Nothing satisfies a sweet tooth like palm sugar, coconut milk, and deep-fried dough. The majority of Southeast Asian desserts incorporate at least one of these ingredients, and the treats often come in cute packages or irresistible colors. Found in markets, at street stalls, and on restaurant menus, these sweet delicacies are hard to avoid. Throw dietary caution to the wind and indulge in these seven desserts from Southeast Asia.
This sweet, syrup-soaked dessert originated on the Indian subcontinent and is the national dessert of Pakistan, but it’s commonly found in the Maldives, Bangladesh, and the Malay Peninsula in Thailand, too. Gulab jamun’s main ingredient is khoya, or milk that’s been heated and thickened into a doughy substance. Once the dough has been kneaded together with flour and shaped into balls, it’s deep-fried in oil until it turns a golden brown.
The final flourishes include soaking the milk balls in a rose or cardamon-flavored syrup and dusting them with dried almonds or cashews for extra flavor. Gulab jamun (which loosely translates to “flower water dessert”) is typically consumed during celebrations, such as festivals, weddings, and birthdays. Try the delicacy at the renowned Sharaqpur Gulab Jamun shop in the Sharaqpur Sharif market in Lahore, Pakistan, or at Restoran Jai Hind in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.
The eye-catching shade of green of dadar gulung (also known as kuih dadar or kuih ketayap) is just one of many intriguing features of this Indonesian dessert. This sweet treat’s color looks unnatural, but it’s actually derived from pandan leaves that grow on the island and lend a subtle, sweet flavor.
Dadar gulung are often referred to as Indonesian coconut pancakes, and are filled with grated coconut and palm sugar. The sweet snack is most popular in Java, and can be found in markets and at street stalls across the island.
There’s more than one way to eat a banana — that’s obvious when you set foot in the Philippines and try the banana-based dessert known as turon. To make this sweet and crunchy dessert, thinly sliced bananas and jackfruit are rolled into a lumpia wrapper (also known as spring roll paper), deep-fried until they’re golden and crispy, and sprinkled with brown sugar. They resemble eggrolls from the outside, but one bite will tell you they’re anything but savory. Find some of the tastiest turon in Manila at Locavore Kitchen and Drinks and Bistro Remedios.
Khao Tom Mat
Khao tom mat is a simple yet satisfying snack that comes wrapped in its own convenient banana-leaf packaging. Found in Thailand and Laos, these bite-sized treats bundled in dark green foliage don’t look like much from the outside, but unwrap them and prepare to be amazed.
Peel away the leaf (which also acts as a handy to-go container and plate) to find coconut milk-soaked sticky rice wrapped around a core of banana or sweetened black or mung bean paste. A savory version of khao tom mat is also made with pork, so be sure to ask if it’s sai kluai (with banana) or sai mu (with pork). Khao tom mat is found at night markets and street stalls throughout Thailand — keep your eyes open for the telltale packaging.
Sure, you’ve had cake before, but have you ever had Vietnamese sponge cake? Similar to many other Southeast Asian desserts, Bánh bò’s not-so-secret ingredient is coconut milk, and it takes this simple sponge cake to a new level of deliciousness.
The dough — made from rice flour, water, sugar, yeast, and coconut milk — is left to rise for three hours before it’s placed into muffin trays to steam for 10 minutes. The result is a light, airy cake with lots of tiny bubbles inside, earning it the nickname “honeycomb cake.” Bánh bò comes in different flavors, which are reflected in the colors: white is flavored with coconut, green with pandan leaves, and pink with magenta plant.
Khao Niew ma Muang
Have you ever noticed a sugar craving after you eat something spicy? It’s no wonder that kaho niew ma muang hits the spot after a spicy Thai meal. Also known as mango sticky rice, this decadent Thai dessert might send you into a sugar overload, but it’s just too good to pass up. Made from a few basic ingredients (glutinous rice, coconut milk, sugar, and mango), a large serving of coconut sticky rice is topped with ripe slices of mango for the ultimate indulgence. It’s easy to make, but it does take time.
The rice must be soaked for at least five hours before it’s cooked and mixed with the sweetened coconut milk. It's then set aside to absorb as much of the milk as possible before being served with mango. You can try khao niew ma muang all over Bangkok, including at Mae Varee and Boonsap Thai Dessert Shop. Alternatively, keep your eyes peeled for the telltale piles of yellow mangoes in front of shops, markets, or street stalls, and mango sticky rice won’t be far behind.
Num Chak Kachan
Colorful layers of gelatinous coconut cream are stacked to create this Cambodian dessert that not only tastes good, but looks good, too. Num chak kachan is made from blending rice flour, coconut cream, and palm sugar. The mixture is separated into two bowls: One bowl is dyed with food coloring (red or green is typical), and the other is left white. The white mixture is poured into the bottom of a dish and steamed it’s until firm and smooth (after about five minutes).
Then a layer of the colored mixture is poured on top, and steamed again. The process is repeated several times until there are four or five layers. The whole cake is steamed for another 40 minutes to make sure it’s firm, then cooled, cut into pieces, and served with grated coconut on top. Khmer layer cake is typically made to celebrate Buddhist holidays and consumed at home.