Sweet Treats from Across Asia: Discover the Best Traditional Sweets
Asians love their sweets, and it’s no different in the culinary world.
In this guide, I’ll explain how sweets are used in Asian cuisine and what you can expect to find.
In this post we'll cover:
- 1 The Sweet Side of Asian Cuisine
- 2 Asian Sweets vs Western Sweets: A Sweet Comparison
- 3 Exploring the Sweet World of Traditional Japanese Sweets
- 4 Chinese Sweets: A Sugary Treat for All Ages
- 5 Thai Sweets: A Sticky and Sweet Delight
- 6 Indulge in the Sweet Delicacies of the Philippines
- 7 Delicious Traditional Malaysian Sweets
- 8 Indonesian Sweets: A Delicious and Unique Addition to Asian Cuisine
- 9 The Sweet and Rich History of Traditional Korean Sweets
- 10 Conclusion
The Sweet Side of Asian Cuisine
Asian sweets are a perfect mix of sweet and sticky, usually made with rice, egg, and sugar. They come in different shapes, colours, and types, and are commonly found in traditional dishes across Asia. Here are some of the most popular Asian sweets:
- Mochi: A Japanese sweet made with sticky rice and filled with fresh fruit, cream, or ice cream. It’s a favourite treat in Southeast Asia and can be found in street food stalls and high-end restaurants alike.
- Ché: A Vietnamese dessert consisting of a sweet soup made with a variety of ingredients such as beans, fruit, and coconut milk. It’s highly recommended for those with a sweet tooth.
- Pisang Goreng: A deep-fried banana treat commonly found in Indonesian cuisine. It’s a great snack to have on a hot day and is usually topped with a little sugar for an extra kick.
- Dragon Fruit Cream: A unique dessert inspired by the fruit of the same name. It consists of a creamy mixture of dragon fruit and sugar, topped with fresh fruit and served in a small bowl.
Traditional Asian Sweets: A Wide Range of Flavors
Asian sweets are highly associated with traditional dishes and are unlikely to change depending on the day. Here are some of the most common traditional Asian sweets:
- Red Bean Paste: A standard ingredient in many Asian sweets, this paste is made by boiling red beans until they become soft and then mixing them with sugar. It’s commonly found in Chinese and Japanese sweets.
- Black Sesame: A highly popular ingredient in many Asian sweets, black sesame is known for its unique flavour and high nutritional value. It’s commonly used in Japanese and Korean sweets.
- Sticky Rice: A staple ingredient in many Asian sweets, sticky rice is perfect for keeping the shape of the dish. It’s commonly found in Thai and Filipino sweets.
Buying Asian Sweets: Where to Find Them
Asian sweets are available in a wide range of places, from street food stalls to high-end restaurants. Here are some of the best places to buy Asian sweets:
- Asian Grocery Stores: These stores offer a wide range of Asian sweets, from traditional to modern.
- Online Retailers: There are a number of online retailers that sell Asian sweets, making it easy to find your favourite treat.
- Street Food Stalls: Street food stalls are a great place to find unique and delicious Asian sweets, especially in Southeast Asia.
Preparing Asian Sweets: A Few Simple Steps
Preparing Asian sweets takes a little bit of time and effort, but it’s definitely worth it. Here are a few simple steps to prepare your own Asian sweets:
- Mix the ingredients: Depending on the type of sweet you’re making, you’ll need to mix different ingredients together. For example, mochi requires sticky rice, sugar, and water.
- Shape the sweet: Once you’ve mixed the ingredients, you’ll need to shape the sweet into the desired shape. For example, mochi is usually shaped into small balls.
- Cover the sweet: Many Asian sweets are covered in a layer of sugar or sesame seeds to give them an extra kick.
- Boil or steam the sweet: Depending on the type of sweet you’re making, you’ll need to boil or steam it to cook it properly.
- Serve and enjoy: Once your sweet is ready, serve it up and enjoy!
Asian Sweets vs Western Sweets: A Sweet Comparison
Asian sweets are typically made with natural ingredients such as rice, sugar, and fiber-rich beans. They are usually low in fat and contain a good amount of fiber. On the other hand, Western sweets are often high in fat and sugar and lack fiber.
Shapes and Colors
Asian sweets come in a variety of shapes and colors, with some being sticky and others being dry. For example, Japanese mochi is a sticky rice cake that comes in different shapes and is usually topped with a sweet red bean paste. Meanwhile, Chinese egg tarts are a type of sweet pastry that has a unique shape and is often found in dim sum restaurants. Western sweets, on the other hand, are often standardized in shape and color, such as chocolate bars and cookies.
Popularity and Availability
Asian sweets are very popular in certain parts of the country and are often sold in local markets and food stalls. They are also commonly found in Asian restaurants and specialty stores. In contrast, Western sweets are widely available in supermarkets and convenience stores, and are often thought of as a daily treat.
History and Cultural Influence
Asian sweets have a long and ancient history, with certain recipes dating back hundreds of years. They are often inspired by local ingredients and cultural traditions. For example, rose-flavored Turkish delight is a popular sweet in the Middle East, while Indonesian klepon is a sweet rice cake that is boiled and covered in grated coconut. Western sweets, on the other hand, have been heavily influenced by European countries, such as France and Italy.
Expert Destination and Service
Asian sweets are often made by expert chefs who have been trained in the art of making traditional sweets. They are usually served in small portions and are meant to be savored slowly. In contrast, Western sweets are often mass-produced and sold in large quantities.
Exploring the Sweet World of Traditional Japanese Sweets
- Traditional Japanese sweets, known as wagashi, originated during the Edo period in Japan.
- Production involves carefully selecting ingredients and utilizing unique methods to create delicate and uniform shapes.
- The main material used is rice starch, which is steamed and beaten to form a sticky and pliable form.
- Other ingredients include sugar, red bean paste, soy, and chopped maple leaves.
- The production process involves molding the mixture into desired shapes using special molds and slicing them into small pieces.
- The shapes of wagashi vary widely, including round, square, and flower shapes.
Types and Varieties
- Wagashi consists of a wide variety of types, each with its own unique character and flavor.
- Some popular varieties include mochi, daifuku, and yokan.
- Mochi is a sticky rice cake that is often served with sweet fillings such as red bean paste or strawberries.
- Daifuku is a type of mochi that includes sweet fillings and is often served with tea.
- Yokan is a sweet jelly-like dessert made from red bean paste, sugar, and water.
Serving and Benefits
- Wagashi is often served with tea and is considered an art form in Japan.
- It is widely believed that wagashi has health benefits due to its low sugar content and use of natural ingredients.
- Many wagashi are vegan-friendly, making them a great option for those with dietary restrictions.
- The delicate and small size of wagashi makes them a great addition to any dessert platter or as a sweet snack.
Differences from Chinese Sweets
- While there are similarities between Japanese and Chinese sweets, there are also significant differences.
- Japanese sweets often feature a delicate and light texture, while Chinese sweets tend to be heavier and more filling.
- Japanese sweets also utilize unique ingredients such as chopped maple leaves, which are not commonly found in Chinese sweets.
- The production process for Japanese sweets involves a lot of attention to detail and uniformity, while Chinese sweets often feature a more rustic and homemade appearance.
Where to Buy and How to Enjoy
- Traditional Japanese sweets can be found in specialty shops and department stores throughout Japan.
- They are also widely available online for those outside of Japan.
- When enjoying wagashi, it is important to appreciate the delicate flavors and textures by taking small bites and savoring each piece.
- They can be enjoyed on their own or combined with tea for a traditional Japanese experience.
Chinese Sweets: A Sugary Treat for All Ages
Chinese cuisine is known for its wide variety of sweets that are popular all over the world. Some of the most popular Chinese sweets include:
- Sesame Balls: These are small, round balls made of glutinous rice flour and filled with sweet red bean paste. They are then rolled in sesame seeds and fried until crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside.
- Almond Jelly: This is a simple yet delicious dessert made from almond powder, sugar, and water. It has a nutty flavor and a thick, jiggly texture that is perfect for hot summer days.
- Adzuki Bean Pudding: This is a traditional Chinese dessert made from adzuki beans, sugar, and water. It has a thick, pudding-like texture and a sweet, nutty flavor that is perfect for those who love a healthy and hearty dessert.
Chinese Sweets for Children
Chinese sweets are not just for adults, they are also popular among children. Some of the most popular Chinese sweets for children include:
- Jiggly Jelly: This is a fun and colorful dessert made from gelatin, sugar, and water. It has a jiggly texture that kids love and comes in a variety of flavors and shapes.
- Sweet Rice Balls: These are small, round balls made from glutinous rice flour and filled with sweet red bean paste. They are often served with a sweet syrup and are a favorite among children.
- Sesame Seed Candy: This is a simple and easy-to-make candy made from sesame seeds, sugar, and honey. It has a crunchy texture and a sweet, nutty flavor that kids love.
Thai Sweets: A Sticky and Sweet Delight
Thai cuisine is known for its unique blend of sweet, spicy, and sour flavors. When it comes to desserts, Thai sweets are no exception. They are commonly made with sticky rice, coconut milk, and sugar, and are served fresh and hot. Thai sweets are an important part of Thai food culture, and they are commonly found in local markets and street food stalls.
Traditional Thai Sweet Dishes
Thai sweets come in a variety of forms and types, and there are numerous dishes to choose from. Some of the most popular Thai sweet dishes include:
- Sticky rice with mango: This is a classic Thai dessert that combines sweet, sticky rice with fresh mango and coconut milk. It is commonly found in Thai restaurants and is a fan favorite among locals and tourists alike.
- Red rubies: This is a refreshing dessert made with water chestnuts that are cut into small pieces and topped with a mixture of coconut milk, sugar, and red food coloring. It is commonly found in Thai street food stalls and is perfect for a hot day.
- Egg custard: This is a sweet and creamy dessert that is commonly found in Thai bakeries. It is made with eggs, sugar, and coconut milk and is topped with a sprinkle of shredded coconut.
- Black sticky rice pudding: This is a sweet and starchy dessert that consists of ancient black rice that is steamed with coconut milk and sugar. It is commonly found in Thai markets and is an excellent vegetarian option.
- Ginger and soy sauce: Despite the fact that it lacks sugar, this spicy and enjoyable sauce is commonly used as a dipping sauce for Thai sweets.
Ingredients and Recipe
Thai sweets are prepared using a variety of different ingredients, including:
- Sticky rice: This is a key component of many Thai sweet dishes and is commonly found in local markets.
- Coconut milk: This is a natural and delicious ingredient that contributes to the sweet and creamy flavor of Thai sweets.
- Sugar: This is an important ingredient that adds sweetness to Thai sweets.
- Water chestnuts: These are small, starchy vegetables that are commonly found in Thai desserts.
- Black rice: This is an ancient type of rice that is commonly used in Thai sweet dishes.
To make Thai sweets, the ingredients are combined in a mixture and prepared using a variety of cooking methods, including steaming and boiling. The end result is a sweet and sticky dessert that is sure to satisfy your sweet tooth.
Where to Find Thai Sweets
If you’re a fan of Thai sweets, you’ll be happy to know that they are widely available in Thailand. You can find them in local markets, street food stalls, and Thai restaurants. Some of the best places to find Thai sweets include:
- Local markets: Thai markets are a great place to find a variety of different Thai sweets.
- Street food stalls: Thai street food stalls are known for their delicious and affordable Thai sweets.
- Thai restaurants: Thai restaurants often have a special section on their menu dedicated to Thai sweets.
Indulge in the Sweet Delicacies of the Philippines
Filipino cuisine is known for its unique blend of flavors, and its sweets are no exception. Traditional Filipino sweets are made with rice, sugar, and coconut, and are often steamed or fried to create a sticky, stocky texture. Here are some of the most popular traditional Filipino sweets:
- Puto: This is a steamed rice cake that is a staple in Filipino cuisine. It is often served with butter or grated coconut and is a popular snack or breakfast food.
- Kalamay: This is a sticky, glutenous dessert made from glutinous rice, coconut milk, and brown sugar. It is often layered with crushed peanuts or served with ripe fruit.
- Biko: This is a sweet rice cake that is made with glutinous rice, coconut milk, and brown sugar. It is often topped with caramelized coconut syrup and is a popular dessert during special occasions.
- Mais con Yelo: This is a refreshing dessert made with crushed ice, sweet corn, and milk. It is often topped with shaved ice and served as a snack or dessert.
- Maruya: These are fried banana fritters that are coated in a sweet batter and served as a snack or dessert.
- Carioca: These are sweet rice balls that are fried and coated in coconut. They are often served as a snack or dessert.
- Gulaman: This is a jelly-like dessert made from agar-agar and flavored with fruit juice. It is often served with sago pearls and is a popular dessert during special occasions.
A Glimpse into Filipino Sweet Culture
Filipino sweets are enjoyed by people of all ages and are often served during special occasions such as weddings, birthdays, and holidays. Here are some interesting facts about Filipino sweet culture:
- Purple yam is a popular ingredient in Filipino sweets and is used to make desserts such as ube halaya and ube ice cream.
- Bumbong and puto bumbong are traditional Filipino sweets that are often enjoyed during the Christmas season.
- Silken tofu is often used in Filipino sweets to create a creamy texture.
- Buko (young coconut) is often used in Filipino sweets to add a refreshing flavor.
- Mochi balls are a Japanese variation of Filipino sweets and are often enjoyed as a snack or dessert.
Help Yourself to Some Filipino Sweet Delicacies
If you’re able to reach the Philippines, make sure to try some of these delicious traditional Filipino sweets:
- Kakanin: This is a type of Filipino snack made from glutinous rice and coconut milk. It comes in different varieties such as sapin-sapin, kutsinta, and suman.
- Halo-halo: This is a popular Filipino dessert that is made with shaved ice, sweet beans, fruits, and milk. It is often topped with ube ice cream and is a refreshing treat during hot weather.
- Turon: This is a fried snack made with ripe bananas and jackfruit wrapped in spring roll wrappers and coated in brown sugar. It is often served as a snack or dessert.
- Leche flan: This is a Filipino version of caramel custard that is made with condensed milk and egg yolks. It is often served during special occasions and is a popular dessert in the Philippines.
Delicious Traditional Malaysian Sweets
Kuih is a type of sweet dish that is commonly found in Malaysia. It is typically made by putting together a simple mixture of rice flour, sugar, and water, and then steaming it. There are numerous kinds of kuih, each with different ingredients and toppings. Some are spicy and soy sauce-based, while others are sweet and coconut-based. Kuih is commonly eaten as a snack or dessert and is a beloved staple in Malaysian food.
Cendol is a sweet dish that originates from Malaysia and is typically served as an afternoon tea. It is made by infusing pandan leaves into a light, fragrant mixture of coconut milk and palm sugar. The mixture is then boiled and shaped into thin, green balls that are covered in grated coconut. The mild sweetness of cendol is irresistible and leads people to feel like they can’t stop at just one bite.
Rojak is a type of sweet and spicy salad that is commonly found in Malaysia. It is made by mixing together a variety of local fruits and vegetables, such as mango and potato, and then topping them with a sauce made from a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, and chili. The result is a perfect balance of hot and sweet that is simply delicious.
Dadar is a type of sweet dish that is made by layering a batter made from flour, yeast, and baking powder with a mixture of grated coconut and palm sugar. The batter is then steamed to create a thin, sticky dough that is infused with the fragrant taste of pandan leaves. Dadar is typically served as a dessert and is a beloved staple in Malaysian food.
Talam is a type of sweet dish that is made by boiling a mixture of rice flour, sugar, and water until it becomes sticky. The mixture is then infused with the fragrant taste of pandan leaves and steamed to create a light, fluffy texture. Talam is typically served as a dessert and is a beloved staple in Malaysian food.
Durian is a type of sweet fruit that is commonly found in Malaysia. It is known for its unique taste and smell, which some people find irresistible and others find repulsive. Durian is typically eaten fresh or used as an ingredient in sweet dishes such as ice cream or cake.
Indonesian Sweets: A Delicious and Unique Addition to Asian Cuisine
- Indonesian sweets have been around for centuries and are a mainstay in the country’s food culture.
- The use of rice flour and palm sugar is common in Indonesian sweets, creating a sticky and sweet mixture that is different from other Asian sweets.
- The most famous Indonesian sweet is probably klepon, a little green ball made from glutinous rice flour filled with palm sugar and shredded coconut.
- Other popular Indonesian sweets include kue lapis, wajik, putu bamboo, and legit ku.
Ingredients and Cooking Process
- Indonesian sweets are known for having a rich and delicious taste, thanks to the use of high-quality ingredients like palm sugar and pandan paste.
- Making Indonesian sweets is a simple process that usually involves adding the ingredients together and steaming them in bamboo or other containers.
- The use of shredded coconut, glutinous rice flour, and light flour is common in Indonesian sweets, creating a unique texture and flavor.
Differences and Recognizable Flavors
- One thing that sets Indonesian sweets apart from other Asian sweets is the use of palm sugar, which gives them a distinct flavor and sweetness.
- The use of pandan paste is also common in Indonesian sweets, adding a delicious and recognizable flavor to the mixture.
- Indonesian sweets are usually firm and sticky, making them a delicious alternative to other types of sweets.
The Modern Way of Making Indonesian Sweets
- While the process of making Indonesian sweets has remained largely the same over the years, there are now modern ways of making them that enable people to create these delicious treats at home.
- Using pre-made mixes and adding your own ingredients is an easy way to make Indonesian sweets, even if you don’t have access to traditional ingredients or cooking methods.
- With a little help and some high-quality ingredients, anyone can enjoy the delicious taste of traditional Indonesian sweets.
The Sweet and Rich History of Traditional Korean Sweets
- Songpyeon: A special rice cake that is typically served during the Lunar New Year. It is made by adding natural ingredients such as sesame seeds, honey, and pine needles to create a rich and delicate flavor. The cake is usually in the shape of a half-moon and is steamed for a short time.
- Yakgwa: A popular sweet pastry that is made by frying a mixture of honey, sesame oil, and wheat flour. It is then cut into small diamond shapes and served cold.
- Yaksik: A sweet rice cake that contains dried fruits, cinnamon, and ginger. It is regarded as a special treat and is usually served during big occasions.
- Dasik: A type of sweet powder that is made by grinding grains, beans, and fruits. It is then mixed with honey and shaped into small sticks or cookies.
- Bukkumi: A sweet bean paste cake that is made by mixing bean paste powder with water and sugar. It is then steamed and cut into small squares.
Preparation and Cooking
- Traditional Korean sweets are mainly based on rice, grain, and natural ingredients. The cooking process is easy and usually takes a shorter time compared to other desserts.
- Depending on the type of sweet, the prep and cook time can range from a few minutes to an hour.
- Sesame, ginger, cinnamon, and pine needles are some of the common ingredients used in Korean sweets.
- The evolution of Korean sweets has been influenced by the seasonal availability of ingredients and the drinking culture in Korea.
Drinks and Desserts
- Sikhye: A sweet rice drink that is regarded as a representative Korean drink. It is categorized as a cold drink and is popular during the summer.
- Sujeonggwa: A sweet cinnamon and ginger drink that is usually served cold. It is a popular dessert drink in Korea.
- Matcha: A green tea powder that is used to create a variety of desserts and drinks. It is a new addition to the Korean sweet scene.
- Fruits, honey, and sesame seeds are also commonly used in Korean desserts.
As you can see, sweets are a common part of Asian cuisine, and are used in many different ways.
They’re usually made with fresh ingredients and can be either sweet or savory. So, the next time you’re looking for a snack, you know where to look!
Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.