I’ve written a lot about how much I love the food in Hong Kong. I’ll probably write more even after this. I’m a food-oriented person to begin with (I know, shocker) and the places I’ve been and the memories I have are, a lot of times, defined by the things I ate and savored and enjoyed in any one place at any one time. But all that said, Hong Kong might still be the greatest food city I’ve ever been to.
The first real meal I had in Hong Kong was courtesy of my cousin, who is lucky enough to call HK home and to whom I owe about 85% of my HK food journey. He took me to a traditional Cantonese restaurant, the sort with the ubiquitous Lazy Susan crowded with small plates and bamboo baskets, and the first dish he ordered was, fittingly, a plate of the most perfect char siu, lacquered ruby red and glistening, sliced into pieces with the fat and lean distributed just so. I’m pretty sure from that first bite (or, that first plate, since I think I single-handedly ate all of it) I didn’t have a bad meal for the entire four months I was there. Chewy, crumbly pineapple cakes from Kee Wah, nibbled in their plastic jackets on an open-air walkway from Central to Sheung Wan; fish ball skewers in electric yellow curry on a narrow street in Causeway Bay; “quicksand” lau sa bao filled with molten egg custard at a dim sum joint that opened at 3 AM for the late night crowd. Creamy yuan yang and silky-soft scrambled eggs on toast at Australia Dairy Company. A mountain of ground pork with a single salted duck yolk perched exactly on top, the most umami-filled dish I’ve ever had, ordered for me in fluid Cantonese by a friend and shared under fluorescent lighting in a hole-in-the-wall on a balmy fall night. I used to take the bus to a random neighborhood and just wander, window-shopping food things, until I found something I wanted to eat, and from the KFC egg tarts to the best, penthouse restaurant hairy crab, it was all some of the best food I’ve ever had.
One of my favorite desserts in the hotter months was a chilled sweet pudding-slash-soup called mango pomelo sago, a classic Hong Kong dessert that I first had, again, courtesy of my cousin. The base is a smooth, nectarous mango soup, and then you can get all kinds of combinations on top — most often more cubed mango, sweet and mildly tart pomelo vesicles (the word I’ve now learned means “those little teardrop sacs of juice inside citrus segments”), and chewy balls of sago, a close cousin to tapioca, but you could get inky-black grass jelly, wobbly silken tofu, melon balls, and a myriad of other things, too. It was so good that, in a place where I felt everything vied for position as my favorite thing ever, mango pomelo sago still managed to stand out.
So, with the weather starting to warm up (just, at times), and with HK nostalgia never far from my mind, I went on a hunt across my neighborhood to find everything to recreate this at home, while mangoes are coming into season and pomelos are still lingering in spots. I couldn’t help adding in just a little twist on my homemade version — my favorite iteration of the dessert was one with silken tofu, but I always found myself wishing that part was just a tad sweeter and more flavorful. So I subbed in one of my favorite things from Hawaii — haupia! It’s the dreamiest coconut treat that’s halfway between custard and jelly, and with the coconut milk already in the mango soup, it was the absolute perfect addition to round it all off (and to use exactly one can of coconut milk for the recipe, which always makes me feel disproportionately triumphant). The dish is refreshing to slurp but rich enough to feel decadent, and the contrast in textures between the creamy soft cubes of mango and haupia, tiny bursts of juicy pomelo and bits of chewy sago, makes it a joy to eat. I hope you love this as much as I do!
Yellow Ataulfo mangoes are in season right now and have a creamy, custard-like consistency with this amazing, nearly caramel flavor -- I loved them in this application, but the red-green mangoes, while more fibrous, will work wonderfully too. Haupia recipe with help from Maui goddess Fix Feast Flair and Focus Snap Eat!
- for the haupia:
- 1 cup unsweetened coconut milk
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup cornstarch
- 1/2 cup water (or milk, for a creamier haupia)
- to assemble:
- 1/4 cup uncooked sago or tapioca pearls (or about 1 cup cooked)
- 2 cups cubed mango, divided (about 2-3 mangoes)
- scant 3/4 cup unsweetened coconut milk, divided (or what’s left in a 13.5 ounce can)
- 1/2 to 3/4 cup mango juice, as needed to thin to desired consistency
- about 1 tbsp agave nectar or simple syrup, to taste (you can also use honey if not vegan)
- 1/2 cup peeled and separated pomelo sacs (or grapefruit)
- To make the haupia, combine coconut milk and sugar in a saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium-low heat. In a small bowl, whisk the cornstarch and water until smooth. Add the cornstarch slurry to the saucepan and continue to cook, whisking continuously, until the mixture thickens to a pudding-like texture. Remove from the heat and pour into a 8x4” loaf pan, or a pan of similar size. There is no need to grease the pan. Cover with plastic wrap and transfer to fridge to chill and set, about two to three hours.
- Meanwhile, prepare the tapioca. Bring a pot of water to boil, then add the tapioca pearls and simmer for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and cover tightly. Let sit for an additional 10-20 minutes, until tapioca is translucent and fully cooked. Rinse tapioca to remove extra starch and drain. Set aside.
- Using a blender or food processor, purée 1 1/2 cup cubed mango and 1/2 cup coconut milk until smooth. Add the mango juice and stir until the purée reaches your desired consistency. Add the honey, agave nectar, or simple syrup, to taste. Finally, add the prepared tapioca and let the mixture chill in fridge until cold, and until haupia has set.
- To serve, slice haupia into cubes. Portion out tapioca mixture into individual bowls, then garnish with haupia cubes, remaining diced mango, pomelo, and a swirl of the remaining coconut milk. Enjoy cold.
On substitutions: I was pleasantly surprised to be able to snag a pomelo for this (and it was pink to boot, so pretty!) but grapefruit will work just fine in a pinch, as would regular oranges. As for the sago, tapioca is a fine and nearly indistinguishable substitute, and it's what I used here -- though, surprisingly, it was the hardest ingredient for me to find! If you have trouble too, check your grocery store's section of Bob's Red Mill products, which is where I ultimately found mine. Finally, many other recipes call for condensed milk or evaporated milk instead of or in addition to the coconut milk -- I kept it simple here to be able to use an even can of coconut milk, but feel free to experiment!