The next frontier in Asian (Chinese, Japanese, Korean) cuisine? Desserts?
- ipsedixit Jul 1, 2010 09:07 PM
Generally speaking, I think that Chinese, Japanese and Korean cuisines all have made significant, if not permanent, inroads on the American palate, if not in its psyche.
Chinese? It's pretty obvious. Just look at things like Panda Express, dim sum, etc.
Japanese? Sushi, teriyaki, soba and udon noodles ...
Korean? Three letters: b b an q
But what about desserts?
Why haven't Asian inspired desserts taken hold like their more savory, main-entree counterparts?
When will sweet red beans get traction on American dessert menus in the same way that things like egg rolls or fried rice have on the app/entree side? Or what about things like mochi? Or shaved ice? Almond tofu anyone?
Yes, somethings like green tea ice cream are popular, boba drinks maybe as well, but generally speaking Asian type desserts are still sort of an oddity.
Is it because Americans (and I use that term loosely) prefer much stronger, sweeter desserts?
To start off, I think part of the problem is that desserts aren't that important in Asian restaurants as they are in Western restaurants. When Asians go to an Asian restaurant, they're unlikely to order a dessert to punctuate a meal. And, if Asians aren't going to order a dessert, then that makes it less likely than Americans will.
Without people ordering desserts, then the Asian restaurants aren't going to put much effort or focus into it.
And, when an American goes to an Asian restaurant with an Asian, if Asians were more likely to order desserts, then it would be likely that more Americans would be introduced to Asian desserts.
I think part of it has to do with the texture and sweetness of the desserts. The Japanese ones are often less sweet and have different textures (like daifuku, kushi dango, anmitsu, ohagi, manju and yokan). On our local board, a teacher wanted to bring her students different ethnic desserts for her seminar on the Psychology of Eating and I had suggested mochi. She reported back that the students hated it (lack of sweetness and texture not associated with desserts I imagine). Doh! And the whole notion of beans in a dessert is off-putting for some (oshiruko- sweet red bean soup or tsubu an on top of ice cream, etc). When my mom (Japanese) comes to visit, I make taiyaki (similar to imagawa yaki and dorayaki, but in a fish shape). My mom, brother and I love ours filled with anko, but my nephew and fiancé don't. So I fill theirs with pastry cream. The swiss rolls, Japanese -style cheesecake, castella cakes and the Japanese langues de chat are also hits with them because of the familiar tastes and textures.
I couldn't agree more. There is a lot more willingness to experiment with flavors and a range of textures in Asian desserts. Western palates are going for novel sweet savory desserts now, partially because they are accessible tweaks of standards. Sweetened tofu, beans or avocado, however, meet a little more resistance. Not only are these savory foods, but they are popularly categorized and limited to certain applications.
In order for such types of desserts to gain wider acceptance, chefs would have to incorporate their elements, use fusion techniques, basically come up with something that's not watered down, but very palatable and unique in a way that gives them their own identities. It has been done in Asia, at least changing western themed or influenced desserts to fit the local tastes.
And you see examples of this at dim sum restaurants and Asian bakeries...
e.g. egg tarts/daan taat that stemmed from custard tarts. Or the Macanese "Portugese" egg tarts that make my heart clench but taste oh so decadent. Or the steamed sponge cakes that may have been derived from chiffon. While I don't know what Black Forrest Cake tastes like in Europe, the version in Hong Kong is lighter and doesn't overload like some triple chocolate cheesecake.
I would even say that a lot of Asian Americans, particularly the American born and raised ones, don't like their ethnic country of origin's desserts. I don't mean the mainstream kinds like the boba milk tea's, eggettes/egg puffs....I'm sure even shaved ice with fresh fruit is very palatable. But what about the sticky rice based mochi like balls (tang yuen) that have a soup base that contains rice wine? Or a Cantonese uber old school "tang shui" stewed dessert that contains tea, lotus seeds, and tea marinated boiled egg? :-) There's definitely no neutral ground there.
Japanese have small pieces of fresh fruit for dessert. And when you go to Japan and see INDIVIDUALLY wrapped perfect fruit that costs a fortune, you understand why. Thirty years ago I was in Japan and saw a beautiful bunch of what I thought were perfect plums sitting in a gift box. They weren't plums. They were grapes. $16 at the time for just a few grapes! Wagashi, mochi, etc., are for eating with tea between meals, not really desserts. And yes, they are an acquired taste unless you grew up with them like I did and love them. SE Asians have similar confections, but perhaps they might be tastier to a Western palate because they often use coconut milk to flavor and moisten the pounded rice. In Eastern Malaysia, they have banana murtabak, which is an extremely tasty fried crepe stuffed with sauteed bananas, sweetened condensed milk, palm sugar and raisins. Indonesian and Malaysian desserts also include concoctions of shaved ice topped with sweetened condensed milk, sweet syrups and garnishes such as azuki beans, corn, various types of jellies. Very refreshing in hot, humid weather, but again, can be an acquired taste for the western palate. Deep fried bananas are also common. For a while in Chinese restaurants in my area, they used to serve a yummy dessert of deep fried bananas or apples, that were then tossed with honey and immediately tossed into a bowl of ice water to harden up the honey. That was good, but I haven't seen that on a menu for quite some time.
" For a while in Chinese restaurants in my area, they used to serve a yummy dessert of deep fried bananas or apples, that were then tossed with honey and immediately tossed into a bowl of ice water to harden up the honey"
That dessert dish should actually be made with yam or sweet potato. It's a Dongbei (Northeastern Chinese) dessert staple known as 拔絲地瓜.
Perhaps part of it is that the Western palate wants dairy (milk, butter, cream) and/or chocolate in desserts. These are not items that were traditionally available in most Asian cultures. In SE Asia, sweetened condensed milk has become very common because it doesn't have to be refrigerated. And the imported chocolate tends to have a horrible taste/texture, because they have to put in something that keeps it from melting in the hot weather.
To answer your question: Yes! Americans, including me, prefer much stronger, sweeter desserts. I think the Asian preference for less sweet desserts comes from not having sugar available (until recently, historically) or it being expensive. Asian honey is much more rare and sometimes has a weird, smokey taste which, I understand, has to do with how it is harvested.
When I lived in Singapore, my Asian friends would go all ga-ga over fresh fruit. This is certainly admirable, healthy, etc., but, come on, how does fresh fruit compare to a nice chunk of chocolate cake or a cherry pie? Healthwise, it is certainly better for you, but tastewise, western desserts win hands down.
One of the things that surprised me the most in Singapore was all the chocolate cake covered with chocolate frosting available in the downtown bakeries. These cakes look gorgeous. However, when you eat them, you discover that the chocolate cake has almost no chocolate flavor and the chocolate frosting is made out of gelatin and a minimal amount of chocolate. It isn't very sweet, either.
Despite what I have just said above, Singapore is the city of food. It has some of the best Chinese food (Malaysian, Indian, Korean, Japanese, etc.) in the world, but forget dessert. The Chinese, much as I admire them, just don't get it.
Interestingly, the Indians have some very tasty desserts. They understand sweetness. Geographically, they stand in the crossroads between the east and the west, so maybe this explains their enhanced use of sugar. Still, they don't get chocolate . . .
I'll stand back and await criticism of my sweeping generalizations . . . !
I'd go for a combination of style and taste.
Asian desserts tend to strongly feature flavours like red bean, taro, purple yam, black bean, green bean, sweet potato and so on, and to a Western palate these don't really taste very dessert like. I'm very used to Asian sweets, and I'll still take chocolate or raspberry over red bean any day.
Then there's the style of eating. I live in Taiwan, and in Chinese restaurants you rarely get dessert as we would think of it in Western countries - fresh fruit is the typical end to a meal. There *are* desserts, but these are eaten separately.
The desserts from here that I think would carry over best are some of the shaved ice concoctions (shaved ice with fresh fruit and drizzled with sweetened condensed milk) and some of the cold soup like desserts. For the latter, you have chilled almond or coconut or soy milk, sweetened, with tapioca pearls, or canned fruit or fruit jelly, or a soft, sweet tofu or boiled peanuts. It's tasty and very refreshing on a cold day. The local versions, of course, involve things like herbal jellies or red bean which would probably be a harder sell.
I think it's a combination of several factors:
1) the level of sweetness - Americans love sugar bomb type of desserts, just check out the dessert section of any menu in a diner or american cuisine restaurant and you'll see what I mean. In Asia, the desserts have a lot less sugar in them so they do not appeal to the American palate - a lot of my American friends find Asian desserts too bland/not sweet enough.
2) texture/food source - Korean "desserts" like twibap and hotteok are made with rice or red bean paste and have a grainy or doughy texture that is off-putting and unfamiliar to the American palate that is used to pies, cakes etc. Plus Asian desserts use ingredients (chestnuts, red bean, ginger, rice etc) that American would not consider as belonging to the dessert category.
3) cultural differences -in Korea, dessert is not a recognized part of the traditional meal... this is a Western concept. At the end of a meal, a cup of sikhye or some fresh fruit was all you would usually get to refreshen your palate after all the savoury food. Sweet "dessert" foods were usually reserved for special festivals or holidays only.
There's nyona kueh - a genre of little sweet cakes made with various combinations of starches and carries a variety of flavours common in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Thai desserts are similarly diverse with related flavour profiles. Probably one reason why they haven't made much inroads in the US is because the practioners are rare.
My feeling is that much of Americans taste for intensely sweet desserts is because our other foods and beverages are already, in many cases, loaded with sugar. There's a lot of sugar is in snack and fast food in America. So, if, for instance, you're drinking a soda along with your meal, well, dessert isn't going to taste sweet unless it's full of sugar.
I don't know how common sugar is to other cultures' beverages, entrees, and snack or fast foods. I'm thinking of the Vietnamese coffee or tea with sweetened condensed milk and of course, there's boba tea, which may not be that common except with kids anymore. Then, there are the sweets shops of India, but I don't have the impression they're an everyday treat. I have a general impression that sweets and sweet snack foods aren't really eaten with meals all that commonly in Asia. Do Asians drink sodas along with their breakfast, lunch, and dinner? I get the impression that many Americans do.