Asia’s summer dessert essentials in the Bay

July 31, 2019, 1:00 a.m.

From a jelly made of Platostoma palustre grass to drinkable tofu, Asian desserts are as varied as the colors of halo-halo. Some ingredients, such as fresh jackfruit or pandan leaf, may be more regional, but thanks to the Asian immigrant community’s influence in the Bay Area, there are many options available close to campus. 

Bao Bing (Taiwan) 

Fluffy, delicate blankets of cream smoothly melt in the mouth after each spoonful of bao bing. Also called Snow Ice, Taiwanese shaved ice is smoother than its Hawaiian snow cone cousin, being made of paper-thin sheets of cream or milk mixture rather than crunchy crushed ice flakes.

Bao bing is often presented as a towering mountain of dessert, topped with a variety of treats that complexify the dish’s flavor and texture. The juiciest of fresh fruits — likely mango, strawberry or melon — line the sides of the mountain; their bright flavors remind one of the sunny weather in which Bao Bing is normally eaten.

Peanuts or black sesame provide satisfying crunchiness amid the smooth ice, while adding a nutty, savory touch to round out the gentle sweetness. Chilled herbal jellies like aiyu jelly, with its mild citrusy flavor, or grass jelly, bittersweet and jet black, contribute purported health benefits as well. For a final touch, rivers of condensed milk are lightly drizzled over the mountain. 

To fight the oppressive summer heat of Taiwan, bao bing comes equipped with everything; it is no surprise that varieties of this desert have been served since the seventh century. In recent times, this treat has found its way into other cultures and popular media, taking on new forms: the Japanese kakigori, Filipino halo-halo, or the Korean patbingsoo. A milk tea flavor with boba poured over the top recently took social media by storm. But other traditional flavors, like adzuki bean, mung bean, and taro, will still be held in many hearts. 

Where to find: Meet Fresh / 19449 Stevens Creek Blvd Ste 120 Cupertino, CA 95014

What to order: 8 Treasures Shaved Ice ($12)

Where to find: Ice Monster / 2230 Oak Grove Rd Walnut Creek, CA 94598

What to order: Mango Shaved Snow with Mochi Balls and Condensed Milk ($8.50)

Kulfi (India) 

Think ice cream, but creamier, denser and richer. Unlike ice cream, this dessert doesn’t have air whipped into it, resulting in a luscious product that coats the tongue. Traditionally, milk is simmered for hours, allowing its sugars to caramelize for a distinctly full and warm flavor. A bonus: because kulfi isn’t churned, it melts slower than a standard scoop, making it the perfect treat to beat the summer heat. In India, kulfi can be found anywhere, from the shops of street vendors, or kulfiwalas, to families’ own homemade batches. It is popular throughout Southern Asia as well. 

Try a serving of more traditional flavors like rose, saffron pistachio or cardamom, all of which have a uniquely fresh aftertaste. Also popular are delightful flavors based on tropical fruits: the succulent Alphonso mango, the aptly named custard-apple (sitaphal) or the Indian take on tutti-frutti, made of candied papaya.

One of the most popular variations is falooda kulfi, an Iranian-influenced combination: basil seeds pop between teeth like the tiniest of tapioca pearls (an experience akin to eating chia pudding), while rose-flavored vermicelli strands enhance the delicate flavor and texture. The kulfi itself is typically rose-flavored as well, but don’t worry about eating perfume: good kulfi is refreshing, its sweetness accenting the flavors.

Where to Find: Koolfi Creamery / 685 E El Camino Real Sunnyvale, CA 94087

What to order: Malai Koolfi, Salted Caramel Mysore Pak ($11 pint) 

Where to Find: Nirvanaah! / 5363 Mowry Ave Fremont, CA 94536

What to order: Alphonso Mango, Falooda Kulfi ($4 scoop) 

Taho (Philippines) 

Magtataho stroll down the streets of Manila, calling out “Tahooo!” in a sing-song tone to increase sales, carrying large buckets of this beloved dessert. A cousin of the Chinese douhua, taho is served in cups with fresh silken tofu, caramelized vanilla syrup and toothsome sago pearls (think boba) — a simple, yet effective, recipe for the most delectable of desserts. The tofu’s flavor is subtle, fresh and earthy at the same time, but the smooth, melt-in-your-mouth texture is the star; after all, it’s called silken tofu for a reason. 

Filipino food is a vibrant fusion of dozens of cultures, and it’s no surprise that taho is taking on new forms as well. As with the boba milk tea storm, new toppings and flavors are being introduced: coconut milk, jelly noodles, adzuki bean, basil seeds and pandan jelly. Neon green pandan jelly streaks the snow white tofu, contrasted with violet ube (purple yam) and coated with basil seeds that bear a distinct resemblance to frog eggs. The array of toppings result in a vibrant concoction, something straight out of a cartoon. 

Where to find: Soyful Desserts / 999 Story Rd Unit 9048 San Jose, CA 95122 East San Jose

What to order: Soy Pudding with Pandan Jelly and Boba ($4.25) 

Where to find: Seafood City Supermarket / 1535 Landess Avenue Milpitas, CA 95035

Whether they are a fun fad or a more interesting development for traditional treats, the new trendy variations seen today are an example of the ingenuity of today’s youth. Transforming something beloved by a previous generation and spinning it into a more modern form not only appeals to Instagram; it also acts as a gateway for second- or third- generation Asian American immigrants to connect with their culture. Among similar creations like boba souffle waffles and Pokemon-shaped steamed bao buns, these desserts might lay a path to an embracement of cherished traditions. 

Selina was a high school intern for The Daily in summer 2019.

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