Bay Area Eats: Silky, Steamed Milk Pudding at San Francisco's Golden Island Cafe

"Hashima are snow frog glands and nowhere near as nasty as they sound."

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Black sesame rice balls. Photograph from Robyn Lee on Flickr

I’ve written about tea houses in Hong Kong (cha chaan teng) before—bustling cafes serving East-meets-West cuisine, thanks to Hong Kong’s history as a British colony. This was long before the world recoiled in horror at fusion fare, and, unusual for a region where people are traditionally lactose-intolerant, the cha chaan teng is where you will find dishes with dairy in it—items like cheesy baked rice (with Spam) and creamy pastas (with Spam).

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Black sesame paste and golden dun dan. Photograph from redpolkadot on Flickr

Of course, I try not to tease, so I wouldn't be revisiting this topic if I hadn't found a local source for the goods—not that I would ever recommend ordering pasta in a cha chaan teng, you understand. It's the traditional (and not so traditional) desserts that people flock to San Francisco's Golden Island Cafe for.

The cafe offers a myriad of desserts, from their immensely popular mango sago drizzled with coconut milk, to chewy rice balls in sweet black sesame paste. But it's the steamed milk pudding (dun lai) that my friends and I hop into the car and brave traffic for.

Dun lai is a silken, almost otherworldly dessert made with just three ingredients: egg whites, milk, and sugar. It's similar in consistency and concept to crème brûlée (ingredients: egg yolks, heavy cream, and sugar), but a lot lighter. In fact, cloud fanciers among us would say that if crème brûlées are puffy, cottony cumulus clouds, then dun lais are wispy, feathery cirrus clouds—the kind that promise a brilliant sunset.

With only three ingredients, dun lais are humble concoctions, and as with other humble concoctions (the egg in its many guises, for instance: poached, scrambled, omeletted, etc.), very hard to get just right. This is the reason why in Hong Kong, the famous cha chaan teng all seem to have names like "The Australian Dairy Co." or "Yee Shun Milk Co."—ostensibly to emphasize the freshness of their dairy ingredients.

A popular variation of dun lai is the steamed egg pudding (dun dan), for those who like their desserts richer. The latter is made with whole eggs (as opposed to just egg whites), milk, and sugar—bestowing the dessert with a sunny yellow hue and eggy overtones.

But my favorite, by far, is the ginger milk pudding. Fresh ginger juice is added to hot milk and the mix is allowed to sit till it has set. No steaming or further cooking is required as ginger is a natural coagulant. The ginger cuts through the richness of the milk—adding pizzazz and a wonderful aroma—and also makes for an extra-silky custard with no detracting bubbles (sometimes created by overly enthusiastic steaming).

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Hashima double-boiled with jujube dates, gingko nuts, and dried longans.

The other draw of Golden Island is that they serve traditional, tonic-desserts—meaning they’re "good for you." My boyfriend and I are fans of hashima—uncommonly seen on cha chaan teng menus in the U.S. because of the work- and ick-factor involved. Hashima are snow frog glands and nowhere near as nasty as they sound.

They are somewhat jellylike, completely odor-free and tasteless, and have to be soaked in constant changes of water for at least four hours. Considered "the lesser bird’s nest" (bird’s nest being hideously expensive, not to mention PETA-unfriendly), hashima is believed to achieve a whole host of things: build up one's immune system, nourish the kidneys and lungs, invigorate the spleen, etc. Men eat it because of its supposed “nourishment of the scrotum," and women down it for its supposed “benefit to the complexion."

The real reason the boyfriend and I eat it though, is probably a mixture of nostalgia and long-distance prompting by our mothers to "eat nutritious food." Here, hashima is served double-boiled with jujube dates, gingko nuts, and dried longans. It's also simmered in a sweet, creamy coconut milk broth that's far from traditional, but delicious.

Golden Island Cafe is often packed to the gills with entire, three-generation families and boisterous groups of college and high school kids. Service can get dicey as the size of the crowd swells, and my friends and I have had to wait up to 30 minutes for a table. And when you do get a table, don't be surprised if you're asked to share it—a common practice in Hong Kong cha chaan teng.

The cafe has a minimum charge policy of $2.50 per person (meaning if you and your friend came in and ordered a $4 dessert to share, you'd receive a $5 bill), and is cash-only. It's not the most hospitable of places (surly wait staff), and no one would come here to relax, but when I've got a ramekin of ginger dun lai before me, it's almost paradise.

Golden Island Cafe

1300 Noriega Street, San Francisco CA 94122 (b/n 20th and 21st avenues; map)
415-759-9118
Open daily, 12.30 p.m. to midnight

About the author: Wan Yan Ling can usually be found in the kitchen procrastinating on "real work" or online tracking down obscure recipes. Ling thinks eating alone is no fun, and she still believes in hand-mixing.

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