Fantastic Hong Kong Desserts and Where to Find Them: 翠苑甜品專家 / Tsui Yuen Dessert
Updated: Mar 20
糖水 ('Tong shui' literally 'sugar water') or sweet soup is a traditional Cantonese form of dessert which sings praise to their main ingredient.
At the forefront is a hearty bowl of black sesame and walnut sweet soup mix - usually an off menu order but one that is known and loved by all locals. At the background is a sweet soup of sweet potatoes cooked in a gingery broth topped with two sesame-filled glutinous rice balls. Both are perfect warmers for the winter.
'Tong shui' is a category of dessert which encompasses a wide range of sweet soup that is served at the end of a meal in Cantonese cuisine. Each type of 'tong shui' focuses on one main ingredient or a combination of a few.
Black sesame and walnuts are toasted, ground into paste and cooked into a thick 'soup' to form the traditional 芝麻糊 (black sesame sweet soup/ ji ma wu) and 核桃露 (walnut sweet soup/ hup tou lou). Dried green mung beans and red beans are soaked overnight to soften before they are boiled and simmered for hours to give the two classics: 綠豆沙 (green mung bean sweet soup/ luk dau sa) and 紅豆沙 (red bean sweet soup/ hong dau sa).
Sweetened naturally with brown slab sugar, the main ingredient of each type of sweet soup becomes the star of the show. It is respect in a bowl.
It doesn't matter if you are vegan, lactose-intolerant or have nut allergies, there will always be a type of sweet soup (most likely more) that is just right for you.
About the soups
Usually served hot, these desserts sweetened slightly with natural sugars leave a very pleasant finish on your palate of whichever ingredient it celebrates. Take the sesame and other nut-based sweet soups for example, they are silky, punchy desserts that pay complete tribute to the essence of their main ingredient. Light in a stomach-hugging way, these sweet soups serve as a perfect end to many types of meals.
Other than being desserts, they are also a perfect snack on a chilly or gloomy day when you have a slight sugar crave.
Where to find them
If you're looking for comforting traditional sweets, look no further than Tsui Yuen Dessert. With 5 branches dotted around Hong Kong island, you'll be able to satisfy your curiosities and cravings for these sweet soups in any of them.
Made and served by impassive middle-aged women who always seem to be bustling about, you'll be jumping straight into traditional local culture the moment you step into the little shop. There is a selection of traditional sweet soups served piping hot, with some variations of sweet soups also available cold. You know their sweet soups are of quality when you can taste the pureness of each humble ingredient and the added hint of sweetness that compliments it.
With menus written in Chinese and side notes detailing the health benefits of each sweet soup - from smoother skin to immune system boosters - it is a good idea to bring a local friend if you don't read Chinese. Though, if you do brave the experience alone, I highly recommend getting the black sesame sweet soup, a classic, or the black sesame and walnut mixed sweet soup, a personal favourite. The nuttiness and silkiness of these sweet soups are truly one of a kind.
Desserts that bring health benefits
As I might have mentioned, these sweet soups do have health benefits. The idea of desserts being healthy may not sound very convincing initially, but if you think about it, there are plenty examples of such in 'Western' cuisine. Grab yourself some chia seed pudding made with non-diary milk or a fruity granola yoghurt pot, and you'll get all the fibers, good fats, vitamins and minerals you'll need for the day. This concept of healthy eating - whilst not giving up on flavour or texture - is the same for Cantonese sweet soups. Instead of fiber, vitamins and minerals, Chinese people talk elements. For example, one would have the green mung bean sweet soup in the summers for its 'cooling' elements , and the red bean sweet soup in the winter to improve blood circulation. Don't ask me me why certain ingredients are classified as 'cool' and others 'warm', no one knows, it's just written... in history(?) and the tradition of medicinal cuisine.
So if you would like to immerse yourself in a delightfully delectable local experience, grab yourself a bowl of sweet soup and you won't be disappointed.