Southeast Asian sweets add variety to life
Fresh mango glistening the brilliant orange of a late-summer sun, glutinous rice balls glowing a radiant pandan green, tender taro cakes blooming the same piercing purple as a field of lilacs.
Bhan Kanom Thai is a rainbow rush of colors. The Hollywood favorite is a den of overstimulation, its shelves stuffed with Thai desserts alive with vivid colors, focused flavors and foreign textures. To a particular set of Los Angeles diners, the sweet shop is an essential experience.
Yet even as Southeast Asian flavors move from places like Thai Town and Little Saigon into the mainstream, the region’s diverse desserts remain largely unknown, tropical curiosities far more complex than a simple batch of banana fritters. Across greater Los Angeles are countless examples of these sweets, a vast dessert diaspora as varied and unique as the ingredients and cultures that constitute each confection.
Nearly every Southeast Asian nation is represented in Los Angeles’ own sprawling geography: Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. The sweets found here are the very same as those found on the streets of Bangkok, Jakarta and Manila, desserts directly descended from their native countries. They’ve been imported by former culinary school instructors and avid cooks no longer confined to borrowed kitchens, by expatriates re-creating tastes of home and younger generations now carrying on those traditions.
Southeast Asian sweets have even gone upscale. At restaurants like Lukshon, Red Medicine and the Spice Table, dessert draws inspiration from the region’s honeyed heritage: pearls of palm sugar boba, dollops of avocado and coconut creams, strata of thick kaffir lime custard. It’s an evolution in Los Angeles’ appetite, one finally primed to embrace Southeast Asia’s sweet side.
Bhan Kanom Thai
If Bhan Kanom Thai’s sweet seekers aren’t set on trying a cup of kabocha squash resting in a puddle of coconut milk or a few scoops of lychee ice cream, they’re probably picking up kanom krok, spherical coconut cakes made from rice flour and coconut cream. The batter is ladled into a pan cratered with a half-dozen concave cups. Each cake cooks just until its skin solidifies, its center remaining a flood of coconut cream. Still, all eyes inevitably land on the panchi, taro fritters bound with shredded coconut and a few kernels of corn. Each little disk is gently griddled, its exterior barely crisped to contain the soft, sweet taro mash.
5271 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 871-8030, bhankanomthai.com
Thach Che Hien Khanh
Some file into Little Saigon’s Thach Che Hien Khanh for a slice of the dense Vietnamese banana cake called banh chuoi or a mound of xoi gac (sweet sticky rice flavored with spiny baby jackfruit), but Hien Khanh is first and foremost a house of che. It’s something of a hybrid dessert — part pudding, part dessert soup. The base is almost always thickened, sweetened coconut milk, which in some preparations has nearly the pull and elasticity of molten mozzarella. Suspended throughout might be slippery jellies or pieces of fruit. Che ba mau is probably Hien Khanh’s definitive dessert. Swimming in a cup of iced, thickened coconut milk is a dollop of yellow mung bean paste, a handful of adzuki beans, a tangle of tapioca noodles and a few balls of boba.
9784 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 537-5105; and 9639 Bolsa Ave., Suite A, Westminster, (714) 839-8143
Beyond the banquet halls of Long Beach’s Cambodia Town is KH Supermarket. The store stocks a bounty of freshly made Cambodian desserts, a number of which reveal themselves to be somewhat sweeter and often funkier versions of similar Vietnamese preparations, such as rice dumplings filled with shredded coconut and caramelized palm sugar laced with fish sauce. Less intense is a wonderfully sticky pumpkin custard called nom ko. Packed inside a tiny plastic cup is a chilled mixture of pumpkin, rice flour, mung beans, coconut milk and sugar — it’s the flavors of Thanksgiving passed through the palate of Southeast Asia.
915 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 599-7240
Vientiane Thai Laos
As Cambodia’s desserts provide edible evidence of the country’s proximity to Vietnam, so do Laotian sweets demonstrate Laos’ porous culinary border with Thailand. Vientiane Thai Laos in Garden Grove bundles the two cuisines, a dual menu reflected even in the restaurant’s dessert roti. Here, the flatbread (arrived in Southeast Asia by way of the India subcontinent) is stretched until it achieves crepe-like thinness, then crisped on the griddle and drizzled with sweetened condensed milk. It’s the kind of after-dinner snack that vendors hawk on the streets of Vientiane and Bangkok, motorcycles sputtering by and the scent of sizzling roti perfuming the night.
10262 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 530-7523
At Golden Triangle in Whittier, Burmese desserts descend from a trio of traditions. A single sip of pha lu da points you toward South Asia. The dessert drink is the Burmese version of Indian falooda, here a kind of coconut milk and rose water shake. Mounds of sticky rice layered with mango signal an obvious Thai influence. Then there are sweets that are wholly Burmese, desserts derived from Myanmar’s ethnic minorities. Shwe gi mok and pa law penan are both glutinous, cassava root-based cakes, the former studded with raisins and showered with fried onions, while the latter possesses a sweeter, more assertive coconut flavor. Each is perfect with a cup of the restaurant’s smooth Burmese coffee that’s fortified with either slightly sweet mango or odorous durian.
7011 Greenleaf Ave., Whittier, (562) 945-6778
Yazmin’s tastes travel farther south on the Malay Peninsula. The Alhambra restaurant’s bubor cha cha is a quintessential Malaysian dessert, lumps of yam, taro and sago (a tapioca-like starch extracted from palm trees) buoyed in a pool of sweetened coconut milk. Ketayap is equally distinctive, a spongy crepe colored jade green by the faintly floral pandan leaf and rolled up like a sweet taquito. Packed inside is a mass of shredded coconut sticky with warm palm sugar caramel.
27 E. Main St., Alhambra, (626) 308-2036
Merry’s House of Chicken
On the outer edges of the San Gabriel Valley, Merry’s House of Chicken sates the Indonesian sweet tooth. Shaved ice is ubiquitous here, and the es teler is a fine example: coconut milk, condensed milk, shaved ice, avocado, jackfruit, grass jelly and shredded coconut. It’s an intricate dessert, a confounding collision of textures and flavors that speaks directly to Southeast Asian sensibilities. In part because of the Dutch colonial influence once exerted on Indonesia, Merry’s also makes some expert baked goods. Try a slice of the lapis surabaya, an unimaginably soft layer cake that owes its airiness to about three dozen egg yolks.
2550 E. Amar Road, Suite A5, West Covina, (626) 965-0123
Luisa & Son
Ube is the uniting ingredient at Luisa & Son. The Filipino bakery is awash in brilliant purple pastry: fluffy ube bread marked with pockets of the purple yam, puck-sized hopia cakes filled with a concentrated ube puree, even bulbous ube muffins. But the Filipino bakery’s hallmark is its ube ensaymada, a billowy brioche pastry as rich as the most decadent doughnut. Assimilated and modified under centuries of Spanish rule, the Filipino favorite pulls apart in fat, feathery hunks, like a cinnamon roll stained a vibrant violet and slathered in a buttery glaze.
12543 Alondra Blvd., Norwalk, (562) 921-8171, and 116201/2 South St., Artesia, (562) 924-8100
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