Tang Shui: Traditional Dessert Gets A Modern Makeover

Anyone who thinks that tang shui (糖水) is an old-fashioned and archaic dessert only for my grandmother/people with no teeth is wrong. This traditional favorite has once again been revived and modernised, taking the world of desserts by storm. As much as I love western desserts like a good Tiramisu and a nice old fashion New York Cheesecake, there is an undeniable comfort in slurping down a belly warming bowl of sweet hot soup. It probably is a lot less sinful as well.

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What is tang shui? For the uninitiated, it literally means “sugar water”. Not the sort of glucose beverage you drink when you have a bout of diarrhoea though. Tang shui is also known as tim tong and could refer to any sweet, warm soup or custard served as a dessert in Cantonese cuisine.

While tang shui has its roots in the Cantonese cuisine of Guangzhou province in China, much of the iterations seen around Singapore are inspired by the tang shui of Hong Kong.

To stay relevant, most traditional foods like tang shui have been given a modern makeover. In an interesting marriage between East and West, the yang zhi gan lu (杨枝甘露), or mango-pomelo sago, was allegedly born in Singapore.

There also seems to be a growing trend of young hawkers who have taken over the business from their parents, breathing new life into tradition. 115 Tang Shui is a family-run tang shui stall that has been around since 1966, and has thus since undergone a revolution. The business was started by Mdm Wong Weng Chen, an emigrant from Guangzhou, China.

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Today, the business is continued by her son, Tommy Toh, his wife Pat, and their son, Fabian Toh. At 37, the younger Toh came into the family business after 15 years in the military as his parents were nearing the age of retirement.

Being a hawker is, however by no means a simple or glamorous job. It is a back breaking and arduous task that requires hours of labour. Most days, you'll find them at the store scooping the soup-like desserts, or engaging in several tedious processes that make their tang shui so delectable.

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One must applaud the effort that goes into the making of these sweet bowls of soup. Everything is done from scratch: from removing the skins on each peanut kernel by hand to give the soup a better texture, to toasting their own sesame seeds.

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Believe it or not, these sinister looking tools are not used to stake Dracula and neither are they part of the how-to-be-a-serial-killer-101 starter pack, but they are actually used in the process of tang shui making!

The Tohs’ secret is this unique ingredient that they use, setting them apart from their competitors. The chou cao (臭草), literally translated as 'smelly grass' or common rue is used to render a fragrance (the irony) and slight herbal bitterness to their green bean soup. "It's something you'll traditionally find in Cantonese-style green bean soup, but very few places use it because it's quite expensive because the plant itself is very difficult to grow," explains Toh. This subtle bitter taste adds an interesting layer to this dish.

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At Thong Sum Desserts, business partners Au Tai Yang and Yenny Tang joined hands and decided to sell tang shui as it was one of the lesser-sold items in the Golden Mile Hawker centre where they each ran different stores previously.

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What makes Thong Sum Desserts so amazing that it warrants a visit? For one, the desserts at Thong Sum are Malaysian-style, which differ slightly from the usual tang shui found in Singapore.

"I wanted to really recreate the taste that I remember from my childhood," shares the Kuantan-born Tang, who adapted several recipes for tang shui from his mother.

What really affords them that competitive edge however, is their use of charcoal to cook the tang shui. It was Tang's idea, as she felt that it could be their unique selling point; while lending the desserts a "古早味", or traditional flavour.

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"You have to keep stirring the red bean soup until it reaches a sha texture," Au explains, referring to the Chinese word that literally means "sand", describing the grainy, paste-like texture that is so desirable and yet hard to attain with such desserts. Many other renditions tend to be more fluid or watery, rather than viscous.

It might not be common to see Hawkers as meticulous as the both of them. In a labour of love, they choose and process their own ingredients. The pain staking job of peeling their own ginkgo nuts; and shelling the crunchy kernels of fresh corn that go into their burbur terigu (white wheat porridge) is done solely by them and not machines. A pretty incredible feat in this day and age. This would explain why their tang shui has such a fine and smooth consistency that feels so pleasing on the tongue.

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The growing number of Tang Shui stalls and snaking queues attest to the increasing popularity of this traditional dessert, that has become a perennial favorite not just among the old, but the young and hip crowd as well.

Can we just say #tangshui now?


1.115 Tang Shui Sweet Soup 

Chinatown Complex Food Centre, Blk 335 Smith Street, #02-206,
Singapore 05033

2. Thong Sum Hot & Cold Desserts  

505 Beach Road #01-83 Golden Mile Food Centre Singapore, 199583