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Why don't Westerners like Asian desserts?
December 15, 2010 2:13 PM   Subscribe

Why don't Westerners like Asian desserts?

Thai, Chinese, Japanese food -- all popular in the west, for dining out and cook-at-home. But they are popular almost exclusively for their savoury dishes, not their sweets. Manju steamed cakes, bua loi (rice balls in coconut milk), red bean jelly, taro dessert soup -- these and many more are pretty obscure. Much the same for Indian sweets -- one or two, maybe gulab jamun, are known but are dwarfed by the popularity of Indian savoury food.

I know, of course, many exceptions (and you personally love jalebi and eat it whenever you can) but Asian sweets do seem to have an image problem in the west -- possibly they seem bland? Or gloopy? Or monotone?

Why the xenophobia towards Asian sweets?
posted by dontjumplarry to Food & Drink (70 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
Asian deserts seem very savory to me - red bean is a classic example. I think Americans like their deserts to be much sweeter.
posted by muddgirl at 2:16 PM on December 15, 2010 [7 favorites]


I'm not sure it's xenophobia. One of the things I've noticed is that much of my exposure to foreign food is originally due to restaurants, and I never have room for dessert after eating in restaurants, therefore, I have little exposure to foreign desserts. And I'm not usually inclined to try making something for the first time myself if I have no idea what it's supposed to taste like!
posted by gracedissolved at 2:16 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


A lot of Westerners don't seem to like gelatinous/squishy -- for example, I know lots of horribly misguided people who think Pearl Milk Tea is disgusting.

People seem to like my Almond Dofu pudding, though.
posted by Comrade_robot at 2:19 PM on December 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


If it was xenophobia, we wouldn't try the main courses either. I'm with gracedissolved - I'm too full for dessert when I eat in Asian restaurants. Although I will somtimes share a ginger ice cream are grab a custard tart.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 2:20 PM on December 15, 2010


Strange textures: too tough, or too gooey. Also sometimes, too sweet (but Asians I know have the same opinion of Western desserts). So mostly texture, I think, and appearance -- weird colorings. And then there's people like my brother, whose slogan is -- If it ain't chocolate, it's not dessert!
posted by Rash at 2:20 PM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


My experience is the opposite of muddgirl's ... I find most Asian desserts to be cloyingly, horribly, overwhelmingly sweet, and lacking in complexity.

(I'm not big on a lot of Western desserts, either.)
posted by cyndigo at 2:20 PM on December 15, 2010 [9 favorites]


Mochi and red bean paste are very popular among people I know. I think though that the lack of chocolate is a big big thing--a lot of people don't seem to consider desert really desert if it doesn't contain chocolate.

I remember reading an essay by food writer Jeffrey Steingarten about his trying to teach himself to like all the foods in the world. His only failure was that he never managed to like most Indian deserts, and like Rash, texture was a big part of his objection.
posted by phoenixy at 2:22 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, dessert for me has to either have chocolate or ice cream or both. I will get mango or coconut ice cream sometimes in Asian restaurants, if they have it.
posted by medeine at 2:23 PM on December 15, 2010


(oops, meant to say "mochi ice cream", not mochi)
posted by phoenixy at 2:23 PM on December 15, 2010


I like them, and I'm a Westerner. I was raised in Hawaii, though.

Also, an awful lot of the Chinese and Japanese restaurants I've been to either don't offer dessert at all or there's one or two items of things like mochi ice cream balls or flaming bananas, so depending on where in the West you are, you may never have exposure to a wider range of Asian desserts. Thai restaurants I've frequented mostly seem to have sticky rice with mango, and that's it.

-a lot of people don't seem to consider desert really desert if it doesn't contain chocolate.


Maybe just confirmation bias on my part, but that rings true for me as well.
posted by rtha at 2:24 PM on December 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


While I am a westerner who loves lots of Asian desserts, those of my friends/family who are not Asian tend to not like them b/c they aren't sweet enough. Which is of course one of the reasons I love them and always avoided 'western' desserts growing up, b/c I don't enjoy overly sweet things.
posted by modernnomad at 2:24 PM on December 15, 2010


You remember that episode The Simpsons where Marge was selling pretzels and the other side was selling pita pocket bread with falafel crunch patties and tahini flavor sauce? That is the general American approach toward food, as far as I've seen it. The culinary xenophobia is a general one.
posted by griphus at 2:25 PM on December 15, 2010


I don't like a lot of desserts, but yeah, it's a texture thing for me, too.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 2:27 PM on December 15, 2010


Yeah, definitely texture. Slimy, gooey, chalky, sticky, chewy, etc. I have never met a non-Asian who liked sweet dduk, for example (or dduk at all, really) I think there's a mild cognitive dissonance thing that happens, too - "This is sweet, but I taste beans!" *brain block*. Oh well, more patbingsu for me.
posted by peachfuzz at 2:27 PM on December 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


I love asian desserts, but nearly every (non-Japanese) asian candy I've ever had has had an "off" flavor to my palette.

My boss, lead pressman, and receptionist are from Hong Kong. My department manager is from mainland China. Our second pressman is from Vietnam. They travel to see family at least once a year, so I get plenty of opportunities to taste the candies and treats they bring back. In almost every case, there's a savory flavor in the middle of the sweet that is very distinct and noticeable, and doesn't blend well with the other flavors. I'm hardly a picky eater, but I've come to be a bit cautious when the boss brings treats from the homeland.

Of course, this is all highly subjective; I realize that these treats wouldn't be manufactured or consumed if millions of people didn't think they tasted just fine, thank you very much.
posted by lekvar at 2:28 PM on December 15, 2010


The dominant flavor in most Western desserts is vanilla. Even when you're eating something that's chocolate, berry-flavored, etc., there's often a vanilla overtone. Other cultures use a different flavor palate for their desserts and this can sometimes squick people out - i.e. a rose-water flavored dessert that I thought was fabulous and all my colleagues thought was awful.

Maybe it's like cilantro? Either you like it or you think it tastes like soap?
posted by bq at 2:28 PM on December 15, 2010 [16 favorites]


My guess is that a lot of western desserts are milk and cream based- we associate indulgence with cream and desserts derived from cream: ice creams, caramels, ganaches, cheese cakes, whipped cream and butter cream. Without milk fat, it doesn't feel like an indulgence. I can't speak from experience, but I have been told that cream is not a really big part of many Asian diets. So it could be that when we get the dessert menu at Asian restaurants, some westerners don't see the ingredient that would tempt them to loosen their belt and dig in for one more course. As another point of anecdote, most of the vegans that I know seem more knowledgeable about Asian dessert traditions.
posted by pickypicky at 2:29 PM on December 15, 2010 [8 favorites]


Unfamiliarity. Desserts are comfort food. The odd textures are difficult for most people who think of dessert as "cake" or "pie" or "chocolate". I happen to love many Asian desserts, but they are an acquired taste if you haven't grown up with them, or anything like them.

Also, I don't think many restaurants focus on dessert, including Western ones. To be quite honest, most Indian Restaurants do a very poor job with their sweets- I have had some truly awful kheer and gulab jamun. That will be all they offer, too, so most people who make an effort to try are trying something sub-par. Then you have the fact that many Asian sweets are not meant as a meal-ender, but as a snack. Yet most people in the West encounter them as dessert, when they are stuffed and really, thach just isn't the thing right then.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:30 PM on December 15, 2010 [12 favorites]


Why do Asians like Asian desserts? You like what you like, which is determined by a combination of factors, including, I imagine, natural predilection for [sweet/nutritious/whatever] food, acquired taste from personal palate development, exposure, association with positive/negative food experiences, cultural expectations, &c. Just reading about red been jelly and rice balls in coconut milk gives me the same negative visceral reaction that peanut butter and coriander give me. I don't think it's culturally specific in the sense we'd use that word. It's culturally specific in that cultures tend to use more of whatever was available to that culture during its development in their food. Sorry, that sentence got away from me a bit there. So Asian food (a ridiculously broad concept) favours rice and bean (or whatever) over flour and milk (or whatever) in their desserts, so if you don't like rice and bean (or whatever) you're not going to like Asian desserts (for the most part), particularly if you've conditioned your palate to favour icecream and, I don't know, apple crumble after dinner.
posted by doublehappy at 2:30 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


You know, I was thinking about this a little more -- a lot of Westerners don't even like Chinese food. They like "Chinese" food: Sweet and sour chicken, General Tso's, that kind of thing. That's what's popular. Chinese Chinese food is pretty niche. Chinese desserts (like real Chinese desserts, I'm not talking about like a banana wrapped in a spring roll wrapper, deep fried, then covered in chocolate and whipped cream, even if those are delicious) are fairly difficult to find outside of cities with large Chinese populations.

Even (not picking on anybody) somebody above talks about grabbing an egg tart, which are kind of a Chinese-Western fusion thing, according to some theories:

One theory suggests Hong Kong egg tarts are an adaptation of English tarts with custard filling. Guangdong had more frequent contact with the West, in particular Britain, than the rest of China. As a former British colony, Hong Kong adopted some British cuisine. Another theory suggests that egg tarts evolved from the very similar Portuguese egg tart pastries, known as pastel de nata, traveling to Hong Kong via the Portuguese colony of Macau.

I think it may be saying something that fusion-y mochi ice cream balls are popular enough to be stocked at Trader Joe's, but mooncakes are hard to find.
posted by Comrade_robot at 2:32 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't think there's just one reason that covers all Asian cuisines, unless it's simple unfamiliarity. Gulab jamun has been popular with even the most insular Americans I've fed it to, since sweet-chewy-creamy is a texture and flavor combination they're already happy with. Other desserts are a harder sell, but for different reasons, from flavor (e.g. red bean, haw) to texture (e.g. chewy tapioca).

So I don't really think there's a blanket answer here, other than total unfamiliarity plus a variety of ancillary difficulties of flavor or texture. But there's also another factor to consider: unavailability of well-made samples to try. It's harder to find a good dessert than a decent main course at most US ethnic restaurants outside of big cities.
posted by RogerB at 2:32 PM on December 15, 2010


It might just be what you grow up with: I'm Japanese and while I'll avidly eat the Desserts of my People (that I grew up eating), non-Japanese Asian desserts aren't that palatable to my tastebuds. Also, Western desserts are so...bready. Or are dairy-heavy (ugh, lactose intolerance).

I think of dessert as an indulgence, something that I might eat on occasion as a treat. When I'm in that mindset, I want comfort food as opposed to boundary-stretching.

FWIW, a good friend of mine who grew up in Vietnam and now living is California is totally put off by many varieties of Mexican food because he says, "Beans are for dessert." He just can't deal with savory beans.
posted by jamaro at 2:38 PM on December 15, 2010 [8 favorites]


But you forget, everyone loves Pocky! The Safeway grocery store in my rural/agricultural county stocks Pocky in its Asian Foods section. If that's not a sign of Western acceptance, I don't know what is.

I love all that awesome Asian stuff, and I have a professional interest in candy, so I have talked about this with many people. The primary objections seem to be:

* Lack of exposure. Part of the reason people love Pocky is that they've seen Pocky. They know what it is. Asian desserts are unpopular because they aren't more popular. (An interesting tautology.)

* Texture. Many Asian desserts have a texture which can be off-putting to an average Western palate. Even I occasionally have these moments when I pick up a red bean mochi and just for a second I think, "I bet this is what a dead person's cheek feels like."

* Unusual flavors. Most of the fruit flavors - mangosteen, starfruit, dragonfruit - have been successfully imported to various American treats. Americans are accustomed to odd tropical fruit flavors.

Tamarind (as a sweet), red bean paste, mung bean paste, that strange breading made out of corn starch they use for mochi... these are very "foreign" flavors. It's hard to get people to try new things, adults and children both.

* Wrong palette. Asian desserts tend to be either very sweet, or barely sweet at all. Americans are accustomed to the European understanding of dessert, which tends to be in the middle of the spectrum. A lot of people still think it's "weird" to put salt in caramel, or chili powder in chocolate.
posted by ErikaB at 2:39 PM on December 15, 2010 [6 favorites]


My husband is Caucasian and loves Asian desserts. Red bean drinks, red sesame, snacks from the Asian supermarket, bubble tea, custard, pudding, black sesame - I don't believe there is an Asian dessert he doesn't like. He doesn't have much of a sweet tooth though.

I find Asian desserts aren't sweet enough or satisfying enough. I have sampled just about everything my husband buys or orders, and I have only really liked black sesame and bubble tea. I find chocolate desserts of any kind (such as Voice crackers) to be really disappointing. We live in a large Canadian city with a wide variety of Asian cuisine available, both authentic and Westernized. It's probably just a matter of taste :-)
posted by Calzephyr at 2:39 PM on December 15, 2010


nthing texture. In high school and college I used to buy daifuku and other Japanese sweets because I knew that my family wouldn't eat them. There's just nothing with the same texture as mochi.

And when I actually lived in Japan I found a lot of things to have very little flavor. Don't get me wrong, the cakes and pastries were sweet. But they just tasted mostly of whipped cream to me. The jellies tend to have a much subtler flavor too.

But I noticed that most of my Japanese coworkers don't really care for Western sweets either. They are too sweet and overpowering. When there's a potluck I usually end up bringing a gingerbread that isn't very sweet so that they can have a dessert that's not as overpowering as a Death by Chocolate cake. So in my experience it goes both ways.
posted by Caravantea at 2:39 PM on December 15, 2010


I have never in my entire life been offered dessert at an Asian restaurant besides the obligatory fortune cookie. So, I can't say I don't like Asian desserts, I just never knew they existed.
posted by Sassyfras at 2:40 PM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


I agree with gracedissolved that I rarely eat dessert out, though I am not opposed to it. I went to an Asian restaurant recently and got some... I don't know, sweet cheese with a red coloring thing on it, and it was tasty if I closed my eyes, but it wasn't chocolate torte or mousse or ice cream, and I like cheese but not as dessert.

My totally unscientific guess is that since Asian people tend to be lactose intolerant, and since many (not all!) of the people in the US tend to not be descended from lactose intolerant populations (and those non-l-i populations are largely responsible for "American food") we tend to like rich desserts that include diary- chocolate, cream, butter. Not to mention that that the dairy industry is heavily subsidized. And we have chocolate (bitter, when drank by the Aztecs) coming from the South and sugar from the tropics and once we mixed them (I want to say in the 1890s, or at least fairly recently in history) we were hooked.

I read an interesting book called Can She Bake a Cherry Pie? that discussed the evolution of the American diet from the 1890s on, and that might be of interest to you.
posted by jenlovesponies at 2:40 PM on December 15, 2010


My brother is a flavor chemist for an international conglomerate. He's responsible for knowing how to translate a particular flavor (say, "strawberry") into different localized versions.

Short answer: different populations have different expectations. Desserts around the world have different flavor/texture profiles, and some people can navigate those boundaries, and some can not.

And it's not just desserts. The very notion of "Italian" or "Indian" or "Mexican" or whatever food is very, very different depending on whether or not you're trying that cuisine in the US, the UK, Japan, the country the food is allegedly from in the first place, etc. It's all tailored to the local palate. Beer and spirits, too - basically whatever people put past their tongues.

(BTW: I highly recommend cruising non-native ethnic restaurants wherever you might travel. French food in Japan, for example, is arguably a fundamentally different cuisine than French food in the US).
posted by NoRelationToLea at 2:41 PM on December 15, 2010 [18 favorites]


I felt very adventurous eating red bean ice cream for the first time, as I don't associate the dry texture and bland taste of beans with dessert. The first time I saw carrot pudding on an Indian buffet, I almost didn't try it. Carrots mixed into a cake batter are one thing, but not as the main ingredient of the dessert. I mean, vegetables and beans for dessert? Sounds weird and kind of yucky.

Incidentally, both of the above are now among my favorite things to get when we go out. But neither of them sounded particularly good to me when I first heard of them.

Also, nthing that Americans generally like and expect our desserts to be very sweet, and some Asian desserts tend not to be. I'd eaten sesame bean balls from the Chinese buffet a couple of times without ever realizing they were supposed to be a sweet treat. The sweet taste was very subtle.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 2:43 PM on December 15, 2010


American-born Asian person here. I was exposed to many of the Asian desserts listed above as well as the usual Western desserts. While I enjoy some of the Asian sweets, they don't scream DESSERT to me that Western sweets do. Have you ever had cake from an Asian bakery? It's like a cheap knock-off of really rich, dense, super sweet, creamily frosted American cake.

My theories:
- Westerners (including myself) are accustomed to the sweetness and richness of cakes, pies, cookies, and ice cream.
- Lack of availability of Asian sweets. Your corner take-out place may or may not even offer a dessert menu.
... on a related point about the availability: when you eat at an Asian restaurant, they don't ask or offer if you want dessert after your meal the way that American restaurants do. You eat the main course, they bring you a check and maybe some orange slices and off you go.
- "Dessert" in my house was considered some slices of fruit. The truly sweet stuff was reserved for special occasions only. That might explain some of the availability issues above and why the main dishes get more attention.
posted by watch out for turtles at 2:43 PM on December 15, 2010


Someone says:


While I am a westerner who loves lots of Asian desserts, those of my friends/family who are not Asian tend to not like them b/c they aren't sweet enough. Which is of course one of the reasons I love them and always avoided 'western' desserts growing up, b/c I don't enjoy overly sweet things.

And then someone says

I find most Asian desserts to be cloyingly, horribly, overwhelmingly sweet, and lacking in complexity.

It seems to me one of the problems is that this cuts a bit broad: there are vast differences in nominally "Western" desserts, as there are in "Asian". To the examples I cited above: in the matter of sweetness, for example, I can see both - from my point of view the U.S. ("Western") pastries and desserts are horrifically loaded with sugar compared to a lot of European (also "Western") pastries and desserts. The same thing can be said about Asian desserts - so it is hard to make generalizations. But if we must, I think it's mostly a matter of expectations and exposure. Most Westerners are simply not as exposed to Asian desserts as they are to general Asian food, so they don't get a chance to learn much about them.
posted by VikingSword at 2:46 PM on December 15, 2010


I like to think I have a pretty open minded approach to food, but my experience has usually been that Asian desserts are too sweet and without any complexity. I actually enjoy the textures, to be honest. When they are fruit based, they can be good, but owing largely to the quality of the ingredients over the preparation. This could, however, easily be due to the quality of the desserts that I've had in the states. That said, I'm only so fond of western desserts, and I tend to enjoy those desserts that flirt heavily with the savory.
posted by Schismatic at 2:46 PM on December 15, 2010


I think the reasons for these patterns are complex, but I wonder if it has anything in common with the tendency of Westerners to stick to familiar cuisines for breakfast foods, rather than rice & kimchi or similar explorations. I think the idea of comfort-food meals/courses is about right.
posted by heyforfour at 2:47 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've enjoyed good Indian and Japanese desserts, but only at better establishments. It could be that in general they are just not presented well.

Consider western desserts. Western style desserts are (generally) fugly or just plain aren't very tasty or fresh at most low- to midrange places in the west. They are afterthoughts. If anybody even bothers to eat them, it's out of habit. It's only once you start getting into pricier restaurants with dedicated bakers and a pastry chef that you begin to see real (and really good) desserts.

Then consider the eastern restaurants you might visit in the west. A VERY large proportion will be low- to midrange establishments. Now picture the neglect of desserts at these places, no dedicated pastry person. The "foreign" gooey, unfamiliar equivalent of a week old cherry pie at a diner. Ugh. There you go.
posted by quarterframer at 2:52 PM on December 15, 2010 [9 favorites]


nthing the savory vs. sweet association with dessert. Then again, I'm half Indian/Pakistani and can't take more than one bite of most South-Asian deserts without feeling like my teeth are going to imminently rot off. As a child I just found them way too sweet, and ditto as an adult. Except kheer. Which may partly be a "comfort food" thing because my mom made the baddest most awesomest kheer in the community and I feel kind of marginally cool being one of 5 to know her secret ingredient. But I think I'll start giving more East-Asian desserts a try when I eat out.
posted by raztaj at 2:52 PM on December 15, 2010


Yeah, I take back what I said about sweet. I don't think it's necessarily sweetness, but richness. There are some very sweet Asian desserts, but they are rarely rich - buttery, creamy, etc.
posted by muddgirl at 2:54 PM on December 15, 2010


As a counter-data-point, I'm Asian and I don't particularly like Asian desserts. I love the various 'asian' flavours of ice cream (green tea, red bean) but as for the rest ... they're alright, but I prefer cake.
posted by Xany at 3:04 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


NoRelationToLea speaks the truth: my two favorite things to do when traveling are go to grocery stores, and eat non-native ethnic food. I still think very fondly of the sushi I had in Puerto Vallarta on my honeymoon, the burrito and fries I used to get at a shopping mall food court in Sweden, and a German...ish meal I had in Shanghai.

Even most of the "no really natives eat there" restaurants in this area seem to suffer from the same problem all kinds of restaurants have: ordered-in/from-frozen/mediocre not-made-in-house desserts. I have occasionally been surprised by really stellar Asian desserts, but they've always been some sort of house special, rather than the native equivalent of half-thawed rubbery freezer-burned cheesecake.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:10 PM on December 15, 2010


Chinese coworkers always said that American sweets were too sweet for them. Most American people that I've known have found Indian sweets too sweet for them. These are gross generalizations - China is a big place as are India and the US. I'm sort of tempted to give Indian sweets to someone Chinese and see what happens.

I'd also like to see data on sugar density in desserts mapped onto the globe.

Personally, I enjoy Southern Indian sweets, some Chinese sweets, a smaller number of Japanese sweets, and chocolate chip cookies. I haven't eaten Vietnamese, Thai, Laotian, Korean, etc desserts.

What about Turkish/Greek/that end of the Mediterranean? All the honey-soaked baklava and other variants?
posted by sciencegeek at 3:11 PM on December 15, 2010


To my western palate, Asian sweets (and that's a huge swathe of generality right there) are usually boring, bland or just plain odd. South East Asian sweets generally consist of coconut in some form, palm sugar, pandan leaf (AKA screwpine), sweet bean paste of some description, and lashings of bright food colouring. To me they all taste the same - bland - and the vivid stripes and other colours does not make them look tasty to my eyes.

That said, there are several Chinese and Japanese desserts that I love, and many MANY Indian sweets that I will happily make a pig of myself over, so perhaps it's just a question of encountering something that 1) appeals to your palate and 2) is properly done. As quarterframer points out, if you tried to sell Western sweets to someone on the basis of one of my local bakery counters, no-one would EVER eat a chocolate eclair again!
posted by ninazer0 at 3:27 PM on December 15, 2010


I've never met an Asian cuisine I don't love, I actively seek out new foods at restaurants and grocery stores, and I spend an inordinate amount of time reading about different cuisines and dishes on Wikipedia. And yet, I'd struggle to name four Asian dessert dishes.

I'm sure I'd love many Asian desserts if they were available, but I've never been to an Asian restaurant that gives desserts anything more than cursory treatment. Red bean, green tea, and mango ice cream—optionally with mochi—are staples at Japanese places, of course. (But does ice cream even count as "Asian"?) Indian places usually have kheer. Many places I've been to (especially shitty Chi-Am places) offer Western-style desserts that are very obviously frozen, and not made in-house. But this short list comprises the vast majority of "dessert offerings at Asian restaurants", in my experience.

One exception: I used to frequent an Indian lunch buffet near Baltimore which always had a selection of desserts on the buffet. (This place is highly, highly recommended, if you're in the area—especially if you're a vegetarian.) The offerings were always different, but always blow-your-fucking-mind delicious. Very sweet, yes—but they had depth and breadth beyond the sweetness. It was obvious that the chef took the sweets as seriously as the rest of the menu. (And this is the only Asian restaurant I've been to which I can say that about.)

I still don't know what some of the ambrosial confections I ate there were called. And even if I did, the vast majority of Indian restaurants don't offer them.

It's hard to generalize about a category as huge as "Asian cuisine", but—perhaps due to the importance of rice in Asia—it seems like Asian desserts tend to be starchier and more glutinous than most Western desserts. I wouldn't be surprised if the texture is part of the obstacle for some people.

And, yes, sweetness levels are another obvious difference. Most of the (admittedly very few) Japanese desserts I've tasted have been significantly less sweet than Western desserts. Similarly, most of the desserts I've tried from the Indian subcontinent have been almost mouth-puckeringly sweet (British colonial influence, perhaps?). I personally don't mind either one—so long as there's more to the dish than just sweetness. But I can see it being strange to some diners—especially when dealing with something like dessert, which is essentially comfort food (i.e., familiar food).

Still, I think the main issue is that Asian desserts simply aren't very widely available. Higher-end restaurants may serve some of the more authentic things, but the restaurants that most people patronize for workday lunches—or even birthday dinners—simply don't.
posted by ixohoxi at 4:01 PM on December 15, 2010


My somewhat limited experience with Asian desserts, as a sugar lover and a chewy-stuff lover, has generally echoed the sweet/savory divide, as well as a little of the texture thing.

When my coworker brought back a package of coconut sweets from Hong Kong, for example, my first thought when I ate one was that they hadn't put any actual sugar in the dessert. This was a sweet, but to my American palate, it wasn't sweet. It didn't really taste like anything without the sugar I was expecting.

The texture of beans and bean paste also just grosses me out, unless it can be adequately disguised by the yummy texture of something like mochi (so I can enjoy, say, daifuku, despite the paste-y filling).

On the other hand, I love glutinous textures. I shocked the Asian kid working at Pinkberry recently by asking for extra mochi on my yogurt. He was all, "...you know what that is? And you...like it?" I adore bubble tea in all its slimy-pearls glory. And, for what it's worth, I am mad for Hi-Chew. But restaurant Asian desserts? Nah.

However, it's also true that in my travels to such exotic places as the local hibachi house, the Chinese take-out down the street, and the Indian buffet, I haven't really been offered anything that expands my Asian-dessert horizons. The unexplained balls-of-something that one is intended to put into bowl-of-mysterious-liquid at the Indian buffet, the green tea ice cream at the hibachi house, and the styrofoam fortune cookies with Chinese take-out are about all I've been offered by way of dessert at most of the (cheap) places I've eaten.
posted by badgermushroomSNAKE at 4:05 PM on December 15, 2010


There was an awesome article in Gourmet a few years ago about a trio of Chinese chefs who were touring the US. The article focused on their difficulty with some foods we take for granted (rare meat, cheese) and how flat-out revolting the idea of blue cheese was to them, and Westerners' difficulty with primarily textures in the Chinese food -- sinewy tendons, rubberiness - textures that don't have an analog in Western cuisine.

I'm a little grossed out just writing it--rubbery???-- but while I love blue cheese and carpaccio, I can absolutely understand why someone might find it disgusting as hell.

Anyway, in answer to your question: goopy, yes. Someone told me recently we all prefer the peanut butter we grew up with. I think applies to a lot of things.

(An interesting other question this brings to mind is what are the tastes that are universally loved -- is there anything we earthlings agree on, food-wise? Grains, maybe. But grains are dull. We all just eat them because they happen to be around.)
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:22 PM on December 15, 2010


I'd chime in on the side noting that a lot of Asian desserts lack a certain richness, probably associated with milk fat.

I find a lot of the Western-style bakery fare in Japan looks exquisite but is often disappointingly dry and lacking in flavor. There are many exceptions, of course (chou creams). My guess is that this derives from a deficit in the use of butter and cream. I also think bq hit the nail on the head when he noted that vanilla is a constant background flavor in European desserts that's less ubiquitous in the East.

As for more traditional Asian desserts, I would say the problem is probably the same. If you think about the Asian desserts that are more popular - a lot of them have a buttery or creamy quality to them, even if it's not actually derived from dairy. Chinese egg tarts, Indian rice pudding and Thai mango with sticky rice are all good examples of this.

While I personally really like mochi and red bean desserts, the lack of this creamy/fatty quality combined with unfamiliar flavors and textures, makes it unrecognizable as an acceptable dessert for a lot of people.
posted by Muttoneer at 4:25 PM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


I love them, but the rest of my family doesn't. I think it's because the ingredients freak them out, because they are ingredients that in Western cooking, are mainly associated with savoury foods. My mother, for example, hates the thought of a sweet dish that has beans in it, even when I tell her that red bean paste does not taste like her idea of beans at all.

My father once tried a Chinese cake, but freaked out when he found a whole egg yolk in the middle.

Other flavours like taro, yam, green tea, rice, jasmine, etc are also more "savoury" in my family members' minds, even though in actual Asian deserts, they can be very sweet indeed.
posted by lollusc at 4:31 PM on December 15, 2010


On the flip side, a northern Indian post-doc I know hates Western desserts because they are too sweet.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:34 PM on December 15, 2010


I'm Asian and grew up eating Asian desserts. Never did enjoy commercially made and bakery products except for black sesame paste. I find them much too sweet. My parents at home however put much less sugar in their versions, while upping the flavour with other ingredients such as ginger and blossoms from our jasmine plant, and I very much enjoyed those.

Also, in Western desserts butter/cream and vanilla are primary ingredients. I think their absence in Asian desserts is the most jarring to Western palates.
posted by waterandrock at 4:47 PM on December 15, 2010


I just don't like the flavor palette of most Asian sweets. I find that they're either totally cloying or oddly tasteless. There's often a texture component which I find off-putting, but I think this may be attributable to having eaten mostly low-end Asian food.

In the case of Indian desserts in particular, I really don't like the combination of slightly salty dairy and cardamom.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 4:50 PM on December 15, 2010


It's not xenophobia. The taste is different, and the texture is different. Believe me, many Japanese folks cannot eat North American desserts because they are so sweet they burn the back of your throat. A Japanese co-worker once told me that he regarded Snickers not as a snack, but as an energy supplement to eat during rowing regattas.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:05 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Do Japanese like Indian sweets? Seems like a lot of lumping going on. I find most Indian desserts too sweet, Japanese desserts too bland, and Thai just right. But combining all of Asian cuisines together doesn't make much sense to me. You can find curry in Japan, but it's not a curry that someone from Mumbai would recognize. Same with desserts.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:10 PM on December 15, 2010


I live in Japan. In most restaurants here the dessert ratio is roughly Japanese dessert 2 to Western desserts 4/5.

I think this question is much too broad. I love, love, love mochi and anything with sesame seeds you need to beat me off of. OMG bring on anything with coconut! However I'm not very fond of red bean paste. Or of Japanese style Western cakes.

I am Australian. To my palate I find American confectionery much too sweet and on my visits there discovered that I'm not especially fond of the cake (could be a frosting issue). There are some cakes I adore at home though. There doesn't seem to be as much difference between the UK, Europe & Australia in the desserts I like. (I couldn't live in Italy though I'd be enormous in less than a month).

Perhaps it's exposure? I grew up in an area with many immigrants from Asia so Asian desserts have always been available. I don't know any Westerner here who hates all Japanese desserts either.

Isn't it just like anything in that you like what you like and dislike what you don't?
posted by gomichild at 5:18 PM on December 15, 2010


Much the same for Indian sweets -- one or two, maybe gulab jamun, are known but are dwarfed by the popularity of Indian savoury food.

Not unlike the Western job of pastry chef, Indian sweets are made by specialists called Mithaiwallas (am I pluralizing that right?). Outside of huge cities which have large populations of immigrants from a particular region, it's probably difficult to pair an Indian restaurant with a trained Mithaiwalla.

I would guess that the same is true for other Asian cuisines.

Also, Chinese and to an extent Thai and Japanese cuisines are already adapted to American palates. It's not so weird that the traditional dessert in a Chinese restaurant is a fortune cookie, since it's not like anything else you ate during the meal had much resemblance to anything actually eaten in China.
posted by Sara C. at 5:19 PM on December 15, 2010


a deficit in the use of butter and cream ... vanilla is a constant background flavor in European desserts that's less ubiquitous in the East

A-ha! Nail, meet head. I can't believe these didn't occur to me.

Western-style desserts are as much about fat—especially milk fat—as they are about sugar. (Seriously—how many European desserts can you name that don't rely on some kind of milk product as a key ingredient?) This seems to be less true of most Asian desserts.

Vanilla is less obvious, and I think the average diner would be hard-pressed to identify it as the missing element, but it contributes mightily to many dishes which don't taste explicitly of vanilla. If you've ever accidentally omitted the vanilla while making a cake, you know exactly what I mean. Kind of a flatness, like it's lost a dimension.

I think these two things are a lot of what's behind the "bland" and "oddly flavorless" and "lacking complexity" comments you're getting. I've had very few Asian desserts that I would describe as "rich"—and I think most Westerners are expecting rich when they order dessert.

It's in the spices, too. In the west, we tend to make a distinction between "sweet" herbs and spices (cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, mint) and "savory" spices (most everything else). I think it confounds many diners to bite into something expecting "dessert", and taste spices which scream "savory" to their brains—sort of like taking a bite of cheesecake and tasting chicken.
posted by ixohoxi at 5:21 PM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


how flat-out revolting the idea of blue cheese was to them

(Side note: I found out what blue cheese was as an adult and just could not believe I'd eaten it. Never again.)

And I just added "mochi from Trader Joe's" to my grocery list for tomorrow.

If you want to try red bean paste stuff, I recommend the Japanese/French bakery inside the Porter Exchange, as well as the green tea milkshakes one of the restaurants serves. I'm not sure how Americanized it is, but it's all good.
posted by theredpen at 5:25 PM on December 15, 2010


I've lived in Asia for roughly 12 years now, and I'm not a fan of traditional Asian desserts. I think, sadly, it's that they aren't all that sweet, so there's that gap between expectation (coming from the midwest, thinking dessert = sugary) and reality (anko/red bean paste is not sweet).

Texture is also a bit of an issue for me. Beans in general aren't things I love, and a lot of Japanese traditional desserts are bean based.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:40 PM on December 15, 2010


Do Japanese like Indian sweets?

We had some Japanese friends stay over at our house, and my mom, showing some proper Indian hospitality gave them each a bowl of kheer (Indian rice pudding) to eat. These guests, being the polite people they were, ate all they were given. Later they told my wife, in Japanese, that it was like eating sugar.

My wife, who is Japanese, can't stand the idea of sweet rice, so won't have kheer or thai sticky rice with mango or regular rice pudding. How this squares with her love of inarizushi is beyond me.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 5:46 PM on December 15, 2010


For many Westerners "different" = "bad" plain and simple. This pertains to everything from food to skin color to changing jobs. People like what they're used to.

In my experience, I initially hated many things about Asian foods. They looked weird, tasted unusual, and I didn't know what much of it was. However after several years of trying new things, I have grown to love most of it.

Overall I think people in general are less likely to repeat an experience initially deemed as unpleasant and make an early judgement based on one experience. If we were required to do something five or ten times before passing judgement, we might end up liking a lot more of the things we eat and do.

So feed a Westerner the same dessert ten times and they might end up liking it.
posted by thorny at 5:49 PM on December 15, 2010


I think it's just familiarity. My favourite Asian desserts are Thai/Malaysian/Vietnamese—black glutinous rice and sago pudding, for example—both of which are made with coconut milk and and simulate English dairy-based nursery puddings with their vanilla base and creamy mouthfeel.
posted by hot soup girl at 6:10 PM on December 15, 2010


My philosophy is "if it ain't chocolate, it ain't food".
posted by madcaptenor at 6:42 PM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Even I occasionally have these moments when I pick up a red bean mochi and just for a second I think, "I bet this is what a dead person's cheek feels like."

Oh my god. I may never be able to eat one of those again.

Like someone said above, I really like glutinous textures, so I love mochi, bubble tea, etc. Our local yogurt shop has flavored boba as a topping, which one friend horribly referred to as "eating a blister." But I love it, especially the lychee.
posted by pinky at 6:59 PM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


I once spent a summer trying to find something that I liked at the Chinatown bakeries. I must have tried 60 to 80 different pastries. There was nothing I wanted a second helping of.

For the baked goods at least, it was that the dough itself was painfully dry. I attribute this to a lack of butter.

The custards were all off in some subtle way. They weren't quite sweet enough, and had the texture of fried egg-yolk instead of creamy-smooth.

I like most Indian desserts, though, if done well. Even the variations on cheese-curd-in-simple-syrup. Thai desserts fucking rock.
posted by Netzapper at 7:17 PM on December 15, 2010


[few comments removed - not thrilled with this question but it is what it is and we'd thank you not to make it worse. Stay on topic or go to MeTa or email, thanks.]
posted by jessamyn at 7:48 PM on December 15, 2010


Even I occasionally have these moments when I pick up a red bean mochi and just for a second I think, "I bet this is what a dead person's cheek feels like."
But in a good way, right? I love the cheap daifuku at Lawsons, but that's a snack rather than a dessert. I don't think I've ever had dessert at a Japanese restaurant in Japan.

As for the dry, tasteless cakes, in the manga/drama Antique Bakery, part of the joke is how shocking it is when the cakes are both pretty and delicious.
posted by betweenthebars at 12:03 AM on December 16, 2010


I'm a Westerner who loves Asian sweets with the exception of red bean anything -- too gritty, and the flavor doesn't make up for it.

My taste in Western desserts is different from a lot of other people's -- I don't go for rich, creamy cakes. I like bittersweet/unexpected flavors, like coffee and anise and very dark chocolate. Or else just a fruit tart that really showcases some fresh fruit. I'm always curious how understated flavors like melon will work in a dessert -- I'm the one who orders the cantaloupe ices at the gourmet ices stand when everyone else gets cherry.

I think one of the marks of a good cook is how well he/she can use subtle ingredients and turn them into a memorable dish. In turn, one of the marks of a good eater is to be able to tell the difference between "subtle" and "boring." It's a two-way street.
posted by mirepoix at 2:21 AM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


As an American who has traveled to Asia on a limited basis, it's this: They don't taste right. When I've tried Asian desserts, I see packaging and looks that imply a certain amount of sweetness and I'm always disappointed that it's just not there. Desserts are supposed to be a treat, not a disappointment, so why bother?
posted by Doohickie at 8:48 AM on December 16, 2010


I think its the lack of dairy. Western desserts are rich -- lots of butter and lots of cream. Asian cooking, including desserts, rarely, if ever, include dairy. My neice, who is allergic to milk (emergency-room-if-she-eats-animal-crackers-with-whey-byproducts allergic) says Asian restaurants are her go to if she is dining out, because she can eat almost anything on the menu without worry.
posted by rtimmel at 10:25 AM on December 16, 2010


We had an international student organization at my college, and they had a dessert night once; I remember something from Malaysia called Ugga, and some burnt-worm-bean-sauce stuff from Vietnam if I remember right. The Ugga looked like a cube cut from a dense jellyfish and was horrendous. The Vietnamese stuff was inedible.
posted by atchafalaya at 10:36 AM on December 16, 2010


Just a comment, I must point out that what many Westerners are calling "mochi" are those little blobs of ice cream surrounded by a thin shell of mochi -- but the Japanese eat mochi in big solid blobs, especially around New Years, when you might be served the savory soup called ozoni, and every year a number of old people allegedly choke to death eating the stuff.
posted by Rash at 1:32 PM on December 16, 2010


Belle Waring's taxonomy of weird Asian desserts, by an ex-pat American living in Singapore, gives one western take on specific Asian desserts and what specifically about them is good or bad to her western palate.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:40 PM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]


The "Asian" definition of dessert is much wider, with a much wider range of ingredients, even different sugars and fats. Asian desserts tend to be on one extreme or the other of fat and sugar content, and have very different mouth-feels than Western. The typical Western dessert ranges from crunchy to soft (not watery) and has mid-range sweetness, with perhaps a little salt, and "melts" in the mouth within a few seconds. It's often the milk or butterfat content, I think. Desserts that don't "melt" are often paired with milk, coffee, or tea to facilitate the "melting."

Of course, many tastes really are acquired (even if easily acquired). And when having a dessert, most people want "mmmm..." not "hmmm...?"

But you forget, everyone loves Pocky!

In my experience, many people find Pocky to be extremely bland, like eating an unsalted bread stick with a thin wax coating. Not everyone loves Pocky.
posted by Bongotrance Rabbitfriend at 12:06 PM on December 17, 2010


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