Updated: September 3, 2019
Although Chinese people tend to shy away from sugar-filled foods in comparison to Western culture, the Middle Kingdom is home to a wide variety of sweet treats that are fun to eat for both kids and adults.
Of course, the treats on offer are a little different from the ones you may be used to. That does not mean you should be afraid to try them! Read on for some of our favorite sweet treats and candy in China.
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Traditional bingtanghulu is a sugar-coated fruit on a stick – while the fruit can vary (favorites include kiwi, strawberry, and orange), the most authentic version uses Chinese hawthorn fruit which can be eaten raw.
This fruit is believed to have health benefits such as lowering cholesterol, but the sugar gets in the way of that! Found in Northeast China, you now have a good reason to visit Beijing where you’ll be sure to find them. There’s nothing quite as fun as wandering the old hutong alleys of the capital with a sweet bingtanghulu in hand on a winter’s day.
Cantonese Egg Tart
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Reminiscent of colonial times, egg tarts first made their way to China aboard the fleets of Portuguese and British ships. Adopted in Macau and Guangzhou, the custard-filled pastry appeared in the 1920s as part of the ‘new dim sum’ or ‘dessert weekly’ menu – an effort by competing restaurants to attract more customers under the premise of mouth-wateringly sweet treats. Then, as waves of Chinese chefs migrated to Hong Kong in the 40s, the tarts went with them, with recipes tweaked and flavors altered to suit local tastes. In Hong Kong, honey-egg and ginger-flavored variations can be found. They’re so popular throughout China they even appear on the KFC menu!
These citrus fruits look like tiny, oblong oranges and, apart from the seeds, you can eat every part. Kumquats are actually native to China, and the name kumquat comes from the Cantonese gam-gwat meaning ‘golden orange.’
During Chinese New Year, kumquats are often displayed in local houses and in shops. Often, people will give them as gifts during this season to symbolize prosperity. Kumquats can be very sour and tart to the taste, so they are often candied in a syrup of sugar and water to make them into sweet treats.
Red Bean Buns
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Originating from Beijing, red bean buns are the sweet alternative to the traditional baozi. These small, fluffy buns are eaten pretty much at any time of day and are filled with a smooth, sweet paste made out of red beans. With their mellow flavor and handheld nature, they are an easy on-the-go snack. Dip the bun in some milk or soy milk and this comforting sweet-treat is a sure-fire winner.
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These are associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival in China which is usually in September or early October. Like it’s counterpart in America, Halloween, the Mid-Autumn Festival is a historic holiday to celebrate a good harvest (and of course, eat sweet treats).
Mooncakes can be found all around China, but in big cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai, five-star hotels like the Rosewood will put together their own special boxes of exclusive gourmet mooncakes made by their master bakers. Not all mooncakes are sweet, of course, as some contain ingredients like egg yolks and minced meat. That being said, even the savory ones taste like a treat to the mouth. Plenty of choice for prices and fillings – time to say fly me to the mooncake!
Chinese Fortune Candy
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If you’re lucky enough to visit China during the Chinese New Year, you’ll witness not only the consumption of copious amounts of food and drink but the endless ingesting of candy too – fortune candy to be precise. Over the 15-day festival, children are actively encouraged to eat as many candies as possible, which are said to symbolize wealth, happiness, and luck. Beautifully decorated boxes are crammed full of these ‘fortune candies’, which can be anything from seeds and dried fruits to the traditional (and sugar-filled) hard candies.
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Talking of full moons, Tuckahoe Pie is a nourishing dish in the shape of a full moon, paper-thin and snow white. Also known by its Chinese name, fuling jiabing, Tuckahoe Pie is a traditional sweet treat in Beijing that has also been an important part of the capital’s culture. The crust is made of Tuckahoe powders and refined flour. The stuffing that is sandwiched between the crusts is a mixture of honey, granulated sugar, confect, pine cones, and crushed kernels. The fuling part of the pancake comes from a medicinal mushroom from Yunnan province used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to help urinary and digestive tract issues. Or as they say in TCM, ‘remove dampness from the spleen.’
During the Qing Dynasty, this snack was served to the royal family with beautiful patterns carved into it. Now, you can find the treat at traditional Chinese bakeries dotted around town.
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Somewhat unusual to the western palate, basi digua is an interesting dessert that takes the starchy flavor of sweet potatoes and encases it in a sweet, caramelized coating. Originating in the northeast where potatoes are a staple ingredient, this dish requires cubes of sweet potatoes to be deep-fried before individually dipping each piece in a syrup made of dissolved sugar. The name basi digua literally translates as golden thread sweet potato, named after the stringy caramel thread that forms in the air as you eat piece after piece. Its piping-hot temperature makes this a great sweet treat on a cold winter’s day.
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Thanks to the rising popularity of bubble tea around the world, many people are becoming more familiar with grass jelly. Grass jelly is popular all around Asia, but Mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong are the main areas it is consumed. Does the name ‘grass’ throw you off? Fortunately, there is no grass present, and this jelly is made from leaves similar to the mint family.
Grass jelly is served in a variety of ways including with fruits, milk, or sugar syrup. Chinese people love to eat it as a snack on a warm day, and it’s very good for cooling you down when it gets hot. Like many other of our sweet treats, grass jelly is also believed to cure colds in Traditional Chinese Medicine. There’s no special occasion to eat grass jelly; it’s a special treat you can have year-round!
Mung Bean Popsicle
If you find yourself exploring the Middle Kingdom during the summer season, you’ll most definitely be searching for something to cool you down – and while a dive in the pool may not be an option, the Chinese have come up with a fair few sweet treats to keep you cool. Among them is the mung bean popsicle. Coming in at around 1 yuan, this Chinese take on the popsicle is said to cool you down from the inside out (according to Chinese medicine). The flavor may not quite match up to the sugar-filled popsicles of the west, but they are well worth a try for the experience alone – and to combat China’s fierce summers!
Dragon’s Beard Candy
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Dragon’s Beard Candy is also known as Chinese Cotton Candy and is a handmade traditional Chinese sweet, similar to spun sugar. The art is believed to date back to the Han Dynasty 2000 years ago, where an imperial court chef entertained the emperor by making it, and its thin, sticky threads resemble a beard.
The Han Dynasty capital of Chang’an, know today as Xi’an, is a great place to check out this ancient treat. Dragon’s Beard Candy will be a great compliment to your halal meal in Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter.
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Keeping with the theme of cooling summer sweets, baobing is the Taiwanese version of shaved ice, and can be found throughout China during the summer months. Enjoy the spectacle as a huge block of ice is shredded down into fine shavings and then coated with your favorite toppings, from sugar water and condensed milk to tapioca balls and mochi. Then, pile high the fruit, typically mango, and you have a delicious low-calorie dessert. This dessert is such a fan favorite that it was even served at state banquets with Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and President Richard Nixon.
Has all this talk tantalized your sweet tooth? Our local guides know exactly where to find the sweetest bingtanghulu and the tastiest mooncakes. Start planning your sugar-filled journey with our trip designers today.