There are many essential dishes to eat during Chinese New Year, which this year occurs February 5 through February 19. I personally dream of buttery pineapple tarts; warm and gooey peanut-filled glutinous rice balls known as tang yuan; and yusheng, a giant communal salad of raw fish, pomelo, and veggies that you toss high with chopsticks while yelling wishes for the coming year.
To that list I now add mango pudding fish, which is neither fish-based nor a pudding (at least by American definitions).
Mango pudding fish is a more impressive form of mango pudding, a popular Chinese chilled dessert made of agar-agar, mangoes, and evaporated milk. Most of the time, this pudding is served in a little bowl or is simply shaped with classy scalloped edges.
But as I recently learned, some restaurants serve communal mango pudding that resembles a fish, with the help of a heavy-duty fish-shaped mold. In Chicago, you can try a big one at Evergreen Restaurant (2411 S. Wentworth Ave.) in Chinatown, where the yellow-orange koi wobbles oh-so-satisfyingly if you gently shake the plate.
I’ve eaten many a mango pudding, but I have to say I’d never heard of mango pudding fish until my visit to Evergreen last fall. A quick Google search, though, tells me that while it’s not common, it’s also not exactly rare: I found restaurants in California, Vancouver, and my home country of Singapore that have served the dish at some point.
That mango pudding fish exists — particularly in Chicago! — excites but doesn’t surprise me. Fish are lucky symbols in Chinese culture, since the Mandarin characters for “fish” and “surplus” are homophones, and eating fish is believed to bring luck. (My mom actually makes a giant fish-shaped dessert every Chinese New Year, but hers is more akin to Jell-O. It’s made of agar agar powder she mixes with water, instead of evaporated milk, which she then heats and pours into a metal mold to refrigerate and set.)
Given this lucky association, its sheer size, and fun appearance, mango pudding fish is the perfect dessert on which to end a fortuitous Chinese New Year meal. And yes, if you post a photo of it on Instagram you’re guaranteed to get plenty of likes.
Sadly, I can’t say Evergreen’s is the greatest mango pudding I’ve ever eaten — it lacks fresh mango pieces — but it is sweet and beautifully smooth and lies in a shallow pool of evaporated milk, as all mango puddings rightfully should. (The best ones, though, come with a side of extra evaporated milk so you douse the whole damn thing in liquid heaven.)
The restaurant’s fish is available year-round, but Chinese New Year is likely when it’s most in demand (though Evergreen did not respond to multiple requests for comment). Just remember: When you choose to indulge in mango pudding fish, make sure you call ahead and reserve one in advance.