it, which is how it found its way into a sweet soup.
To make the soup, Tei Mou Koon’s head chef Au Yeung Kwok-lam heats the sesame seeds on a giant wok until they are golden and popping. He then washes them to remove sand and grit. Traditionally, some chefs grind them with a stone grinder. “It’s different from using a blender because a stone grinder can extract the sesame oil further to make the soup more aromatic,” Fung explains. The extracted sesame milk will be cooked with rice milk for thickening, and sweetened with white sugar, which doesn’t cover up the sesame’s nuttiness when compared to jaggery, which has a strong sugarcane taste.
Interestingly, despite the name of the dish, black sesame sweet soup usually contains both black and white sesame seeds. Fung says the sesame oil is where the soup’s aroma comes from. This is why white sesame seeds, which contain more oil, are mixed with black sesame.
But then why not just make the dish with white sesame? “Black sesame is much more nutritious than white ones, making black sesame sweet soup an ideal dietary supplement for the masses,” Fung explains. When compared to walnuts or sweet apricot kernels—both used in other sweet soups—black sesame seeds are a much cheaper ingredient. According to Chinese medicine, black sesame can replenish the energy of the kidney and nourish the skin. It is also a popular belief that black sesame can prevent hair from going grey.
The other sweet soup shop classic is steamed milk pudding. Milk is a common ingredient in Shunde, also known as Shun Tak, a region southeast of Guangzhou. But it isn’t cow’s milk: water buffalo are the most common dairy animals in the area, and it’s their milk that is used to make the puddings. Buffalo milk has a much higher fat content than cow’s milk, ideal for making smooth, rich puddings, which were invented in the Daliang district of Shunde.
To make steamed milk pudding, Au Yeung beats milk and egg whites until they blend together. Then he adds in crystal sugar to taste. He strains the milk mixture and steams it for 10 minutes with a lid on, then removes the lid from time to time for the next 10 minutes until the pudding forms a smooth, firm texture.
There are a few varieties of steamed milk pudding. Double-skin steamed milk pudding (soeng1 pei4 naai5 雙皮奶) has two layers of curd, created by skilfully pouring away the milk below the first layer of curd, before pouring in the milk on top and steaming it again. As for spicing up the pudding’s flavour, the ginger milk curd (goeng1 zap1 zong6 naai5 薑汁撞奶) is a real winter warmer: heat up the milk mixture and pour it straight into ginger juice. Protease, an enzyme in ginger, converts the milk into curd.
Buffalo milk has always been part of the diet in Daliang, where milk is steamed, fried or further processed to make puddings, fried milk or cheese, so that the unconsumed milk does not spoil in the warm, humid climate. Since dairy is rare in most parts of China, Fung says it’s likely that people in Daliang turned to milk out of necessity, since water buffalo are native to the area.
But when it comes to how milk pudding was invented, there are several stories tracing back to 1850. They all point to how a villager or farmer either steamed a bowl of buffalo’s milk twice by mistake, or how unused milk was steamed for longer storage to avoid wastage. In all cases, the accidental outcome was a pleasant surprise in taste and texture, and has been since turned into a classic dessert.
And just as with sweet soups, steamed milk pudding isn’t just a delicious treat. Milk is rich in calcium and protein, and it contains proteins that can maintain the elasticity of the skin as it ages. “A lot of students come for a bowl before their exams to give themselves a shot of brain booster,” Fung laughs. They won’t be getting the most traditional version of the pudding, however. Fung says that buffalo milk isn’t widely available in Hong Kong, so local steamed milk puddings are made with cow’s milk.
The break with tradition doesn’t discourage customers from flooding in for these late-night desserts. Tei Mou Koon sells as many as 100 to 200 bowls of black sesame sweet soup and steamed milk pudding per day in winter, and around half as many in summer. Black sesame soup remains the shop’s best-selling dish, even if it also offers more contemporary desserts like mango pancakes. Cody Ng, a university student who lives in Kowloon City, says she has been a regular for four or five years and is a fan of the traditional duo. “My mom says the traditional desserts there remind her of her childhood,” she says. “Sometimes I order them to know more about old Hong Kong.”
Fung agrees that traditional sweet soups and puddings aren’t just meant for the older generation. “My mom fed me with these nourishing desserts when I was small. After I grew up, they’ve become my go-to comfort food,” she says. “And it’s not just about the dishes, customers come here to hang out with their friends.” In every way, across generations and distance, this simple black and white couple binds Hongkongers together with their sweetness.