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Sesame dessert |© Goodmami
Sesame dessert |© Goodmami | Goodmami
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10 Unique Chinese Desserts to Try in Shanghai

Picture of Monica Liau
Updated: 27 October 2017
Chinese desserts are less about rich indulgence and more about gentle pleasures that ease one towards the end of a meal, or over a craving. You’ll find fruits, airy custards, tapioca, pulses, rice, and herbal jellies knit together in surprising ways, creating light, sweet treats with interesting textures that avoid weighing the stomach down and offer a dose of nourishing health elements. This alone could give you the excuse to order more than one for the table…

Egg custard tarts (dàn tǎ, 蛋塔)

Originally a Macanese invention inspired by the Portuguese egg tart, this delicacy quickly became wildly popular throughout southern China. The glorious three bites of heaven involve flaky puff pastry cups filled with a trembling egg yolk custard, perfumed with vanilla. The best in Shanghai are found at Lillian’s Bakery, a Macanese chain that’s been fully embraced by Shanghai residents. Order them in pairs, as one is never quite enough.

Grab a pastry to go from Lillian’s Bakery at the West Nanjing Road metro station, exit 2 in the basement, or on level B2 of the SML Center Mall, 618 Xujiahui Road (across the street from Taikang Lu).

egg custard tart
Egg Tart | Tummy Rumble
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Shaved ice (bàobīng, 刨冰 and bīngshā, 冰沙)

This Taiwanese/Hokkien specialty is the ultimate dessert to eat with a group. This comes as a huge pile of featherlight ice (think more fine than a snowcone) that’s then drizzled with sweetened condensed milk and/or brown sugar syrup and piled high with chewy taro and tapioca balls, fruit, sweetened red beans, sweet mung beans, sweetened kidney beans, and more. It sounds overwhelming, but give this dessert a chance. Everything comes together in a melange of interesting textures and delicious flavors. If the combination seems a little intimidating, try a bīngshā instead. This dessert is somewhere between gelato and sorbet, where ice is flavored with things like peanut butter, matcha tea, or mango, served in a towering edifice ready to be devoured. Try these treats at one of the Bellagio locations around town, a small Taiwanese chain that does a good rendition of both desserts.

Bellagio, LG1, IAPM Mall, 999 Huaihai Middle Road, Shanghai, China, +86 (021) 5466 5698

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Sticky purple rice with coconut milk and mango (Yēzhī zǐmǐlù, 椰汁紫米露)

The deep amethyst color of purple rice is not only pretty to look at, but it is also lauded for being high in antioxidants, dietary fiber, and more. It is also incredibly delicious when folded into a bowl with sweet coconut milk and tart mango, at once chewy, fragrant, and perfectly light. Try this specialty at the tiny dessert stall, Tianle Tianping, located on the barbeque seafood street, Shouning Road. After a spicy meal of roasted seafood and boiled crayfish, nothing soothes the stomach quick like a trip to the bright lights of this specialty dessert shop.
Tianle Tianping (takeaway window only), 42 Shouning Road, Shanghai, China

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Roasted grass jelly (shāo xiān cǎo, 烧仙草

Grass jelly is made from an herb called Chinese mesona, which fits into the mint family (but has none of the mentholatum flavor). To turn it into a dessert, the plant is boiled with a small amount of starch and potassium carbonate and then allowed to cool until it is a black and wobbly jelly that boasts a gently herbal, slightly bitter essence. To make the flavor even more interesting, the jelly is sometimes smoked to give it smoky, chicory back notes. Often served with coconut milk and other sweet elements, the jelly not only tastes light and delicious, it’s also supposed to promote good digestion. Try it at the tiny dessert shop, 8am Wake Up, which specializes in Chinese and Taiwanese style desserts.
8am Wake Up, 17 Changshu Road, Shanghai, China, +86 (021) 5466 8711

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Osmanthus-scented glutinous rice wine with rice balls (Jiǔniàng tāngyuán, 酒酿汤圆)

This delicate, flavorsome dessert soup is made from glutinous rice that has been allowed to ferment slightly so that it becomes sweet, lightly effervescent, and alcoholic, so it becomes both dessert and digestif. The wine is rather thick, and traditionally scented with osmanthus blossoms, which add a subtle, heady perfume. Inside, you’ll find little glutinous rice balls for a chewy, absorbing finish. This is a local dish from the Shanghai region, and the rendition from Dian Shi Zhai, which specializes in Jiangnan cuisine, is particularly delicious.
Dian Shi Zhai, 320 Yongjia Road, Shanghai, China, +86 (021) 5465 0270

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Almond tofu (xìngrén dòufu, 杏仁豆腐)

This elegant pudding, made with bitter almond, is most often eaten in the summer and lauded for its cooling properties. It’s also extremely delicious, with the flavor of bitter almond reverberating through every bite. The name almond tofu is a little misleading, however. While it is sometimes made with a combination of almond and soy milk in it, the pudding is set with agar or gelatin, and with salt, as tofu is. The result is lightly sweet and nutty, often served with coconut milk or fruit.
8am Wake Up, 17 Changshu Road, Shanghai, China, +86 (021) 5466 8711

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Red bean soup (hóngdòu tāng, 红豆汤)

Made with red adzuki beans simmered for at least an hour with water and sugar until they yield soft beneath the teeth, red bean soup is served either hot or cold, depending on the month. At the end of a meal, little bowls of this enticing, earthy brew are often passed around to end the meal on a sweet, healthy note. Try the rendition at Grandma Three Flower’s Desserts (Sān huā nǎinai de tiánpǐn, 三花奶奶的甜品), which serves a gloriously earthy and sweet version of the soup warm with chewy little glutinous rice balls studded inside.

Sanhua Nainai de Tianpin, 6/F East Wing, Capital Changning Raffles City, 1139 Changning Road, Shanghai, China

Sesame balls (zhīma qiú, 芝麻球)

Hailing originally from Sichuan province, these dumpling-like specialties are generally eaten for breakfast or at dim sum, but can also be found passed around at the end of a meal. It’s a tricky process, in which glutinous rice dough is stuffed with red bean paste and then rolled into a ball. This ball is then rolled around in a dough made of flour until it is thinly covered, and then rolled in white sesame seeds. It is then deep-fried until crisp and is best eaten fresh—waiting of course for the inside to cool just a little bit. You’ll find these everywhere on the street, just keep an eye out for ones coming straight from the deep fryer.

sesame balls 2
Sesame Balls | Sophia Long
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Milk pudding (shuāng pí nǎi, 双皮奶)

This delicate milk pudding is a good way to ease your way into Chinese desserts. Originally hailing from Guangdong Province, it is reminiscent of a panna cotta—a mixture of milk, white sugar, and egg whites that is steamed at high heat. The result is a lightly sweet and creamy pudding that is often served draped in sweet red beans, goji berries, or in a puddle of coconut milk. The aptly named Miss Milk dessert bar lives up to its name, whipping up a lovely rendition of this simple dessert. You can also get the milk pudding all dressed up in different sweet treats.

Miss Milk, 1/F, SML Center, 618 Xujiahui Road, Shanghai, China, +86 (021) 3159 8620