DESSERTS of the east
Most Asian restaurants offer pretty basic desserts, but traditional sweet treats of the east are a deliciously different way to finish a meal.
Like many people, my experience eating out in Thai and Chinese restaurants had lead me to believe – wrongly – that Asian countries don’t do sweet treats beyond lychees and ice cream.
That was until I tried sago melaka and kueh salat. Odd, yes. Delicious, absolutely yes. Satisfying, yes!
Think pandan leaves, banana, sago, coconut and palm sugar. A Western mind may struggle to imagine delicious desserts emerging from such foreign ingredients when the usual suspects are things like chocolate and caramel whizzed into a rich, sweet calorie burst.
Asian dessert choices are wide and fascinating, ranging from sweet and savoury Chinese cakes and cookies, to tropical fruit-flavoured rice and ice cream. There’s also sweet restorative soups (tong sui) on the Cantonese side.
A vast array of cakes and sweets are prepared for the many Chinese festivals, but there are a lot of regional differences in ingredients. Broadly they include gao (snacks, typically steamed), sweets (tang), shaved ice desserts with syrups, and baked wheat flour confections resembling puff or short crust pastries. A great deal of preparation goes into these cakes and some are highly decorated. Some desserts play with the sweet/salty combination, like the sago gula melaka recipe you’ll find on page 70, rather like the latest fad for salted caramel.
Strange names, great tastes
The ingredients used depend on the region and include glutinous rice flour, red azuki beans, agar, peanuts, banana, mango, almonds, and saffron.
The Peranakan culture (Malay-chinese heritage) uses ingredients like banana leaves, pandan leaves, gula melaka (palm sugar) and coconut.
Palm sugar comes in round cakes about 5cm in diameter and has a deliciously distinctive coconut/caramel flavour. In a well-known Peranakan dessert called ondeh ondeh (pronounced ‘onday onday’), a piece of gula melaka (palm sugar) is buried inside a kumara and glutinous rice ball, flavoured and coloured by pandan leaves, then rolled in salted coconut. The surprise comes when you bite into it, a shot of sticky sweet caramel squirting out.
The guilt-free dessert
My favourite dessert so far is the delectable kueh salat (pronounced kway salart), also known as kuih seri muka (seri muka is Malay for ‘pretty face’). This twolayered dessert has a steamed glutinous rice base and a creamy custard layer on top. Coconut milk is used to impart the creamy texture, and pandan leaf is infused
Chef Lilian cutting the kueh salat (pronouned ‘kway salart’).