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Delve into a culinary adventure of gorgeous color, layered texture, and breathtaking flavor with these Asian desserts, showcasing sweet delights from countries throughout this vast and beautiful continent.
The wow factor of Asian cuisine very much extends to the sweeter side of the continent’s food, and while this list barely scratches the surface of what’s on offer, it will at least get those senses tingling and give you a sneak peek into some of the many dishes you can enjoy from east to west.
Forks and spoons at the ready as we discover 20 of Asia’s most beloved and celebrated desserts and where to try them.
1 – Glutinous Rice Balls
Glutinous rice balls, also known as ‘tangyuan,’ are a popular winter snack. The dish is created by combining glutinous rice flour and water and kneading the mixture into small balls.
These rice balls can be eaten with or without filling. Popular filling options include crushed peanuts, red bean paste, custard, or black sesame. The balls are then boiled in water and served in a soup of warm sweetened water.
Glutinous rice balls symbolize happiness and reunion, which is why this dessert was traditionally eaten during big family get-togethers or important festivals.
Read more: 11 Most Popular Desserts to Try in Taiwan
2 – Mango Pomelo Sago
While mango pomelo sago is a recent invention, being created in 1984 by a local Hong Kong restaurant, it is a popular dessert in the Hong Kong food scene. So much so that it is now often used as a popular flavor for other foods, like moon cakes, ice cream, and bubble tea.
This dish is a drinkable porridge dessert that is served chilled and best eaten in the summertime. It is simple to prepare, consisting of evaporated milk, coconut milk, sago, whole milk, diced mangos, pomelo pulp, and even more pomelo pulp for topping.
Read more: 23 Best Foods to Try in Hong Kong
3 – Mitarashi Dango
Japanese desserts are known for their chewy, sticky texture, and mitarashi dango is no different. Dango is a traditional Japanese mochi dumpling, created by combining water and sticky rice paste.
Mitarashi dango is grilled dango, served on a skewer in groups of 3-5, depending on the region, and covered in a sauce of one part sugar and one part soy sauce. This dessert is eaten all year round and is often eaten alongside tea.
There are many regional variations to the mitarashi dango. In the Nara Prefecture, the dango are flattened into disk shapes rather than round. In the Toyama region, the dough is created by combining high-grade rice flour and brown sugar syrup.
Read more: 21 Japanese Foods You Need to Try
4 – Sweet Pancake
Korean sweet pancakes are a must-eat during cold winters. These pancakes are served by traveling street vendors and served piping hot straight off the griddle.
It is believed that the sweet pancakes originated from Chinese migrants who came to Korea. However, the main difference is that Chinese people prefer to eat savory pancakes, while South Korean sweet pancakes are more aligned with their sweet tastebuds.
Sweet pancakes are cooked with a batter made from wheat flour, water, milk, sugar, and yeast. Depending on preference, brown sugar, honey, chopped peanuts, and cinnamon are also used.
This batter is then placed on a greased griddle, flattened, and cooked, and these delightful treats are served to Koreans from all walks of life.
5 – Tofu Pudding
Tofu is a staple in Chinese cuisine, with many dishes that derive from this soy by-product. The Chinese tofu pudding is a dessert that primarily uses soft tofu.
There are many regional variations in the type of toppings used. In northern China, it is eaten with soy sauce, while in the province of Sichuan, chili oil and Sichuan pepper are used. On the other hand, people from the province of Hubei prefer to eat tofu pudding with sugar.
6 – Bubur Cha Cha
In Malaysia, the bubur cha cha is eaten all year round. It is a drinkable dessert that can be served both hot and cold. It consists of sago, yams, bananas, coconut milk, pandan leaves, sugar, and salt.
This representative dessert of Southeast Asia is served as street food and is loved by so many people. There are many regional differences, and each locale has its own preferred toppings. However, the main ingredients of sago and yams remain unchanged everywhere.
Read more: 20 Desserts You Need to Try in Malaysia
7 – Mango Sticky Rice
One of Thailand’s most well-known desserts, also enjoyed throughout Southeast Asia, mango sticky rice can often be bought from street vendors. The dessert is served warm and consists of glutinous rice and mango, topped with coconut milk topping.
While this dessert is served hot, it can be enjoyed at any point of the year regardless. However, many locals would recommend eating it during peak mango season as the fruit is the sweetest during that time.
8 – Cendol
The Indonesian cendol is a well-loved summer dessert that is often sold by roadside vendors and is popular amongst the youth of the country. It is a dessert drink that consists of coconut milk, jelly noodles, pandan, palm sugar, red beans, grass jelly, shaved ice, and red beans.
The word Cendol means “puffy,” which aptly describes the shape of the jelly noodles after being soaked in coconut milk. While the origin of cendol is relatively unknown, you can find this dessert in many locations across Southeast Asia.
Read more: 18 Popular Indonesian Desserts
9 – Three Color Dessert (Chè ba màu)
This rich and colorful Vietnamese dish is a soup that typically consists of mung bean, cowpea, and red bean, which gives the dish its iconic black, white, and red color. However, this is not set in stone, and you can feel free to add whatever ingredient you would like as long as it adheres to those three colors.
Red more: 20 Popular Vietnamese Desserts to Try
10 – Halo Halo
Halo Halo is one of the Philippines’ best-selling food across the country. The name literally means “mixed together,” which is an apt description of the dish.
It consists of a mixture of shaved ice, sweet beans, coconut, sago, agar jelly, and tropical fruits, topped with evaporated milk drizzled over the top.
Newer, more recent variations of this dessert include ice cream and leche flan. This dish is similar to chè ba màu but is instead drunk rather than eaten with a spoon.
Read more: 21 Filipino Desserts You Need to Try
11 – Sheer Khurma
In Afghanistan, sheer khurma is traditionally eaten for breakfast or dessert during the id al-fitr and id al-adha festivals. Sheer khurma literally means “milk and dates” in Urdu, which are the main ingredients in this dish.
Sheer Khurma is a type of pudding made from a base of vermicelli cooked in butter. Sugar, dried fruit, spices, ghee, and of course, dates are gradually added in while the vermicelli cooks. The inclusion of dates is to break fasts, and this dessert is commonly eaten with the whole family.
12 – Yomari
Yomari is an important dessert to the Nepalese people. The dish is often eaten at the end of the harvest festival, where this is cooked and offered to the gods.
Yomari is a steamed rice flour dumpling that is stuffed with different types of fillings. These fillings include the likes of sesame or chaku, a sugarcane-based filling.
The shape of yomari is also very important to predicting the future climate. For example, a longer tail means there will be a shorter winter.
13 – Watalappam
The word “Watalappam” comes from the Tamil word for “bowl and cake.” This is because this cake is baked in a bowl or a ramekin.
Watalappam is a coconut custard pudding made from coconut milk, nuts, brown sugar, eggs, and spices. This dish is often eaten during auspicious ceremonies like weddings, festivals, or other social events.
It is believed that this dish originated from the Malay dessert serikaya, which also uses coconut milk and eggs, but uses palm sugar instead of brown sugar and includes pandan and hibiscus leaves.
14 – Kheer
Kheer has a long history in India, and there is evidence that it has been used in the country for thousands of years, based on ancient Indian literature. It is a sweet pudding that is created from boiled milk, sugar, and rice.
Its flavor comes from adding coconut, cardamom, raisins, saffron, cashews, pistachios, almonds, and other fruits. However, this dessert is quite heavy, so it is often only eaten on special occasions.
Each region has its own take on kheer. In east India, for example, brown sugar is used as a sweetener whereas in south India, the dish is served as the first course of a meal.
Read more: 20 Indian Desserts You Need to Try
15 – Gajar Ka Halwa
Festivals are a big part of Indian and Pakistani culture, and thus, so is food. Gajar Ka Halwa is eaten at many festivals and is a sweet carrot dessert pudding that is topped with almonds, cashews, and pistachios.
The pudding is made by boiling a mixture of water, milk, sugar, and grated carrot. It is a delicious delicacy and a must-try if you ever get the chance to go to South Asia.
Read more: 22 Most Popular You Should Try in Pakistan
16 – Faloodeh
Faloodeh is a cold dessert containing rose syrup jelly, vermicelli, basil seeds, milk, and ice cream.
This dessert was brought to the region by Persian merchants and was previously reserved only for noble families. Today, however, this drink is well-loved by everyone.
Due to the widespread nature of this dessert, there are many regional variations to it. For example, in Mauritius, agar agar is used in lieu of vermicelli, whereas Bangladesh uses tapioca pearls, and Sri Lanka adds poppy seeds.
Read more: 21 Persian Foods You Need to Try
17 – Ma’amoul
Another name for ma’amoul is the Eid cake because it is eaten as part of the celebrations of Eid al-adha. These sweet cakes, either rounded or flat, are often filled with dates or nuts.
The dish is made all year round but only served on special occasions. Ma’amoul has a fascinating history, and it is believed that these sweets even date back to the reign of the pharaohs!
Read more: 19 Lebanese Desserts You Need to Try
18 – Zalabiyeh
Popular in Yemen, Egypt, and many other countries in the Middle East, Africa, West Asia, and Europe in various forms, Zalabiyeh is a doughnut-like fritter made from a wheat flour batter, deep fried in hot oil.
Topped with honey or syrup to add a generous dose of sweetness, the dish is over a thousand years old, with documents referencing the dish dating as far back as the 10th century.
Zalabiyeh is often consumed during Ramadan, along with many other religious festivities across various regions and countries.
19 – Turkish Delight
Turkish delight is a well-known Turkish confectionary comprising of jelly, starch, and sugar. It is then powdered with icing sugar to prevent the cubes from sticking to each other.
These delightful treats come in many different flavors, including rose water, orange, lemon, and bergamot, with rosewater and lemon being the two most popular. Turkish delight may also contain nuts or other dried fruits as a filling, and the dessert is renowned all over the world.
Read more: 23 Turkish Desserts You Need to Try
20 – Knafeh
A popular dessert used to break fasts in Palestine and other Middle Eastern countries is Knafeh, a pie-like dessert that is baked with quark cheese, ghee, and sugar.
There are two different types of Knafeh: the Naama and the Knishneh. The Naama Knafeh is smooth and uses semolina as the topping, while the Knishneh is rougher and crunchier, using shredded phyllo dough as the topping.
Energizing and enjoyed with tea and coffee, knafeh is a popular dish to prepare for weddings and family gatherings. Versions of it in the likes of Greece, Turkey, and the Balkans, along with the Middle East, are also common.
Asian Desserts Summary
Wow, what a culinary adventure that was! As you can see, the desserts of Asia are a delightful fusion of color and texture, brimming with gloriously intense sweet and savory flavors.
Desserts and sweet treats are a huge part of many Asian cuisines and cultures, and when you behold the craft, thought, and passion that goes into making each one, you can very quickly see why.
From the bustling food markets of Istanbul to the roadside vendors of Indonesia, wherever your travels in Asia take you, be sure to try as many desserts, and foods in general, as possible. This list, albeit a tiny keyhole into a vast world of sweet Asian treats, is a great place to get started and get excited.
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Contributor: Sharleen Kwok is a copywriter with a wealth of knowledge about Asian cuisine and regional variations.