When I was in Paris last year, the word that fell from my mouth the most was "ooohh." It was the only word that I could think of that best described the desserts that peered back at me from refrigerated cases. There were mounds of candy colored macaroons, deep chocolate cakes covered in powdered sugar and whipped cream, chestnut filled pastries, glazed fruit that could have only come from special hidden farms sheltered in deep green valleys; I was in dessert heaven.
My summers spent in Germany were late afternoons filled with dark coffee with sweetened cream and warm plum tortes with a splash of cream. I learned that apple strudel was best eaten while on a farm patio, watching the grass slowly sway in the breeze.
Closer to home, I have the Armenian baker who rises at 4 a.m. everyday to bake fresh baguettes and croissants. He doesn't speak any English, but my smile is always greeted with a friendly wave of his oven-mitted hand. His croissants are flaky and buttery, with the right touch of crunch when you break it open to spread the fig jam I made from my fig trees.
Desserts are the exclamation mark to the end of a dinner. A great dessert can make up for a so-so meal, its the taste on your lips you leave with, the hint of sugar and cream.
Dessert to the Chinese is a completely different matter. Dessert is just an extension of dinner. Traditionally at the end of a birthday dinner, you are served sweet rice buns filled with lotus bean. It's about as exciting as unscented hand cream. We do have a version of flaky pastry, but again we fill it with either red, black or lotus beans. At dim sum, I will order the egg custard tart in flaky pastry or the tofu with ginger and sweet syrup. We are a "savory" people, the "sweet" is an afterthought that we begrudgingly whip up to finish the meal, we don't even linger over dessert -- it's served communally on a plate, we grab a bun and run. In my family, dessert was sliced oranges or apples; and looking back I am now thankful for the fiber and not the love handles from nightly bowls of ice cream. If you were to compare sugar levels, Chinese would be a -5 to a nuclear French +100.
"But Ophelia! I see sugary stuff all over Chinatown!" Yes you do and in the grocery stores you will find fake lychee jello packets shaped as Pandas and Pokky sticks (thin cracker sticks dipped in chocolate), all of these are a response to the market. And next to all of that is the dried salted plums, tangy dried orange peels, cracked seed, cashews coated lightly with honey, and stuff wrapped up in thin paper with only Chinese written on it, stuff you won't know what it is till you unwrap it; even then you still might know.
In my past life I am sure I was French, this latest reincarnation is to balance out the excesses of my cake eating past. However, in this life I can still partake of the multitude of bakeries in Los Angeles, but I think about it more than I eat it; probably because the thought of driving to get it puts a damper on it. My sloth has saved me a few pounds.
In my next life I will be lactose intolerant and grateful for the break from candy colored macaroons and buttery croissants. Therefore I know I will be coming back next as a real Asian.
Artist, designer and teacher Ophelia Chong explores her adopted city of Los Angeles with an eye and ear for the small moments that tests the duality of being an Asian American. Join her on her journey every Thursday on KCET's SoCal blog
Image: Ophelia Chong
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