Tag Archives: sweets

Our daily packaging: mooncakes

You can spot Mid-Autumn Festival from a month away if you follow the glint and sparkle of mooncake packaging.

While I was growing up, my family would buy a box or two of mooncakes (月饼) filled with sweet lotus seed paste and salted egg yolks to enjoy during (and before and after) Mid-Autumn Festival. We’d take bite-sized slices of the dense, rich pastry with a strong cup of digestive pu’er tea while commenting on how rich and dense it was or whether this brand was any good.

In China these days, the world of business and officials has adopted the festival as an excuse for elaborate gift-giving and guanxi-strengthening during the fall season. Sweet mooncakes — not to be confused with meat mooncakes, 鲜肉月饼, which are uber-popular in Shanghai — are sold in tins and by the piece in supermarkets everywhere, but among those wishing to impress, a nice tidy tin box of plastic-wrapped traditional mooncakes apparently won’t cut it anymore. Häagen-Dazs and other chilled varieties, as well as fillings of coconut, nuts, chocolate, and red bean paste have become very popular, but it’s the lavish packaging these pastries come in that have taken me aback the last few Mid-Autumns I’ve spent in the country.

These were on display at our local Walmart: oversized gilded cases lined with satin and velvet, likely average-tasting mooncakes encased in tin and shiny paper, royal and gaudy all at once. As with so many aspects of life in this increasingly prosperous country, the reliance on façade to beg respect is almost embarrassingly blatant here.

The over-packaging of mooncakes even became news-worthy two weeks ago after the local Beijing government decided to start taxing employees on mooncakes received from their employers, based on the consideration of mooncakes as a fringe benefit. It seems that people are pissed mostly because the price of mooncakes has been inflated to hundreds of RMB per box due to over-packaging, which reportedly makes up more than half the total price.

I had no idea mooncakes were part of employee compensation here; I wonder if it’s stated in job contracts? It’s not in mine, which is just as well: with the amount of mooncake we’ve been receiving and snacking on as an office these last few weeks, I’m pretty relieved not to have been “gifted” a padded box to take home.

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

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Dairy-free, eggless, banana-based ice cream

There’s been a cool, rainy spell in Shanghai lately, but the weather people tell us summer isn’t over yet. As long as I’m still comfortable in shorts, I’m going to keep letting myself indulge in the best part of summer: ice cream. (Which might explain why I’ve disturbingly gained back half the weight I’d lost back in June…)

So I was super excited to discover, while going through my facebook feed one boring workday, someone’s reposting of a “healthy” ice cream recipe. It called for a whopping — ready? — 3 ingredients: frozen banana chunks, peanut butter, and honey. I’d made mung bean popsicles and PBJ froyo pops earlier this summer, but there’s nothing like the indulgent creaminess of soft ice cream. Since those ingredients are foods we always have around at home, I tried it that very night.

The first attempt failed as my impatience led me to use banana chunks that weren’t yet quite frozen, but a couple more tries in the following days (executed by Sean, who jumped on the idea in an instant) finally led to success. The result is a cold, creamy, smooth dessert that tastes and feels like soft serve — and is actually good for you!

I’d known that bananas are often used in lieu of eggs in vegan baked goods, but had no idea they could come out so deliciously creamy when frozen. Even though ripe bananas are used, the banana flavour isn’t overpowering. With no dairy ingredients, this recipe is lactose-intolerant friendly, and vegan-izable if you ditch the honey — which you totally could if the bananas are ripe enough. We spiced ours up with cinnamon and vanilla extract, and plan to try it with some dark chocolate chunks next time.

[Edit: Tried it with the chocolate tonight, FAIL! Even though we nuked the chocolate for 20 seconds before adding it to the mixture, it solidified right back up upon contact with the frozen banana. We ended up with tiny bland bits of chocolate in the ice cream which killed the texture and did nothing for flavour.]

We lost our faithful blender of nearly two years on our third ice cream-making attempt. We’d been meaning to replace it for weeks (months) now, as the hardened grime on its sides became impossible to ignore, but it’d been working fine up until that fateful evening when it began to moan and then slow down. For 99 RMB, it couldn’t be beat. RIP.

Dairy-free banana-peanut butter ice cream

3 medium very ripe bananas
1 heaping tbsp peanut butter
1 tbsp honey (optional)
2 tsp vanilla (optional)
1/2 tsp cinnamon (optional)

1. Peel bananas, slice each into 10 chunks, and place in freezer for 3+ hours or until frozen.
2. Remove from freezer and microwave on medium-high for about 1 minute. This will make it easier to process.
3. Add bananas, peanut butter, and other ingredients to blender/food processor and blend until creamy, like soft serve ice cream. You will need to stop and scrape the sides down several times, or push it down with a spoon as it is blending. Don’t worry if small chunks of banana remain; these are delicious as they have the texture of hard ice cream. Do NOT spend too long on this step as the mixture doesn’t stay solid for long.
4. Transfer to a bowl or two and enjoy immediately!

Makes about 2 servings.


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The Freshary: natural-vegan-organic-environmentally friendly desserts?

I first heard about The Freshary back in March, but only made my way to the environmentally-conscious, all-natural, part-kosher, certified-organic vegan dessert shop on Julu Lu a few weeks ago. It was a sunny, ice-cream-perfect Friday afternoon and I was to meet Sean there for some sweet treats.

I’d been curious about this place for a while. The organic movement is only just starting to catch on here, environmental issues don’t seem to ring loud in the public’s mind, and vegan — well, that’s a hard sell in most places, let alone the pork-loving city that is Shanghai. Clearly this shop isn’t trying to go mainstream, but it did open its second store within six months of their initial SML Center opening. Who is their market? Mostly westerners with a sweet tooth and dietary restrictions?

The shop was devoid of customers when I arrived, so I started chatting with one of the servers inside. The first non-meat-eating Chinese I’ve met here, she was friendly and eager to share her favourite restaurants and how-I-became-vegan story (environmental reasons). When asked how she deals with social occasions with non-veggies, she told me that she often brings her own food when dining out with friends. When going for hotpot, she will request a pot of boiling water in lieu of a “meat/bone”-broth — which is brilliant, actually, since I don’t care much for the ubiquitous chemical-laden soup bases either, and much prefer to flavour my hotpot catches with (perhaps equally chemical-ridden) sauces. I wonder if she gets charged for the water, though. She also has a bunch of vegan friends (and boyfriend), which kinda amazed me. The chat was refreshing and gave me a welcome glimpse into the emerging environment-conscious scene in China.

Anyway, Sean soon arrived and we decided to share a vanilla-black sesame ice cream (you can also get the flavours separately). Their standard soft serve in a regular cone is 25 RMB, but since we were accidentally served a huge portion in a glass and then ordered a chocolate cone on top (which was delicious), it somehow came to 30 RMB.

The ice cream was closer to the texture of frozen yogurt, substantial and lightly sweet without being heavy or cloying, which made it quite refreshing. I liked the flavour of the black sesame, but wish the vanilla flavour could’ve come out stronger. Some would find it too bland, but this is probably the way ice-cream should be — we’ve all just been spoiled by high fructose corn syrup. Because there are no preservatives, we were told, it melts more quickly than regular ice-cream, so I’m not sure how it would’ve fared outdoors.

The Freshary’s website says you can get a free “minnie muffin” with the purchase of an ice cream, but it turned out there was no free muffin. Since we were there, though, we decided we might as well try them, and chose the blueberry and the peanut butter-jelly muffins (15 RMB for 2; 23 RMB for chocolate ones) from 8-10 different flavours. They were mini indeed — less than 2 inches in diameter — and tasted… healthy. Like whole grain and real ingredients healthy, the kind of muffin you could eat for breakfast and not feel guilty about — a far cry from City Shop’s sweet, greasy, indulgent cake-like affairs. Which was great, but at the price, the muffins were a little too bite-sized to become my breakfast staple.

The shop also sells chocolates, pretzels, and other baked goods, which we didn’t try. During the hour that we were there, one other couple (western guy and Chinese woman, surprise) came in and sat down. It seemed to me that with their location off bustling Jing’an on quiet Julu Road, it might take a little more than impressive certifications — a bigger drinks list, perhaps, and slightly lowered prices — to draw a steady in-store clientele. Of course, I was only there on a random Friday afternoon; for all I know the place could be packed on a weekend evening (I hope so!).

Since I can eat eggs and dairy, the Baker and Spice downstairs from my office will likely remain my go-to for splurging on baked goods. That said, being a fan of The Freshary’s forward-thinking values and practices, the shop’s decor and friendly service, I’ll be back next time I’m in the neighbourhood and craving something healthfully sweet.

The Freshary

Julu Road
907 Julu Lu near Changshu Lu
(21) 6445-2137

SML Center
618 Xujiahui Lu, B2, T-3
(21) 6093-8282


Filed under eating out, restaurants - vegetarian

Homemade PBJ frozen yogurt pops

Warning peanut-butter-jelly fans: this may keep you by your freezer for the rest of the summer.

While looking up a jiaozi recipe the other day, I caught sight of a link for “peanut butter frozen yogurt” and was instantly intrigued. It’s been hot. Sean loves peanut butter. I’ve been dying to expand my repertoire of desserts not requiring an oven. When I found how out easy it was to make (frozen yogurt really is just yogurt that’s frozen! Well, plus a few things around the kitchen), I headed immediately for the fridge.

Inspired by the recipe that recipe was inspired by, I added a fruity twist by throwing a spoonful of raspberry jam in with the peanut butter, milk, yogurt, and honey. The raspberry seeds and peanut chunks gave this sweet (and slightly salty) treat extra texture and a sort of natural, healthier feel.

While these creamy ice pops do contain whole milk, full-fat yogurt, and Skippy peanut butter (yes, not the most natural PB around), I’ve already convinced myself that this is still better for me than store-bought ice-cream with its chemicals and artificial flavourings (sorry, Magnum, I still love you). Once you try these, you will too :-)

And if you’re trying to do with fewer carbs this summer, this perfect combo of ingredients is basically a breadless breakfast on a stick that you can even take for the road. No, I’m not even kidding.

Berry peanut butter frozen yogurt pops
Adapted from this recipe. For enhanced texture, use crunchy peanut butter and jam with seeds/fruit pieces instead of jelly.

1/3 cup peanut butter
1 tbsp strawberry or raspberry (or other berry) jam
1/2 cup milk
1 cup (160g) plain, sweetened yogurt
2 tbsp honey (or more if using unsweetened yogurt)

1. Put all ingredients in a blender and process until smooth. Do a taste test: it should taste very sweet (the sweetness will lessen once it’s frozen).
2. Pour mixture into popsicle molds or into shot glasses and place in freezer. If using shot glasses, stick a wooden stirrer or half a wooden disposable chopstick in the centre of each after about an hour. Freeze for another two hours or until completely solid.
3. Remove the frozen treat from its mold by running under or dipping in warm water. Enjoy!


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A cool stop on a warm day: Bellagio (鹿港小镇)

The first time I ate at Bellagio was for lunch on an unexpectedly warm Christmas Eve, my first in Shanghai. When my friend Jen texted me the name and address of this place, I got a bit nervous: were we going to an expensive Italian restaurant in tourist-trap pricey Xintiandi?

Turns out Bellagio is a mid-range Taiwanese joint with a dessert and drinks menu as thick as (if not thicker than) their regular menu. While their savoury dishes didn’t impress me much and the bill was on the high end of my then-student budget, their shaved ice desserts were unforgettable. Since that meal, Sean and I have been back a couple times, to the Xintiandi location as well as its Xujiahui and Jing’an ones.

All three branches feel clean and trendy-casual, and look the same with their shiny black tables and shiny black chairs and uniformed waitresses sporting uniform pixie cuts. Their vegetarian selection (marked with a green leaf) is not large or particularly remarkable, but during my last few visits I’ve found a few decent dishes that justify having a full meal there (as opposed to going just for dessert). These are my picks for meatless eaters:

The string beans with salted duck egg (咸蛋四季豆, 29 RMB) is wonderfully crunchy and salty and perfect on rice. I could eat an entire plate of the stuff if I were ever to come here by myself…

They do a decent vegetarian spin on their famous three-cup chicken (三杯鸡, 49 RMB) with the three-cup abalone mushroom (三杯杏鲍菇, 36 RMB). The mushrooms are nice and chunky, but unfortunately do not absorb the flavours from the sauce as well as meat does.

The eggplant in clay pot (鱼香茄子煲, 38 RMB), a sweet, spicy, and oily veggie staple originating in Sichuan (not sure what it’s doing in a Taiwanese place), is another solid choice — but I’m usually a fan of this dish wherever I go :-)

For me, though, shaved ice desserts remain the single draw of this restaurant. If you’re not adverse to the idea of beans as dessert, the Bellagio Breeze (综合冰, 33 RMB) — a veritable mountain of shaved ice blanketed in red beans, mung beans, sugary pineapple, pearl tapioca (boba), and chewy taro balls, all infused with sweetened condensed milk — is king. Sean and I usually follow up two dishes and rice with one of these bad boys, and leave completely satisfied.

If you have more people in your party, the strawberry shaved ice is also a great pick.

The one thing that really irks me about this place is that they really pressure you to order their overpriced drinks, even when you ask for just water. Half the time they’ve outright refused to bring us water, and half the time they eventually brought us warm tap water. I realize that restaurants’ profits depend largely on selling beverages and desserts, but it’s always the higher-end, trendy places that refuse to give free tea or water.

In spite of this, since there’s a Bellagio less than a block from my office, I’ll be back many times this summer (armed with a bottle of water, shhh), and maybe discover a few more worthwhile vegetarian dishes!

Bellagio (multiple locations)
Jing’an branch
111 Xikang Lu (西康路111号)
(21) 6247-2666

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Veggie burger quest I: Anna Maya

After reading an NYTimes article on the proliferation of creative and delicious veggie burgers in restaurants across America, I was inspired to go forth, albeit with hopes set pretty low, to see what Shanghai has to offer in that department.

My first chance came a few days ago, when I met up with a friend at Anna Maya, a cute, cozy vegetarian café in the French Concession that looks and feels miles away from China. Its interior is thoughtfully decorated and feels kind of rustic, like the inside of someone’s cottage, with wooden floorboards and rafters, antique furniture, vases and potted plants, and sofas on one end. There was also a display of yoga-related pamphlets and free booklets (in Chinese) on vegetarianism.

Their small hand-written menu listed an assortment of soups, salads, Japanese-style fare like soba noodles and curry, fresh juices, desserts — and, of course, the “ultimate veggie burger” (65 RMB) that I’d read about online and come for. My friend ordered the same thing. When we asked the waitress, in Chinese, whether the burger came with anything on the side, she got confused and tried to convince us to order a soup or a salad. After a frustrating minute of dialogue we decided just to wait and see what we would get.

What we got looked promising, and healthful:

The patty, which was made from chickpeas, corn, cauliflower, brown rice, turmeric, and coriander, had a fresh, albeit subtle, flavour, and the patty didn’t crumble excessively, which was a plus. The whole-wheat bun it was served on, however, was too dense and dry, and the half of a cherry tomato, lettuce leaf, and slice of avocado did little to moisten our mouths. The owner was nice enough to come around and ask us how we were doing, and when we told her it was a bit dry she brought over a dish of white sauce, which made it slightly better. But it still didn’t give me the full, satisfying feeling I expect from a burger, meat-based or not — especially one that claims to be “ultimate”. Maybe if they livened it up by toasting the bread and throwing in a couple more tomatoes, raw onion, and other garnishes… it would stand a chance.

After we were done, we went up to the vegan dessert display, which had 6 or 7 items ranging from banana pudding to strawberry tofu tart to apple crumble. The owner, a Japanese lady who was friendly and clearly passionate about the food she served, lit up as she explained the desserts to us. We were intrigued by a brown rice-red bean tart of sorts and decided to share a slice (35 RMB).

It cradled in its nutty vegan crust sweetened brown rice, red bean paste, and other unknown sweet things, and came with a small bowl of red bean paste, which was much needed as the tart itself was somewhat dry and tough and required a bit of jaw work. In spite of the texture, I enjoyed its deep and wholesome sweetness as well as the idea that for a dessert, it was pretty damn nutritious.

I really wanted to love my meal at Anna Maya, just because I liked the café’s ambiance and friendly owner. But even though the flavours were well-mixed, the textures weren’t quite right in the two dishes we tried (maybe that’s just how it has to be if you can’t use dairy and eggs?). While it wasn’t outrageously overpriced as one might fear such a niche restaurant might be, it would’ve added up if I wanted a soup or a drink (~30 RMB). The service was on the slow side, which was ok with me, but while the staff were nice, they could have been better trained.

I might return to try their other desserts — like their most popular chocolate tofu tart, which was sold out that night — but I won’t be ordering the burger again.

Anna Maya Vegetarian Cafe
3 Taojiang Lu, near Hengshan Lu (上海市桃江路3号,近衡山路)
Tel: 021-6433-4602


Filed under eating out, restaurants - vegetarian

Will pedal for (good) food

Today was grey and drizzly but I still managed to get about an hour of biking in (5th day in a row, yay!) in a quest for yummy edibles.

I set out first to find some 枣糕, a cake made with dates whose moist, spongy texture, at once fluffy and dense, makes it a winning substitute for even-harder-to-find banana bread. Not to mention it also tastes healthier coz of the dates, heh. I’d fallen in love with it about a year ago but hadn’t had it in months, since the shop at the intersection of Yuyuan and Zhenping (super convenient as it’s on my bike route 90% of the time) was transformed into yet another duck neck shop, 绝味, a couple weeks ago.

I still haven’t figured out why duck neck is soooo popular here, maybe coz I’ve never managed to muster up the appetite for it, but REALLY?! The date cake shop (a chain called 枣糕王) always had a line of people waiting for the next freshly baked batch: they couldn’t even make ’em fast enough. How could’ve they have lost out to this stupid duck neck chain??

Needless to say, I’d been devastated, especially as this closure came with a slew of other ones: my go-to shaved ice cafe, go-to massage place, go-to cheap delivery (Lanzhou Lamian—it’s under renovation now so hopefully it’ll be reincarnated as the exact same thing. Not gonna bet on it though). So today I finally looked online (dianping.com) for other shops in the chain. I scribbled down the two closest addresses and off I pedaled.

There was no sign of date cakes anywhere along the street of the first one. Disappointed and hungry (it was lunchtime), I set off on my second quest of the day, planning to hit up the other address on my way home.

Destination number two was Tsui Wah, the Hong Kong chain that’d made its way up to Shanghai. I’d come here a few weeks ago with some friends and bought a pineapple bun for the ride home, and have been craving it ever since. I suspect anyone growing up in HK or in a HK family will have developed a certain snottiness as regards their borlor and other baos, and will prob agree that Shanghai is hugely lacking in that department. The one at Tsui Wah, though, is good. Really good.

The bun was warm, mildly sweet, chewy, and bouncy, and the sweet crust had the requisite crunch, which is where—along with over-dryness or -oiliness—most wannabes fail.

I also got a cocktail bun, which was decent except for a bit of a cardboard texture on the bun’s outer edges. Either way, miles ahead of Shanghai buns, although maybe it’s just that we favour what we’re used to :)

My third mission was to find the Avocado Lady at on Wulumuqi Road, widely known among and loved by expats in the city for selling a variety of “western” products both packaged and fresh—including avocados!—at lower-than-supermarket prices. I’d read lots about her shop but since it’s a bit out of the way on my usual shopping route, never ventured over til today.

What began as a vegetable shop has become the destination for westerners looking for quality, reasonably priced ingredients from home. I won’t say much about it since many others have (just google “avocado lady”), except that it was especially heart-warming to see piles of yellow and green squash and fresh herbs. Although the prices weren’t displayed, both salesladies were friendly and helpful, and I left the shop 75 RMB lighter but carrying a heavy bag of goodies for my black bean chili and tomato/mozzarella/basil (just for the hell of it) tonight.

Which is when I saw… a DATE CAKE SHOP. Right next to the Avocado Lady. Well, technically it called itself a 老婆饼 (“wife cake”) shop—which is probably why I didn’t see it online—but the date cake was all I cared about. This place didn’t seem half as popular as the one on Yuyuan, since there was almost a full sheet just sitting there, but that was just fine with me.

10 RMB got me one 斤 (basically a pound) in a plastic baggy.

Ten seconds in the microwave will bring back its freshly baked warmth and bounce, and it goes down fantastically with a cup of tea.

Where to find…

  • Hong Kong buns: Tsui Wah, 291 Fumin Lu (富民路291号) near Changle Lu, 6 RMB and up
  • Avocado Lady: 274 Wulumuqi Lu (乌鲁木齐路274号) near Wuyuan Lu
  • Date cake: right next to the Avocado Lady, 9.8 RMB/jin. Other shops scattered around SH.

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    How my evening was made

    I know it’s been aaages–over a month, to be precise–since I last wrote. Blame that on a 12-day trip to Hong Kong, realizing I need to get my act together career-wise, and being worn out by toddlers on an almost-daily basis. Blame that on me. Whatever. Here’s a quick one, a reassurance to those who care of my continued existence, before I go watch a movie (haven’t done that in a while, either).

    My second class this afternoon caused some ire and grief. The four-year-old, Mealler, refused to let any of the handful of vocab words stick in his head–and yes, I’m pretty sure it was intentional, to spite me since I cut short his lego-boats-in-a-sinkful-of-soapy-water fun-time. And at one point, while playing smash-the-plane-into-various-fruit-monster-flashcards (guess who was holding which), he punched my mouth with his hand and then refused to say sorry. (It actually hurt.) And to top off the exhausting lesson, his grandma–who handles his life, apparently–announced that she was to start paying me once every five lessons rather than at the end of each lesson, as we’d been doing the last two months. (At first she proposed once a month, but I was like “uh, no…”; the main thing keeping me motivated to go to this class was the immediate post-lesson cash.) His grandma was also the one who, at our first post-Chinese New Year lesson, gave me in return for my gift of Meltykisses (a kind of chocolate, for the uninitiated) a tub of unshelled peanuts and this pancake thing that was 6 days past its expiry date.

    /end rant

    The unpleasant afternoon was redeemed by a splendid evening, made so by three things:

    #1. Nang (Xinjiang flatbread), which Sean brought home from a Xinjiang restaurant near his school that makes seriously terrific nang. I’ve only had it from three or four establishments in China, but I suspect this one comes pretty close to the real thing (to be confirmed when I make it out to Xinjiang…). Though much of the crisp had worn off after 2 hours in his bag, it was still warm and soft and salty and loaded with sesame, not hard and flavourless like the others I’ve tried.

    #2. Dessert from a Dongbei restaurant where we had dinner: 拔丝地瓜, or deep-fried sweet potato wedges drenched in caramelized sugar. They threw in some regular potato, the sneaks, but that didn’t matter: the crunch of the thick sugar coating giving way to the hot, soft inside made it hard to believe we were eating any kind of vegetable at all.

    #3. The most broke-ass Chinese imitation attempt of all time:

    [Edit 03/08: OK, a recent sighting by Sean has mine beat on the broke-ass aspect. It’s linked on facebook here.]

    OK, off to see whether “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” is as amazing as my little sister claims.


    Filed under eating out, restaurants - non-vegetarian