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FEATURE: Chefs put a luxury twist to traditional desserts


Jason Ho, co-owner of Atum Desserant, prepares a signature dessert on Sept. 10 in Hong Kong.

Photo: AFP

From Champagne shaved ice to bamboo charcoal-flavored ice cream, desserts in East Asia are coming into their own as ever-more inventive chefs look to satisfy the region’s increasingly adventurous diners.

While Michelin-starred restaurants have long served the foodies of Tokyo, Seoul and Hong Kong, recent years have seen a boom in high-end eateries offering nothing but puddings.

Add the ability to share snaps of dessert delights on social media and you have a recipe for sugared success.

“Hong Kong people like beautiful things and uploading photos of beautiful things to social media,” said Bong Kwok, owner of so-called “dessertaurant” ATUM, which opened last year. “Desserts can be very refined, which encourages people to share them online.”

Small, family-run cafes selling only traditional desserts like black sesame seed soup have been popular in the former British colony for decades.

Where in many Western cities, diners might stay in one restaurant all evening, Hong Kong’s specialized venues and compact layout encourage customers to move around for their meals, Kwok said.

“It might be a luxury, but people are willing to pay a little bit for enjoyment” and to relieve the pressure of living in Hong Kong’s hot house environment, said the chef — whose popular bamboo charcoal ice cream with raspberry sorbet and dark chocolate chips sells for a cool HK$130 (US$17).

Sitting at a bar table overlooking the open kitchen, Matthew Ip and girlfriend Sophie have skipped their main course and come straight for ATUM’s “Improvisation” dessert for two — HK$348 — to celebrate her birthday.

In front of them, a chef covers the table with a black mat and, after a short conversation about their prefered flavors, decorates the surface with sweets, sauces and sherbert — before pouring unfrozen ice cream into a bowl of misty liquid nitrogen, where it solidifies in seconds.

“We’re flexible, we have a dynamic food culture,” said marketing-worker Ip, 30, after photographing his meal from various angles and handing his phone to the chef so he and his girlfriend can pose with their pudding. “You can have dim sum at midnight and ramen in the morning, if you want. In the West I think there’s more a fixed perception of what you eat and when.

“Dessert’s not normally included in a meal — it might be at the end of a big feast, but it’s not an everyday thing — so it’s not so strange to come out and have only dessert,” he said.

ATUM is a far cry from Tei Mou Koon, a street-level Hong Kong dessert cafe where bowls of sweet soups and bean curds sell for about HK$20.

With ever-increasing rents and a low-margin product, Judy Fung, who took over the business from her father this year, said shops like hers are struggling to survive.

“Over the last 10 years, less and less of these kind of stores exist,” she said, though her cafe is doing brisk trade on a weekday afternoon. “For me, it’s not about making money, it’s extending the tradition. I have strong feelings about being part of the community — there are people who come here every day.”

In South Korea, restaurants are increasingly putting a luxury twist on a traditional dessert, with a wave of shops offering takes on bingsu — a bowl of shaved ice with sweet toppings that first became popular during the 1910-1945 Japanese occupation.

While early versions of the dish were served with a cold, red bean paste, shavings are now taken from flavored milks, while toppings include tropical fruits, green tea ice cream, popcorn and macaroons.

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