A Cook's Diary

Chinese desserts can’t be pretty bad because there are no desserts in Chinese cuisine

On page 40 of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, Jennifer 8. Lee wrote:

It cannot be denied that the fortune cookie is an odd member of the Chinese dessert family. Traditional Chinese desserts, as any Chinese-American child will tell you, are pretty bad. There is a reason Chinese cuisine has a worldwide reputation for wontons, and not for pastries.

I read that book last year but that paragraph stuck to my mind. I always felt there was something wrong with it. Illogically wrong.

In the first place, dessert is a Western concept. While sweets form part of Chinese cuisine, they are usually eaten as snacks and not as a mandatory last course in a meal. And that’s true in most of Asia. So, it’s really insane that when you search Western food sites, there is a category for Chinese desserts. It would be more correct to label them as Chinese sweets instead.

Perhaps, I shouldn’t be surprised with Ms. Lee’s observation. Her whole point in The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is, after all, to push the theory that dishes invented in America by Chinese immigrants can rightfully be considered as authentic and traditional Chinese food. Like lemon chicken and General Tso’s chicken. Or even chop suey, for that matter. For the longest time, I was under the impression that chop suey was a traditional Chinese dish until I realized it was invented in America. It is just the pervasive American culture, via its even more pervasive media, that has blurred the distinction between authentic Chinese and Chinese-American cooking.

Today, of course, with the Westernization of Asia (which has been going on for more than a century in countries like the Philippines), serving dessert at the end of the meal has become a common practice.

Now, from the perspective of today’s practice, do Chinese desserts really suck?

When I eat at Chinese restaurants, the most common desserts are the ubiquitous almond jelly and tapioca balls and mango. Although, strictly speaking, buchi is a dim sum dish, it is now commonly served as a dessert.

Admittedly, the Chinese dessert repertoire is not as wide nor as varied as its Western counterparts. Same with most of Asia. Naturally, since dessert is a pretty new concept in Asia.

But while we Asians may have less (and know relatively little about the preparation of Western) pastries, we have more in terms of fresh fruits most of which are available all year ’round. And this abundance has resulted in the practice of serving slices of fresh fruit for dessert.

Fresh fruit is “pretty bad” dessert?

Consider this.

1. Desserts of slices of fresh fruits require very little preparation. We Asians can have dessert without contributing too much to the greenhouse effect.

2. Fresh fruits has natural but no additional sugar, and they have no animal fat. By today’s health standards, they are healthier.

3. Fruits may not be fancy and they’re certainly no eye candy but they are fresh and natural (I didn’t say they’re all organic), and they’re friendlier to the digestive system.

I don’t think that’s pretty bad. Not at all.

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