From the day I arrived in Singapore, my foodie-friend Claire kept telling me we had to visit one of the Hong Kong style dessert shops because they were sure to have something gluten-free that I could eat. The classics are made primarily with fresh fruit, coconut milk, gelatin and nuts, she would tell me. (My friends were über-considerate and always watching out for me when we went out to eat. I REALLY appreciated their interest in understanding what was gf-safe and that they were so helpful in recommending dishes. It was beyond sweet, but I digress…)
Not a huge desserts person and distracted by all the other restaurants to sample, I didn’t even try this genre until I was down to my final month and a half. Whoa, was I missing out! We finally made it to Ji De Chi when Claire was showing me and another friend around the temples and sites of the Bugis neighborhood. The name Ji De Chi translates to “remember to eat”; trust me when I say this was not an issue.
Overwhelmed by the multi-page, colorful menu, we ordered an obscene amount of food and the taste test began! Good news for those of us with food sensitivities: almost everything on the menu was grain-free, and many options were egg-free, soy-free, nut-free and and dairy free (although would be smart to ask about dairy at every place you go because recipes vary). If you have been on a restricted diet for a while, there is something sort of fun and exciting about seeing a menu where almost anything is fair game.
We tried coconut milk gelatin with speckled with corn and another with water chestnut. The gelatin forms had a smooth texture that was creamy without being heavy or too sweet. The waterchestnut had a light, delicate bite to it and was surprisingly my favorite between the two.
Mango pomelo sago was a fruity, fresh and delicious tapioca pudding! (See below for a simple recipe to try this at home.) Tiny clear pearls of tapioca (“sago”), crushed ice and the flesh of the citrus fruit pomelo float in a mango smoothie. What’s not to love about that?
We sampled the nut paste soups that come in varieties like almond, sesame, peanut and walnut or even blends (if you are a twisted soft-serve kind of person). I think I tried them all at some point or another during my stay and my favorite is the slightly sweet almond soup, reminiscent of marzipan. Even though we went ahead and ordered almond soup at Ji De Chi, Claire explained that the place that is MOST famous for these nut pastes is over on Temple street: Mei Heong Yuen (don’t worry, we tried this place another day). One of the distinguishing factors is how the nuts are ground into the silky smooth paste, making it potentially difficult to replicate the good ones at home (has anyone tried the Vitaminx??)
Another favorite was the mango sticky rice roll (yes, we are still talking about my first trip to Ji De Chi)!. The wrapped up rendition of the famous Thai dessert mango sticky rice is so clever and so juicy (top left of photo below).
The undeniable crowd-pleaser and my #1 favorite is an incredibly light, fluffy “snow ice” made by shaving a block of frozen fruit and condensed milk. Personally I love the mango, but if you are feeling more adventurous you could go with stinky durian (but probably order both because you shouldn’t miss out on the mango). Snow ice is so refreshing and MUCH lighter than a typical ice cream. The etherial texture disappears on your tongue like …well, like a snowflake. The best ones are topped with sweet, juicy cubes of fresh fruit.
Last but not least, if you are in the mood for something refreshing but not so sweet, stop in an herbal jelly shop. You might get some strange looks if you are a Westerner, but just confidently ask for the cold jelly (or point) and grab a spoon and stare at the jars of strange herbs on the shelf while you wait for your bowl of giggly, shiny black jelly.
Made from a blend of herbs and with an astringent flavor that reminds me of tea, I could be convinced this one is a health food. Diluted honey is added separately if you want it sweet. Either way it is a cooling treat on a hot day (which is pretty much every day in Singapore).
Want a sampling of Hong Kong desserts at home? The easiest to start with is the mango sago:
Mango Sago Recipe
- 4 ripe, sweet mangos, cubed
- 1 cup mango juice
- 1/4 cup coconut milk
- 3 tbs sugar or honey
- 1 cup small tapioca pearls: soaked, cooked and rinsed to remove extra starch (sago)
Blend half the mango and the rest of the ingredients (except tapioca) in your blender. Combine with cubed mango and tapioca and chill until ready to serve. Serves ~4.
Note: Sometimes this is made with cow’s milk so if you are sensitive to dairy be sure to ask when ordering at a restaurant. Or just try this at home – so simple!
If you are curious to try the coconut milk gelatin, check out WendyInkk’s blogspot recipe: http://wendyinkk.blogspot.com/2014/04/hong-kong-style-coconut-pudding-jelly-3.html
Ready to try the best of the best, the mango ice (sometimes called snow ice or snowflake ice)? You better seek out a Hong Kong style dessert shop. You can find them in big metropolitan areas across the world from London to LA. You need some specialized equipment to shave the block of frozen fruit and condensed milk to the perfect flakey texture. I sampled a few different places and the texture really does make all the difference. Per expert Claire Chong (and my limited experience) Ji De Chi (记得吃) is the best snow ice in Singapore (Boon Lay and Bugis)!
With so many great gluten-free options to try, grab your friends, find a Hong Kong style dessert shop and order a whole bunch to try and share, Singaporean style! Then let me know what you think in the comments below 🙂