‘Quitting sugar’ is not happening anytime soon in Thailand. Condensed milk is drizzled liberally in traditional tea and coffee, jars of sugar are permanent fixtures in Thai restaurants to sprinkle over noodles and stir-fries, and even fresh fruit usually comes with a packet of spicy sugar.
It’s no surprise this country of sweet-tooths has an ancient relationship with desserts, too – some treats known to bring wealth, peace and long-lasting love. With a common combination of just coconut, sticky rice, beans and fruit, Thai dessert recipes hit the hundreds, so we’ve cut the fat and chosen 10 must-try sweets when you’re next in the Kingdom. Schedule your dentists.
Mango and sticky rice (khao neao mamuang)
Thailand's nickname of 'the big mango' is no joke, the salty-sweet combination of mango and sticky rice reigns supreme throughout the country. Slippery slivers of sweet, juicy mango are eaten with a mound of sticky rice and the best plates sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and a salted coconut milk syrup, because what is dessert without sugar on top?
Steamed coconut cakes (khanom chan)
Sold on the trolleys of street vendors across Thailand, these wobbly squares are made from rice flour, coconut and pandan leaves, and steamed in large trays before slicing. A traditional auspicious dessert, they were historically made in nine layers, symbolising continual success.
Portuguese cakes (khanom farang)
These spongey little cakes are found in the tiny Portuguese/Chinese neighbourhood of Kudi Jeen in Bangkok. The recipe has seen a few cultural transformations in history, initially based on the Portuguese queques (dry cupcakes) brought to Thailand in the 17th century. The growing Chinese merchant community added raisins and dried gourd, which symbolise peace and value.
Glutinous rice dumplings in ginger tea (bua loy nam khing)
Based on the similar Chinese dessert, tang yuan, these soft and chewy sticky rice balls are filled with a rich black sesame paste and served in a bowl of hot ginger tea – sweet and spicy bowls of comfort.
Toast (khanom pang ping)
While a questionable dessert option in the western world, in Asia toast can be pure indulgence. Modern-day options top almost half a loaf of brioche with ice-cream and syrups, but the original version slathers slices of sweet white toast (or steamed rolls) in lurid green coconut custard (sangkhaya), Thai milk tea custard or even just condensed milk if you’re feeling tame.
Crispy pancakes (khanom buang)
A quintessential sweet of the streets, khanom buang grillers are a common sight in what’s left of Bangkok’s street food hubs. Like little mini tacos, these thin, wafer-like pancakes are made from a mung bean and rice-flour base, filled with clouds of soft meringue and sprinkled with another popular Thai dessert, foy thong (golden egg strands).
Coconut cream jellies (khanom ta koh)
A rich balance of salty and sweet, these little jellies are made from a salted tapioca and coconut cream, poured over a super sweet agar-agar jelly. Their wrapped in either a strip of banana or pandan leaf and typical flavours include taro, water chestnut, ginkgo, or, a love-it-or-hate-it local choice, corn.
Coconut custard pudding (khanom mo kaeng)
Another Thai dessert courtesy of the Portuguese, this flan-like pudding is most commonly found in the southern province of Phetchaburi encased in square metal tins. Recipes vary, but the essential topping is crunchy fried onions. Don’t knock ‘em till you try ‘em.
Mung bean candies (luk chop)
Carefully moulded into the shape of glistening fruits and vegetables, these soft small candies are actually made from cooked mung beans and they’re another of Thailand’s auspicious desserts from the Portuguese, said to bring adoration.
Thai doughnuts (pa thong ko)
When faced with a vendor frying these X-shaped doughnuts on the streets of Thailand, there’s only one thing to do: “neung toong, kha” (one bag, please). Influenced by Chinese you tiao (fried dough), these are a little denser in texture and should be served with a tub of creamy sangkhaya, no exceptions.
Have we got your attention and your tastebuds? The Chefs' Line airing 6pm weeknights on SBS and 9.30pm on Food Network explores 10 different cuisines over 10 weeks. Check out the program page for episode guides, cuisine lowdowns, recipes and more.
Thai desserts, such as these subtly sweet and bite-size puddings, offer a welcome respite to cloying Western desserts.