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The Lunar New Year pudding showdown
Hello Kitty and bird's nest puddings -- when Chinese chefs turn their pipe dreams into reality
Lunar New Year is here and the puddings have appeared.
There is nian gao, a sweet and sticky pudding made of glutinous rice. Some prefer turnip pudding, which is savory and made with Chinese sausage and dried shrimp.
Other classics are water chestnut, taro and osmanthus pudding.
Not only do these provide a sweet way to ring in the new year, they also have symbolic meaning. Nian gao is a homonym for “higher year," which signifies progress.
To attract more customers, Hong Kong chefs have come up with some crazy pudding ideas. From Iberico ham to aloe vera pudding, these new offerings prove nothing is sacred in the food world.
Hong Kong food columnist Walter Kei reckons it is all about justifying a higher price.
"Adding expensive ingredients makes the pudding, as a gift, sound more deluxe, more luxury,” says Kei.
When chefs go overboard with new ingredients, they can forget about the balance of flavors. As Kei puts it, “turnip cake should still have the taste of turnip.”
So how do Hong Kong's trendiest Lunar New Year puddings measure up?
Eating the mouthless cat
Some people are suspicious of Hello Kitty because she has no mouth and no facial expressions. It turns out Kitty inspires even less trust when she is in the form of a white glutinous block filled with red beans.
There is a mixture of uneasiness and excitement that comes with eating animation-themed foods like Flintstones vitamins and Lotte Koala’s March cookies. Same case with Kitty.
We silently apologize to her pristine, expressionless mug as the knife plunges into the pudding.
Kitty pudding has a pervasive sweetness that sticks to the tongue long after the pudding's swallowed. The dough offers little of the bounce that one expects of nian gao. Still, we can't complain -- it tastes like average nian gao.
Some people will go gaga for anything Kitty and this pudding comes in a box printed with Kitty riding a dragon. Metaphor for how the chef came to be inspired.
Hello Kitty red bean pudding, HK$95, available at Maxim’s Cakes, MX restaurants, and Maxim’s Chinese Restaurants, www.maxims.com.hk
The Olé! effect
How to up the ante on a fuddy duddy Chinese pudding? Add something foreign and expensive to it.
Black truffles and foie gras are the go-to value-adding ingredients. Iberico ham is good second choice.
It may turn some people off as pretentious and in blatant disregard to tradition, but when it comes to funky foodie trends, cynics be damned. This Iberico ham and turnip pairing works.
The heady, earthy ham complements the sweet turnip, rounded off by the savory pitch of dried shrimp and Chinese sausage.
Not overly chunky or too smooth, the Spaniardized turnip pudding went down nicely, although it could have done with less salt.
That small minus aside, this is a winning marriage between the porcelain white Chinese turnip lady and the Spanish ham.
King Parrot Group, HK$168, available at King Parrot Group restaurants, w4.kingparrot.com
A rich pudding
Nothing tells grandma you care like a gift of nian gao -- made to resemble a giant gold bar.
At 900 grams, this pudding is a heavyweight in every sense. Of all the nian gao here, the gold bar was closest in taste, appearance and texture to the glutinous puddings that I recalled from childhood.
It brought me back to all those Lunar New Year gatherings when I was a kid. Who knew a gimmicky and ostentatious pudding would be my Proust's madeleine?
It tasted sweet, but not overly so. Once the slices are fried, the outside caramelizes to crispy perfection, even while its doughy interior remains tender and gently elastic.
This was a nian gao with a touch of humor that still took itself seriously enough to provide good, old traditional taste.
Super Star Group, HK$113, available at Super Star Group restaurants www.superstargroup.com.hk
We're not sure whether this qualifies as a Lunar New Year pudding.
A sweet terrine made of pomegranate juice, strawberries, blueberries and set with gelatin, it is a refreshing if unconventional variation.
For the health-conscious among us, this fruity jello is the answer.
The bright reds, purples and blues of the fruits give the pudding a festiveness. The real blueberries inside provides a crunchy contrast to the smooth, saccharine gel, which melt instantly in the mouth.
King Parrot Group, HK$88, available at King Parrot Group restaurants, w4.kingparrot.com
Of all the puddings, this one raised the highest expectations because it hailed from City Garden Hotel in North Point, home to the one-Michelin-starred restaurant Yue.
Even the jarring mixture of ingredients of this rose-flavored bird’s nest white chocolate pudding -- could not put a damper my hopes.
Sadly, this pudding failed to deliver. I was disappointed to find the supposed rose flavor came from none other than something called “flavoring [rose]” as printed in a list of ingredients on the packaging. The only thing this flavoring did was leave a faint aftertaste.
Meanwhile, the sugar overpowered everything else in this pudding. Even the white chocolate was lost.
What this nian gao lacks in taste, it makes up for in looks –- if you like pink.
City Garden Hotel, HK$138, available at City Garden Hotel, www.sino-hotels.com
The bland and the beautiful
This nian gao, which was sprinkled with dried rose petals and embellished with dashes of gold leaf, gets points for appearance.
When fried, it transformed into a lovely golden-brown that went well with the pink and beige in the rose.
The chewy plastic-like texture could provide hours of fun for anyone who likes to masticate gum.
Beautiful though it was, the rose petals did not add anything to the pudding except for a slightly filmy texture every time my teeth met one.
As for the cake itself, while overall it tasted fine, I did get a hint of aroma that reminded me of Play-Doh –- not what you would want in a Lunar New Year pudding.
Wah Lai Yuen, HK$130, available at department stores including Sogo, City Super, APITA and Jusco, site www.wahlaiyuen.com.hk