With all its variety, Chinese cuisine has a different take on desserts than the West: less a sweeter finish to a meal and more of a stand-alone, mini-meal component. Deeply steeped in history, the more popular and traditional desserts look as unique as their name suggests, evoking vivid imagery like “dragon beards” or “rolling donkeys”. Certainly more adventurous than cakes and ice cream, right?!
Flavored Yogurt (Beijing suannai)
Perhaps one of the more ubiquitous snacks in Beijing, flavoured yogurt or Beijing suan nai makes for a delicious and easy snack. Sweet and refreshing, the drink was traditionally served in a ceramic container that was returned to the vendor when finished. In today’s grab-and-go culture, most vendors now sell it in plastic containers as well. Flavored yogurt is made by heating milk, sugar, and rice wine before being left to ferment, a process that makes it thinner than its Western counterpart. Find some at Wenyu Nailao (文宇奶酪店).
Candy fruit (bingtanghulu)
The West has candied apples; Beijing goes a step further with bingtanghulu, or candied haws. The name pays homage to the traditional recipe of using haws, although versions nowadays use a variety of fruits including strawberries, grapes, kiwi, and even vegetables for the more inventive. Candied haws used to be a primary winter snack because its vivid colors brightened the mood, while the red symbolized happiness. Look for these bright snacks on any streetside cart, or if you’re New World Mall, head down to B1 to get some!
Take a bite into history with this Muslim ball-shaped delicacy that dates back to the Ming Dynasty – supposedly. Its background remains murky, and some still debate to this day if it originated in Beijing or elsewhere. But don’t let that distract from its taste: soft, sticky, and sweet, wrapped in glutinous rice and sprinkled with sesame or walnut seeds. Ai wo-wo usually comes filled with red bean, taro, mashed Chinese dates, or hawthorn. You can find some at the Huguosi Snack Shop (护国寺小吃店).
Sweet pea cake (wan dou huang)
Dine as the imperial family once did by trying wan dou huang, or sweet pea cake. Said to be a favorite of Empress Dowager Cixi, this delicacy has become a staple dessert for the masses of Beijing today, though it is admittedly an acquired taste. As the name suggests, the cake is made from mashed white peas, mixed and fried with sugar, and cooked into a thick paste that lends a smooth texture.
Rolling Donkeys (lu da gun)
Despite the name, no donkeys are harmed in the making of this dessert. Instead, the name comes from the coating of yellow soybean flour on each roll, which resembles donkeys rolling around in the countryside and kicking up a cloud of dust. Like ai wo-wo, rolling donkeys are made from glutinous powder and contain several layers of sweet red bean paste. Pick some up from Nanlaishun (南来顺饭庄).
Dragon Beard Candy
The flossy, delicate exterior of dragon beard candy belies its simple list of ingredients: sugar, syrup, peanuts, sesame seeds, and coconut. A Chinese traditional art once reserved only for the ruling class, it originated in the Han Dynasty when the imperial chef successfully entertained the emperor – symbolized by the dragon – with his performance art. When it’s freshly made, it has a very short shelf life and dissipates quickly under heat, so be sure to eat these quickly. And beware – expect the fine strands to stick to your face! You can find these along the streets of Beijing, so keep an eye out!