It may sound like an oxymoron, but there is really nothing contradicting about this recipe of fried milk or zha xian nai, a traditional Chinese snack. In a nutshell, these Cantonese treats are milk custard are breaded and fried until crispy,
Zha xian nai was first served in Shunde, a district of Guangdong, China. These fried custard sticks are gooey on the inside and crispy on the outside. Originally, this dish used to be served on special occasions, but you don’t need one—it’s easy to make so you can be enjoyed at any time of the day.
This recipe will give you a step-by-step recipe of the zha xian nai, or Chinese fried milk. We’ll talk about its originis and variation, and proceed to the classic recipe. In addition, we’ll also provide a few twists, with a few ideas on what to serve it with.
History of Fried Milk
Fried Milk Around the World
The concept of fried milk is not unique to China, however. There are a lot of other versions of this in other parts of the country and the world.
In southern China, for instance, there's the chow lai, which is more on the savory side, served with stir-fried ham and shrimp. A New York Times article says that in northern China, the zha xian nai is served next to savory plates, to keep children happy while the adults eat.
This dish is also commonly compared to leche frita, a Spanish fried milk dish that is believed to have originated in the northern province of Palencia. This, however, is usually disc or rectangular-shaped, often contains lemon in the mixture, and is finished with a sugar glaze and a sprinkle of cinnamon.
India's version is the popular gulab jamun, a popular dessert. This is prepared by heating milk over a low flame until the water has evaporated, leaving just the khoya (milk solids). The khoya is then kneaded with flour to make dough balls, which are slow cooked in ghee (clarified butter) and then soaked in sugar syrup (often with cardamom and rose water). Alternatively, one can also make gulab jamun with a boxed mix, where you simply combine the ingredients with water. There are also versions of the gulab jamun in countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, and the Maldives.
Fried Milk Recipe
The dish is very easy to make, and will surely be a crowd-pleaser (the name alone is already intriguing!). You will need just a few basic ingredients, but also need to pay extra attention to the process and the right technique. We'll walk you through the steps below, and provide some ideas on dips that you can serve it with.
Make the Custard
Grease a loaf or square/brownie pan with oil (or line it with parchment paper).
In a large saucepan or pot, combine the milk, cornstarch, and sugar. Off-heat, using a whisk or spatula, and mix slowly for about a minute.
This step is to basically combine all the ingredients. It’s important to start with cold or room-temperature ingredients. If you added cornstarch to hot milk, you will get clumps.
Turn the heat to low, and wait for the mixture to simmer. Continue mixing with a whisk or spatula.
Once the mixture is simmering, increase the heat to medium. Continue mixing. Don’t walk away, the custard comes together in a few minutes and needs to be stirred to prevent clumping.
Once the mixture is thickened, turn off the heat and transfer to the pan.
Refrigerate the mixture for 2 hours to overnight. If your pan is lined with parchment paper, cover the top directly with parchment before refrigerating. If your pan is greased, cover it with cling film or foil.
Fry the Milk
Once the custard is set (at least 2 hours in the refrigerator), invert it to a cutting board.
Prepare your breading in three containers: cornstarch, beaten egg, panko.
Cut the custard into sticks/batons or cubes. The shape is up to you, just make sure to make it about an inch thick.
In a small pot or wok, heat the oil. Make sure that the oil will cover the breaded sticks.
Coat the sticks in this order: cornstarch (shake off the excess), egg, panko.
Once the oil has reached temperature (around 350F, or test with some breadcrumbs—throw a pinch into the oil and if it sizzles lightly, it’s ready).
Transfer the coated sticks in the oil. Don’t overcrowd.
Dry on paper towels and serve plain or the dip options below. Serve warm.
Dips to Serve with Fried Milk
Fried milk is already delicious on its own, but you can make it more exciting by serving them with dips. Take note that this is just a fun twist, and is a non-traditional way of serving zha xian nai. Here are quick and easy options:
Condensed milk - Double milk! Simply transfer some sweetened condensed milk to a small bowl, or make your own check out our homemade condensed milk in our fried mantou article (link).
Powdered sugar – You can either dust the fried milk pieces with powdered sugar or set aside a small plate where you can dip as you please.
Jam or fruit compote – you can use your favorite store-bought jam or marmalade (you can thin it out by mixing it with a teaspoon of water), or make your own fruit compote (we also have a recipe for this in our fried mantou article).
Maple syrup or honey.
Melted chocolate – you can either do store-bought, or make a simple chocolate sauce by microwaving ¼ cup of heavy cream for 30 seconds, and then adding chopped chocolate/chocolate chips. Stir until combined and serve warm.