The Sweet Life

In Southeast Asia, desserts are abundant, creative and, above all, sweet.

In Southeast Asia, desserts are abundant, creative and, above all, sweet.

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Very rare is the occasion in Southeast Asia that does not call for a sweet of some sort. Whether eaten as a post-meal dessert or in the afternoon as a way to satisfy that sugar craving, sweet snacks are everywhere to be found. Since trying new foods and traveling go together naturally, crossing borders will only heighten the thrill as you sample sweet foods throughout the region.

Tastes vary from land to land but there’s some overlap that follows the migration of peoples. Here is a selection of some of the desserts you may find along your travels. Some can be found in variations around the world, like the crêpe which turns into a roti once your location is Thailand or Malaysia, while others, like latter’s kek pandan, are specific to this region.

The Crêpe

The crêpe has travelled the globe like few other dishes; it’s the ultimate fusion food. In France a thin, soft yet fluffy affair with strong traditions and customs when it comes to fillings and condiments, in Asia it turns into a metamorphosis of itself and takes the form of either a large disc with somewhat Asian fillings like grass jelly, or sliced coconut, or it takes its form as a roti, commonly filled with egg and served with a generous helping of sugar and condensed milk. Often served from street wagons in busy areas and outside bars, crêpes and rotis are some of the most popular treats for visitors and residents alike.

Thai Sweet Tastes

Khao niaw mamuang is quite possibly the most popular dessert for those visiting the Land of Smiles. Available year around but particularly popular during the mango season of March to May, the dish is made up of slices of fresh mango on a bed of coconut cream infused sticky rice and served with a slightly salted coconut sauce. While the dessert is popular with Thais and foreigners alike, Thais are just as likely to eat their sweet sticky rice with durian or an egg and coconut based custard called sangkhaya.

Thai desserts, called khanom, often come in a great variety of colours, meticulously fashioned into lively and sometimes fantastical shapes. The history of desserts in Thailand extends at least as far back as the 13thcentury Sukhothai period, with references to dessert markets, talat knanom, made in various publications, including the literary tome, Traiphum Phra Ruang.

There were outside influences too. Maria Guyomar de Pinha was a Siamese woman of Portuguese and Japanese descent, and wife of a favoured Greek seaman, Constantine Phaulkon. She is often credited as the one who introduced the Portuguese dessert of fios de ovos, or angel hair, to Thailand in the form of foi thong. This popular number consists of fine egg threads that have been soaked in syrup. Her skills in making Portuguese desserts, composed primarily of sugar and egg yolks, led to the education of thousands of women and treats that exist to this day.

Popular desserts served today include my preferred emergency snack food, dried banana slices sprinkled with sugar, gluay chiab and egg and coconut custard, sangkhaya, which is perfect after a spicy Thai meal. Another de Pinha-introduced specialty are flower-shaped sugary bits known as pinched gold egg yolks or thong yip, truly a divine treat anytime.

When in Thailand, do as the Thais frequently do when not presented with such desserts, and stop at any roadside truck selling fresh Thai fruits. The most common fruits on offer are watermelon, mangoes, cantaloupe melon, guava and pineapple but some vendors also sell coconut, rose apples and grapes.

Mellifluous Malaysian Desserts

Malaysian desserts can border on bland or soar into sweetness. Like Thai sweets, many Malaysian dishes comprise a combination of rice, coconut, eggs and palm sugar.

Pandan chiffon cake, kek pandan, which is usually airy and soft but can be made more dense, depending on how gently egg yolks are treated, is a great follow-up to any meal. It is often served with coffee and I never fail to put a dent in the supply. Pandan extract or leaves’ juice inject a unique taste and green colouring that gives this cake its lovely hue. Sugar and coconut milk combine for a notably sugary taste.

Although not the prettiest of desserts, black rice, bubur pulut hitam, is a superb after-meal treat and has become one of my most prized Malaysian desserts. Black rice is mixed with glutinous rice and sugar and topped with sweetened coconut cream.

Another similarly loved treat is a mung bean dessert, bubur kacang hijau, which derives from dried and boiled mung beans, which are sweetened with sugar (best if using gula malacca or palm sugar, for original flavouring). Also served with coconut milk, this simple dessert is not over the top at all and some even find it too plain. Although most Malaysian dishes don’t hit the high spice notes of its neighbouring Thai ones, they can have spark from chillies and other spices; bubur kacang hijau is a nice counter and grace note to these.

Eat healthy and get sugary with sweet potato balls, cucik ubi, which I eat more as a snack, like many Malaysians, but it comes often as a dessert. Lovely orange sweet potatoes are boiled and mashed with rice flour, corn flour, caster sugar and vanilla, then cooked in hot oil and served plain as snacks or with a white topping of coconut milk.

Candied in Cambodia

Yes, as you might expect, Cambodian desserts do overlap quite a bit with other Southeast Asian sweet treats, but there are some touches unique to the land and culture. Pumpkin custard, song-kya l-pov,  has a milky, sticky texture like its Thai cousin, but brings a different taste to the party.

Served in a cut out pumpkin, the dessert adds an earthy, original feel to any meal. It’s easy to make, and can be lightly seasoned with cinnamon or nutmeg to add an extra touch. Have it after mousse-like fish amok, and, like me, you’ll request to be in a Cambodian kitchen after life.

Something foreigners usually like is jelly dessert, cha houy teuk. This popular sugared indulgence is grabbed up daily by countless school children after scrambling from class, and why not? It’s usually served with shaved ice to cool down and for only KHR1,000, or about USD0.25. It centres around jelly-like agar agar made from seaweed, and it can have sago (tapioca), bleached mung beans and coconut cream, as well as the ice.

Sweet Tips:

  • Want to find out how to make your own Cambodian desserts? Do it right in Phnom Penh with a local chef that will teach you from the heart. Find out more through the Backstreet Academy:
  • Yearning for learning while in Thailand? You can discover how to make Thai desserts, as well as sauces, soups, main dishes, fruit and vegetable carving, and more. Just contact one of the most popular cooking schools on Koh Samui, SITCA, and you can make heavenly dishes while on a paradise-like island:
  • One of the most popular places to eat mango sticky rice in Bangkok is on the start of the city’s famous Thonglor road. Mae Varee has been selling mango sticky rice out of this simple storefront for decades:
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