Less familiar are a multitude of unusual Asian snacks, sweets and beverages now widely available at Asian grocery stores throughout Australia, with new products emerging daily.
Here are six treats well worth seeking out and sampling.
Indonesian "thousand-layer" cake
Lapis legit is a traditional Indonesian dessert, which has been around since the Dutch colonial era. Once a treat only the affluent Dutch population could afford, lapis cake is now popular throughout South East Asia, particularly on special occasions.
Making it at home entails baking many thin layers of batter and then sticking them together (typically with jam or a similarly sticky substance) to form a multi-layered, multi-coloured cake rich in butter, eggs and spices.
Fortunately, you can sample this decadently rich cake without spending hours standing over the oven. Mariza Foods sells Morsica Layer Snack and Monica Layer Cake in Australia through importers including Eastern Cross Trading Co.
A wide variety of interesting flavours include green coconut, coconut chocolate, durian and jackfruit. They might not be quite like your Indonesian grandmother would have made, but they’re great to have on hand in the pantry when friends drop by for coffee. Mariza also makes interesting jams in flavours such as green coconut, pineapple and durian.
Hot Kanten Drink
This is a powdered beverage that tastes like hot chocolate or coffee but is actually made from seaweed, has zero calories, contains the minerals calcium and iron, and claims to aid weight loss. We won’t blame you if you’re sceptical because I was, too. But, unbelievably, such a thing actually exists.
Kanten’s chocolate and cappuccino Hot Kanten Drinks are made from red algae seaweed and then flavoured to taste like rather more appealing beverages. They contain no carbohydrates, no fat, and no sugar, and have an impressive 80 per cent fibre content.
Kanten’s makers claim that drinking the beverages leads to a "longer feeling of fullness and comfort in the stomach." Certainly, if you’re trying to cut back on sugar and caffeine, these affordable treats make convincing enough substitutes for the real deal, particularly if made with skim milk, rather than water. Available at various Asian grocers and online through the Swallow Globe website.
Roasted seaweed is a popular lunchbox snack throughout Japan and Korea and is also widely available in Australia in a variety of flavours, including miso, teriyaki and wasabi.
Roasting and salting seaweed gives it a different flavour and texture to the plain nori most people are familiar with from eating sushi. Seaweed is a very healthy alternative to other crunchy, salty snacks, as it is high in fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals and contains zero fat.
Seaweed also contains a broad spectrum of vitamins and minerals and is believed to help lower cholesterol and improve circulation. Try the Majun Seasoned Laver brand sold at various Asian grocery stores. Other popular brands include Blue Dragon, Jun Pacific and Yamagataya.
Made from Chinese hawthorn fruit, haw candy or haw flakes are typically manufactured in China but are sold all throughout Asia, and also now in Australia through Asian retailers.
Although the candy comes in a range of shapes and sizes, it is most often sold in colourful packs of 10 flat, round discs. The chewy dark brown discs have a strong berry-cherry flavour with a slight sweet-and-sour aftertaste. Besides being an unusual snack, it’s also a healthier alternative to other sweets, as the ingredients usually only comprise haw and sugar, with no preservatives or additives.
Agar agar is a gelatinous substance made from seaweed that is used to make a variety of Asian jellies, ice-creams, sweets, soups and desserts. It will set without refrigeration and is also halal and vegan friendly, as it contains no animal products (unlike gelatine).
Browse the aisles of any Asian grocery store in Australia and you will unearth numerous sweets and packaged jellies and puddings containing agar agar. Interesting examples include red dates suspended in clear agar agar jelly and fruit jelly puddings in flavours such as mango, durian, coconut and red bean. Agar agar powder is also widely available through Asian importers and can be used to make Asian-style desserts at home.
Westerners typically associate tamarind with savoury Thai dishes, to which it adds piquant sour notes. But in Thailand, a cultivated sweet variety is also grown, which has little to no sour flavour. This variety is commonly eaten as a fresh fruit and is also preserved with sugar for a simple sweet snack. Salt and chilli are frequently added for a gentle, subtle heat kick. Look for sugar-coated tamarind snacks in the sweets and snacks sections of Thai grocery stores.