Since we’re all in need of a little something therapeutic these days, why not whip up some tempting Asian desserts in your very own kitchen? With a little effort and some ingredients in your pantry or easily found at the grocery store, these tasty treats will spark your curiosity and fascination for other cultures.
Pandan Chiffon Cake, Singapore
Most Singaporeans probably do not need further convincing of the pandan chiffon cake’s inherent awesomeness. Even tourists know how good it is! This cushiony cake’s striking green hue comes from the juice of pandan leaves (not to be confused with pandas), a popular ingredient in Asian desserts. Coconut milk, another ingredient common in Southeast Asian cooking, gives the cake a creamy richness.
The dessert’s fame has spread far and wide, so much so that American news outlet CNN crowned it “Singapore’s national cake,” making it even more tempting for you to sink your teeth into one. If you haven’t tried it yet, hunker down and bake it now!
Soft, creamy and milky! Barfi means snow, and plain barfi actually resembles the look of it. Coated with an edible layer of silver, this richly sweet dessert leaves us with a silver lining in life! Barfi is made with a base of condensed milk solids, granulated sugar and ghee.
Originally from north India, this recipe has been adapted to suit different regions in the country, depending on what is added. Each delight has a base — and if you’re baking it, you get to choose it! The most common ingredients added to the base include nuts, usually pistachios, cashews and peanuts. However, fruits, saffron, rose water, gram flour or almonds are found in some regional varieties.
Kuih Lapis, Malaysia
Another one that catches the eye, kueh lapis (meaning layers) is vibrant in colour. Whenever you’re craving Peranakan dessert, this certainly tops the list. The cake is steamed and the final result looks similar to layered pudding.
It is usually prepared using rice flour, tapioca flour, water, sugar, coconut milk, pandan leaves and red, green or pink food colouring. Tapioca flour gives it a sticky feel and glossy sheen. The most fun way to eat your way through this snack is to peel off layer by layer.
Sesame Balls, Jian Dui, China
Bite into the crisp shell of a deep-fried jian dui to discover a sweet filling within the golden, sesame-seed-studded exterior. This traditional Chinese treat is often filled with a sweet bean paste or a soft puree made from lotus seeds; both versions offer a deliciously mild counterpoint to the crunchy seeds.
Jian dui are especially popular as a treat at Lunar New Year celebrations, and not just for their delicious flavour. For many Chinese people, jian dui offer a special symbolism during that time: both the spherical shape and golden colour are good omens for the year to come, as is the way the jian dui puff up when fried in hot oil.
Songpyeon snuggles its way into the hearts of Koreans as its traditionally served during the Korean celebration of chuseok (a fall harvest festival that translates to “autumn eve”). These bite-sized packages (shaped like dumplings) are made with a rice flour dough shell that’s filled with ingredients like creamy red bean paste, chestnut, mung bean or sesame powder.
The taste is sweet, nutty and chewy, with a subtle pine tree flavour from steaming the rice cakes in fresh pine needles. The dough is often various colours. Each colour is made naturally: green is made with mugwort powder; yellow with pumpkin powder; red with the cockscomb flower; pink with different berries; and purple with a purple potato or with grapes and blueberries. It’s time to build that special memory/family tradition while recreating these!
So many cultures have a beloved shaved ice dish; halo-halo is the Filipino version of Korean Bingsu and Japanese Kakigori. The refreshing halo-halo (which literally means mix-mix) is a combination of mixed fruit and beans, topped with finely crushed ice and either milk or ice cream.
Some of the most common halo-halo ingredients include bananas, jackfruit, coconut, sweet potatoes, red mung beans, chickpeas, sugar palm fruit, purple yam jam, leche flan and, in recent times, even sweet corn or corn crisps. The beauty of this national dish is that it’s totally up to you how you make it as long as you have the basics: sweet fruits, shaved ice, evaporated milk and ice cream.
Ice Cream Mochi, Japan
Give your ice cream a Japanese twist with this delicious treat that melts in your mouth. Mochi, tiny cakes made out of glutinous rice, are an important part of Japanese cuisine and culture. The preparation of mochi starts with a time-consuming process of pounding boiled or steamed rice, usually the glutinous mochigome variety, until it forms into a thick and homogenous paste. It is then rolled and shaped into small circular forms.
Use your favourite ice cream and a mould to make the perfect size scoops, and wrap the silky chewer out later around each scoop. As much fun to make as it is to eat!
Mango Sticky Rice, Thailand
The ultimate in Thailand’s comforting desserts, a ripe, tender dish of sticky rice with mango is among the world’s most perfect desserts. This traditional sweet begins with the glutinous rice that’s grown in paddies across southeast Asia, and the starchy grains combine with rich coconut milk and palm sugar for a treat that retains a chewy bite even when it’s perfectly soft.
For your mango, there are just two favoured varieties: choose between nam dok mai, a sweet, yellow fruit that’s pertly curvaceous, or aok rong, whose higher acidity offers a pleasant counterpoint to the sweet rice. The delicious garnish to sprinkle over the dish is mung beans, stir-fried until they turn golden brown and crispy.