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Apr 7, 2008 09:36 PM

Asian desserts...why don't I like them?

I have been wondering for a long time why it is that, although I love Asian food of all types (Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese - and of course, those of India, the land of my father) - but I can't stand Asian desserts. Excluding those pseudo-Asian dishes like fried banana with coconut ice cream that are standard and geared to Western tastes, Asian desserts seem to be an acquired taste that I just cannot seem to acquire. Is it just me?
As a child, and even teenager, I remember literally running away (or at least, slipping away) when it came time for dessert at my parents' Indian friends and relatives' dinner parties. Gulab jamun? Rasgulla? Barfi? No thanks! (But since most Indians think you are just being polite, they won't let you say no, hence the need to disappear before they try to talk you into "just a taste!")
Another time we were dining at a Japanese friend's house, and all was great until it came to the dessert: an "off-sweet" adzuki bean pudding, with a rice flour dumpling that my sisters and I swore expanded as you chewed it. Actually, since most Chinese and Japanese desserts are made with Adzuki beans and are either not sweet at all or super sweet to the point of cloying, I haven't yet been able to find one I can eat.
My (Indian) grandparents hated chocolate, so is it strictly cultural? (I was brought up in the US, but have spent a lot of time in India, so I am not sure why it is that I love the savories, but the sweets seem so alien...) Has anyone else had similar experiences?

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  1. Everyone has different tastes. There are a ton of people who like asian desserts, myself included, and I'm sure there are plenty who don't.

    If you don't like it and you've given it a fair chance, then there's nothing more you can do. If anything, you should be proud of yourself for being open-minded and trying most of this stuff. There still are a lot of people who still think "eww sweet beans!".

    Maybe you're making the mistake of lumping all asian desserts together. Think about how broad a classification "European desserts" would be. I'm sure there are some Asian desserts you like.

    1. Probably because they are more subtle in their sweetness factor, and some of them aren't even sweet at all (e.g. green tea mochi, black sesame, etc.)

      Most western desserts (note, I said "most") are sort of in-your-face sweet -- e.g. chocolate ganache, ice cream with apple pie, chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, etc.

      You were probably just more conditioned to desserts with a higher, more direct sweetness factor.

      6 Replies
      1. re: ipsedixit

        Ipsedixit, it's a good theory, but the OP said that she also hated Indian sweets, the epitome of "higher, more direct sweetness factor".

        North American desserts are very different from Southeast Asian and Asian desserts. Sometimes it is hard to make the transition. Anyhow, it's not like we need to like more desserts! I'd be happy if there were a category of desserts I didn't like (sigh. Stupid diet)

        1. re: ipsedixit

          I'm going to have to go all EatNopal and disagree with you. Some asian desserts are less sweet, but many are very sweet. Indian desserts, in particular, have a reputation for being cloyingly sweet to those who aren't used to them. Some of the Chinese and Korean dessert liquids are basically sugary water. There are so many different kinds of asian desserts that it's difficult to make any broad statements about the category as a whole.

          1. re: Humbucker

            "Go all EatNopal." Priceless.

            I *think* EN would take this as a compliment...

            1. re: Humbucker

              A doctor at work who's from India, and is also a spectacular Indian cook, told me, and I quote, "Sugar is our 'thing'".

            2. re: ipsedixit

              Agreed! After spending much time in Japan and China while in the Navy, I developed a great fondness for the small corner pastry shops that offered the "less sweet" pastries that I found incredible. Most desserts here in the US are by far way too sweet for me. Our dependence on sugar seems to be almost as bad as our dependence on foreign oil!

            3. I'm thankful for the orange slices or even fortune cookie when the alternative is that hot bean-barley "soup."

              1. I'm the same way. I don't hate them, but I don't particularly like them. I try not to eat desserts very often. But if I do, I'm certainly not going to waste them on those that I'm not crazy about. Indian desserts -- I find they're way too sweet for my taste unless you've got something like ras malai. The mochi and aduki bean thing -- it's OK, but I'd rather have other food. Asian interpretation of Western desserts -- kind of tastes artificial. The only thing I like is plain sponge cake served with plain jasmine tea.

                DH and I are both of Asian heritage born in America. Our preference lies in French desserts. My sister prefers Italian desserts. And we all love Asian food. So it's not just you.

                1. I've been thinking about this off and on for a while, and I think one big issue is differing conceptions of how to balance sweetness.

                  In the Euro-American tradition (I am, of course, speaking in very general terms here) the sweetness is typically balanced with acidity (fruit, sour cream, lemon juice) or bitterness (coffee, chocolate -- both of which are also acidic, of course), or even in some cases salt (toffee). In some cases, the dessert may be unrelievedly sweet (e.g. baklava), but you traditionally drink coffee with it.

                  The Indian desserts you mention (at least the versions I have tasted) don't seem to balance the sweetness in a way that suits my palate, so to me they taste sweet, yet bland. Same with the bean paste sweets I've had -- no balancing element, at least to my palate. So yes, I think part of it is probably cultural. One possible remedy might be to make sure you have coffee or tea to drink with your sweets.

                  7 Replies
                  1. re: jlafler

                    Really interesting theory, Jlafler. Perhaps that's why I like my steamed sponge cake (not very sweet) with unsweetened tea. Not intending to bash Asian desserts, but I've always thought that they tasted a bit one-dimensional to me.

                    1. re: Miss Needle

                      But...Miss Needle.... Hoe Ddok.... How can you not adore Hoe Ddok??? Especially when warm....

                      1. re: moh

                        Ok, Moh. You've got me there. Totally forgot about that. There aren't too many places where I can get them. Yeah, that stuff is pretty good -- kind of tastes like a Korean version an alfajore, though the caramel is made of beans. I'm a sucker for anything caramel.

                        1. re: Miss Needle

                          The Hoe Ddok that I get, the caramel is just made from heated brown sugar, and there are nuts in it. No beans that I can detect. I think you'd like that even better! (unfortunately, in TO not Montreal). But I have also had Hoe Ddok -like substances made with bean filling too.

                          1. re: moh

                            Oooh! I don't think I've had that one -- the caramel and nuts. I've got to search for it in NYC. I probably won't find it in Manhattan but perhaps some places in Flushing may have it.

                    2. re: jlafler

                      You're spot-on with regard to why many Asian desserts and sweets have flavor flatness! A lot of them don't have salt -- not enough to taste salty, but you know it's not there... that same sense of something being "off" with unsalted bread. I should sneak a packet of salt with me next time I go to a Chinese banquet and the inevitable bottomless cauldron of sweet red bean soup appears. If I had a philosopher's stone, I'd turn that soup into a nice bowl of chili.

                      1. re: jlafler

                        I like the idea of balance too, especially with balancing sweetness (of the dessert) with bitterness (strong coffee/tea), and then also cutting the richness (of the cream or butter) with, um, something lighter like fruit or just more strong coffee/tea.

                        So, then, the super sweet, rich and sticky slice of baklava would go best with a small cup of strong, unsweetened Greek coffee (as there is no point in having the dessert and the drink compete for sweetness).

                        One more element of balance that should also be important is quantity. The more rich and sugary the dessert, the smaller the serving should be. Those Indian honey balls (sorry I don't know the name), I love them but anything beyond two pieces my throat would start singeing from the sweetness. On the other hand, when it comes to the fluffy Chinese-style steamed cake that is "barely sweet" by Western standards, I could have a huge hunk of it without being overwhelmed by richness or sweetness, thus satisfying my craving for something I can sink my teeth into (or bury my face into). I can't really do that with a lot of Western-style cakes.

                        So, I agree a lot of Asian desserts are cloyingly sweet (Japanese okashi, Chinese mochi) or barely sweet (sponge cakes etc.) but it is just a matter of understanding how much of it and with what you're supposed to have.

                        I'd say, the more types of food you can enjoy, the more there is to enjoy!