By Peter Vinh, Asia World Media Contributor
There is always a demand for sweets. Spring is quintessentially a season full of sugar to counter the upcoming, blistering heat in North Texas. Favorites of the iconic Americana palate may include ice cream sundaes, cones, slurpees, and ice-cold soda beverages. With the recent trend of conscientious eating there has been a growing demand for options that cools the body naturally, satisfies thirst, and is healthy. It places us in a dilemma on how to balance between indulgence while not being too restrictive in our diet that the treats become bland. As the weather heats up, the bountiful wave of Asian treats, are sure to satisfy such demand!
We are excited to explore the diverse sweets and desserts used by our Asian communities to help us stay refreshed. These staples, as we can safely address, run the spectrum of texture from crunchy to chewy; flavors of subtleness to rich-like flavors; and colors readily to captivate the eyes of the sweet connoisseur. While there are a multitude of varieties to choose from, breaking down the essential ingredients commonly seen in most Asian culinary sweets helps to create an appreciation for their unique role in the foods. Let’s begin:
- Basil Seeds: A black, tear-shaped seed from the sweet basil plant, not the traditional basil plant used in cooking adornments of Asian/Italian cuisines. It forms a gelatinous outer covering when soaked in water and has a crunch similar to chia seeds.
- Grass Jelly: Derived from the stalks and leaves of the Platostoma palustre (mint family plant). A smoky, fragrant jelly-like ingredient with a coffee brown-black color.
- Artichoke Tea: From the dried or fresh artichoke hearts, it is steeped in boiling water then cooled to be a refreshing base for many herbal drinks and desserts. Caffeine-free for those needing to avoid the heart palpitations and headaches commonly seen in caffeine-based drinks.
- Glutinous Rice: A form of rice cultivated in South-Southeast Asia known for its sticky texture, enjoyed as an outer covering for desserts such as glutinous rice balls, or cooked and served with other condiments of sweet varieties.
- Agar-agar: A clear, translucent jelly-like substance derived from seaweed-algae plants delivers a subtle, crunchy texture and as a vegetarian alternative to gelatin.
- Beans (Mung, Red, and Black) are the seeds harvested from the vine plants and used commonly in both savory and sweet dishes and cherished for its chewy, natural sweetness.
- Pandan Leaf is a tropical plant of South-Southeast Asia. Its leaves are treasured for the unique aroma. Steeped in coconut milk or baked, creating a pleasant flavoring to a myriad of desserts.
- Coconut Milk has a milk-like consistency derived from the grated meat of a mature coconut. It contains a high fat content with a nutty flavor for desserts, or for tempting dishes, such as curry.
- Taro is a root vegetable used as a flavoring or cooked for its starchy, nutty rich-like texture, flavorful in smoothies or mochi.
- Tapioca gets its name for the starch extracted from the cassava root. Tapioca pearls are often white but can be dyed to just any color, for a radiant decoration to any dessert, either as clear pearls in vanilla pudding, or to the chewy consistency of boba pearls in bubble tea.
- Lastly the recognition of tropical fruits found in the Orient such as Mango, Lychee, Rambutan, Longan, Jackfruit, Dragon fruit, Papaya, Pineapple, etc… all are bursting with flavors, served fresh or canned, in fruit desserts, smoothies, or salads.
All of the mentioned ingredients above have nutritional value as they are foods naturally-derived and not artificially prepared or processed. The claims of healing and benefits are numerous, but we err on the appreciation of its essential role in Asian cuisines. A fun and delicious effort to present and share with our readers the nuances of textures, colors, and flavors which is a much healthier, better alternative to the highly processed treats. This may not be the most comprehensive list available, but our breakdown of these wonderful ingredients as the prevalent essence and sweetness, is an adventure to be found in most Asian desserts. Some shops to explore can be had at:
1) Lee’s Sandwiches (Garland, TX at Cali Saigon Mall)
2) Che Thach Thao (Garland, TX)
3) Bambu (Garland, TX)
4) Yayoi (Plano, TX)
5) Mango Mango Dessert (Carrollton, TX)
6) King’s Noodle (Richardson, TX)
7) Meet Fresh (Plano, TX)