Asian desserts can be a hard sell to the British public. Ingredients like tofu and the root vegetable taro just don’t sound like they belong in a sweet.
That’s not to say Eastern delights can’t appeal to Western palates. Some have even been elevated to cult status – just think of the long lines in Chinatown for bubble waffles. In recent years, mochi muffins, stir-fried ice cream and soufflé pancakes have all attracted a following.
Now, London’s Chinatown is bolstering its dessert offering, with three new outlets set to capitalise on the sunshine in June.
Most interesting is the Taiwanese chainMeet Fresh, which was established in 2007 and has grown to 300 sites across China, as well locations in America, Canada and Australia. Its flagship UK site will be managed by master franchisee Alex Xu, who also owns bubble tea shop Happy Lemon in Newport Court.
The brand’s Taiwanese desserts are certainly going to challenge consumer ideas, but the chain insists it is offering healthy treats that will be made fresh daily, with traditional ingredients such as taro, barley, sweet potato, red beans, soy beans and grass jelly (made with a plant from the mint family).A range of toppings will allow patrons to customise their desserts.
Dishes include taro balls (made by mixing taro with water and sweet potato flour), herbal jelly, tofu pudding and shaved ice. There are also dessert soups like almond, hot red bean and purple rice.
Fresh milk teas feature on the menu, with the latest addition in America a tapioca cooked with black sugar, creating a beverage with a sugary aroma and an amber and white striped pattern throughout. Looking forward a few seasons, there’s also the Winter Melon Tea, a traditional beverage in Taiwan served with mini taro balls and whipped cream.
“I can’t wait to bring this popular Taiwanese brand to the UK for the first time, and we can’t think of a better destination for our debut than busy Chinatown London,” Xu said. “With unique Asian flavours and an exciting feature that can only be found in our flagship stores worldwide, we are really looking forward to launching our London flagship just in time for summer.”
The unusual eats are backed by a compelling story of authenticity over mass production. Meet Fresh began in the city of Taichung in central Taiwan with a brother and sister, the eldest in a traditional agricultural family.
“As technology and automation started taking over in Taiwan, my family remained committed to time-honoured culinary processes and made desserts the old-fashioned way,” said Johnson Fu, the youngest brother in the family. “We launched Meet Fresh to share our traditions and these handmade desserts with our guests.”
While Meet Fresh may have had us most intrigued, the other two Chinatown newcomers are potentially safer bets. Japanese fusion dessert specialist Kova Patisserie already has stores in Selfridges and Soho and is known for its signature mille crepes, made from multiple layers of French crepes with a light custard cream filling between each layer. It also offers matcha tiramisu, soufflé cheesecake, chocolate yuzu tarts and a matcha chocolate gateau.
Fellow debutant Taiyakiya’s speciality, meanwhile, is traditional fish-shaped cakes and savoury croissant taiyaki.
“Kova Patisserie, Taiyakiya and Meet Fresh are all brands that offer a fusion of modern trends with traditions from the Far East, perfectly reflecting our vision for this iconic area of London’s West End,” said Julia Wilkinson, head of group restaurant strategy at Shaftesbury.
So can Sparkie see these Asian desserts selling?
I think that the issue these places will have is in enticing customers in for the first time. Some of these desserts are likely to prove a little intimidating for British consumers. Tofu, for example, will have only been seen as a savoury product by most people – and even then, it does not have a great reputation outside of those following vegan and vegetarian diets.
I have had tofu-based puddings in Asia and it works extremely well to produce a simple, high-quality product, so I think if there was a way for people to get over those initial misconceptions it could do quite well – and the same with the shaved ice.
A number of the other desserts at Meet Fresh have been around for some time, not really expanding outside their niche, so the new chain will have to do something attention-grabbing if it wants to branch out to the wider consumer populace.