“Too sweet, too sweet!” is usually the cry of the elders at every Chinese New Year celebration when it's time for dessert. In fact, it's such a predictable refrain across culture that it's become a common ABC meme — community slang for “American-born Chinese” — on social media. While the younger generation with Americanized palates like to munch on heavy frosting cakes, syrupy cakes and sugary cookies without batting an eyelid, the older generation is craving more traditional desserts that contain far less sugar.
Chinese New Year is about honoring traditions and showing respect for senior family members. So at the annual reunion dinner on New Year's Eve, contributing to the dessert course means sticking to tradition and toning down the sugar a bit. Whether making or buying dessert for the annual Lunar New Year reunion dinner, there are plenty of options to explore.
Set & Forget: Eight Treasure Rice Pudding
Eight Treasure Rice Pudding is a colorful extravaganza reminiscent of American cuisine's Jell-O casseroles. It is chilled and served in a pan with various colorful ingredients. According to legend, it was invented to honor eight warriors – a very auspicious number in Chinese culture, symbolizing prosperity and wealth.
It consists of whole glutinous rice grains, enriched with some fat, filled with sweet red bean, mung bean or lotus seed paste, and then spiked with various types of dried fruit to get the rest of the “treasures”. They are meant to look like gems. The more creative your design, the more impressive.
Come in hot: Tangyuan
Warm desserts like tangyuan are particularly comforting. These sticky, chewy balls of rice flour, with the texture of mochi, are stuffed with sweet or savory fillings before being boiled in water, which is then made into a sugared broth. These are easy to make but still open to creative interpretation. My dad's trademark is a chunky peanut butter filling, but many Chinese grew up with sesame seeds, red bean paste, or sweetened tangerine peels as the center. To make it even more eye-catching and happier, feel free to dye them in shades of gold, orange, or red. Whatever you do, make sure they are nice and round, as the shape makes them a popular dessert and symbolizes the wholeness of the family unit.
Fluffy and imaginative: Fa Gao
Fa Gao or Lucky Cake, are fluffy, risen flour buns with distinct fissures and fissures, firm peaks and serrations. Superstition says that the more pronounced these surface breaks are, the greater the luck in the new year. Home cooks have their own tricks for getting bigger cuts and higher fermentations, but luckily many Asian bakeries often offer these to save you the trouble.
Another steamed dessert is the Ai Wo Wo, which resembles little snowballs. The outer layer is steamed sticky rice rolled in rice flour, but inside this snow-white bowl are fillings of black sesame, walnuts, hawthorn, Chinese yam, cashews or raisins. Garnished with a jujube, it is particularly delicious.
Versatile classic: Nian Gao
Good news for those who are gluten-free: many traditional Chinese New Year treats are made with slightly sweet glutinous rice or rice flour, not AP flour. Among the most revered is Nian Gao. Most Chinese superstitions are based on homophones. Therefore, the meaning of the treat comes from the fact that its name sounds like “higher year” and means progress and growth in the new year.
Some families like to use cute shapes, like they do in Beijing, or add additional lucky symbols, such as various dried fruits, to the tips to embellish them and add a natural sweetness. Others sear it after steaming to give the dish a rich, caramelized finish for a comforting and warming final course.
A study in contrast: Jian Dui
Sesame Balls or Jian Dui are no doubt named for the toasted little seeds sprinkled liberally over the balls. It's a fried confection made from glutinous rice flour, filled with a sweet paste and then rolled in white sesame seeds for extra crunch. This exterior is a great contrast to the plush softness beneath the shell. They're a popular Cantonese snack year-round and a staple on dim sum carts, but their happy round shape makes them especially popular during New Year celebrations.
Let them eat cake: Sponge cake
While it's perfectly acceptable to bring a layered cake to Chinese New Year celebrations, Chinese cakes are different from those you'd get at a typical American bakery. The cake itself is a mild sponge cake, extremely light and with small air pockets. If glazed, then with a lightly sweetened whipped cream frosting, never apply thickly. Chocolate usually only appears as a decorative accent – as a slight drip or drip on the side.
Most notably, the decorations and fillings aren't buttercream roses or thick jams or preserves used in American bakeries. They are usually arrangements of freshly cut fruit such as kiwis, strawberries, blueberries, mangoes and grapes. The only exception to this rule are canned peaches. For the filling, any combination of fruit is then smothered under the same simple whipped cream used to glaze the outside. You can find this formula in all Chinese and most Asian bakeries.
It's also not uncommon to use Korean or Japanese influence during the Chinese New Year celebrations. Wobbly and soufflé-like, Japanese cheesecake is rich in chiffon but far from your standard New York-style cheesecake in terms of density and sweetness.
Sweet and simple: citrus fruits
As with any Chinese New Year celebration, where abundance is auspicious and leftovers are good luck, there is plenty to eat and plenty of ways to round off the Chinese New Year meal.
With so much attention and appetite laid on the abundance of main dishes, it's not only acceptable but also traditional to bring something as simple as a bag of citrus fruits like oranges, tangerines, tangerines or grapefruit for dessert. Most large Chinese meals, especially banquets, end with fruit as a palate cleanser. The rounded shape of these fruits follows the theme of the perfect family unit, and their sunny hue symbolizes gold and happiness. Make sure the fruit is pristine and ripe, and avoid any quantity that contains the unlucky number four (14, 40, 24, etc.).
The most important contribution is to be positive, hopeful, and grateful for the opportunity to reunite with family. In recent years, this has become an even bigger business than it has been for centuries. So if you're able to bring yourself – and some dessert – to the gathering, it's going to be a sweet New Year for sure.