The Best Asian Desserts You Need to Try

There's more to Asian cuisine than curry and these desserts are worth a try
There's more to Asian cuisine than curry and these desserts are worth a try | © subodhsathe / Getty Images
Photo of Kim Gregory
3 April 2020

Throw aside the noodles and curry paste! We’re talking all things sweet as we explore the unique and delectable world of Asian desserts, from frozen treats to chocolate puddings.

Asian cuisine is famously savoury, known for dishes including pho, sushi, curry or dumplings. But travellers with a sweet tooth shouldn’t overlook the delicious desserts that bless this sprawling continent. Across every country in Asia, you’ll find endless bakeries, cafés and market stalls selling delicious desserts. Some are traditional and simple, others modern and unusual. All are wonderful in their own right. Traveller and sugar addict Kim Gregory talks us through the best speciality in each location.

India – Kulfi

Stroll the streets of India and you’ll see stalls selling colourful frozen desserts that leave overheated visitors salivating. Traditional kulfi (ice cream) originated in India but is popular across much of Asia, and available from markets or restaurants, on sticks or in bowls. The dairy treat is much denser and creamier than regular ice cream – and dare we say yummier? It’s a bold claim, but with the range of unusual flavours from cardamom to apple, they’re a taste sensation.

These colourful frozen desserts are a real treat | | © TinasDreamworld / Alamy Stock Photo

Japan – Ichigo Daifuku

Mochi had a makeover and we can’t get enough. Traditional mochi is made from rice that’s steamed, pounded, mashed, formed into balls then baked or boiled. This springtime alternative sees strawberries and red bean paste added to the middle. It’s gooey on the outside, juicy and fresh on the inside. Many confectioners in Japan claim they created the first but really, the history isn’t clear. All you need to know is, it’s so good.

This gooey treat is made from rice dough and is to die for | | © Kenishirotie / Alamy Stock Photo

Vietnam – Banh Cam

Forget pho! Vietnamese desserts are simple but always hit the spot. Banh cam are deep-fried rice flour balls covered in sesame seeds and filled with sweetened mung bean paste, delivering a crispy outside and fluffy, warm centre. For an extra kick, Vietnamese chefs sometimes pour syrup over them. Side of sugar with your sugar? Yes please.

This sugar overload is incredibly indulgent but worth the extra calories | © Paul Biris / Getty Images

Taiwan – Feng Li Su

Crumbly shortcake pastry meets chewy, sweet pineapple jam in this flavoursome Taiwanese dessert. The bite-sized wonder might look simple but it’s an important part of culture. Feng li su are often given as engagement presents because the Taiwanese word for “pineapple” sounds similar to a phrase conveying hope for the birth of children: “To come forth, prosperous and thriving.” There’s even a government-run Pineapple Cake Cultural Festival each year in capital city, Taipei. Bakeries compete to create the most unusual flavour by jacking up feng li su with ingredients like rice or Taiwanese tea. The possibilities and love for this humble pineapple cake are endless.

Philippines – Ube Halaya

The second you step into the Philippines you’ll notice endless bakeries lining the streets. They’re often open 24/7 and sell delicious, warm snacks from sweet breads to banana cake. The most colourful and delicious of all is the ube halaya, made with purple yams. When boiled, mashed and mixed with condensed milk, butter and sometimes coconut milk, purple yams make an unexpectedly tasty treat. The dessert is enjoyed cold after setting in the fridge.

China – Nai Wong Bao

Bite into these fluffy, gooey treats and you’ll never need chocolate again. Chinese steamed custard buns are a traditional Cantonese dessert of dough filled with custard and steamed to perfection – simple but satisfying. They’re best when still hot and are often served within other dim sum (filled buns). Trust us, they’re good morning or night, alone or accompanied, with or without restraint. Delicious!

Dough and custard? Literally, what more could a person want? | © Sergii Koval / Alamy Stock Photo

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