Why don’t Asian restaurants have good desserts?

I’ll let you all bicker as to whether the stylized fact is true only in the USA, or across the world.  I don’t know if the following explanation is true, but finally I have heard an explanation which might plausibly be true:

…many traditional desserts require a great deal of work to make, at least when compared to stir-frying some shreds of this and that together.  Most restaurateurs are simply unwilling to go to the trouble, particularly since the profit margin on desserts is generally smaller than that on the main dishes.  The same phenomenon occurs in other ethnic restaurants.  In the old country, desserts and snack foods are made in specialized shops where the volume keeps labor costs down [TC: and freshness up…btw, the emphasis is added].

That is from A. Zee’s Swallowing Clouds: A Playful Journey Through Chinese Culture, Language, and Culture.  The author also suggests that the Chinese prefer to eat desserts apart from regular mealtimes; for some reason this is supposed to lower the quality of restaurant-based desserts.  I prefer the first explanation.  Indian sweet shops are fantastic, but U.S.-based Indian restaurants have only so-so desserts.  Comments are open, I am eager to hear your opinions…


Maybe one reason is that mains are often sweet: many restaurants and cafes in Thailand add sugar to their stir-fried meals. Malaysian satay dishes are accompanied by sweet peanut sauce and many chinese sauces are sweet.

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I tend to agree with Acad, but I think the key element is that rich cream or butter. The Asian societies with which I am familiar make little use of milk and milk products. The most luscious desserts use a lot of it! Of course, tastes differ, so perhaps a native of Korean or Chinese culture would prefer desserts different from those I like best.

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European desserts also use a lot of wheat, which isn't a common ingredient in Asian dishes. FWIW, most Asians I know claim they don't eat a lot of sweets...they prefer the salty and tangy to the rich and sweet. At most they cut up some fruit and eat that. Wonder what the relative PPP-adjusted costs for dentistry per person are.

Certainly I'd agree with Acad that there's rarely any problem at a central European ethnic restaurant in the US with regard to finding good desserts. Italian and French, too...and even the Greeks always have Baklava if nothing else.

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I have always heard that Mexican restaurants and Chinese restaurants in the U.S. con't have desserts because tables turn over faster without patrons lingering over dessert. I'm not sure why these two restaurant types would value volume over other types of restaurants. Perhaps the margins are smaller in these types of meals.

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We had a running joke in our office of engineers. Being a typical California software company we had maybe 25% native Americans, and 75% people born in other parts of the world. (Our "adventurous lunch crowd" was great ... you would have loved it Tyler, with a guy from the Philippines or a guy from Vietnam or a guy from Oman showing us the best strip-mall food within 20 miles.)

Anyway the joke was Chinese-born people saying "too sweet" or "this desert is excellent, not too sweet." I mention this long story because I'm not that big on sweets (despite being an American of primarily Scandinavian extraction), and often sided with "Asian taste."

Maybe they're just not into it.

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Fried Banana says this discussion is off base. Perhaps the Asian dessert void is an American phenomenon. Toronto has an abundance of Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants (and specialty bakeries) and many have sweets there for the taking whether tapioca, sesame paste balls, bubble tea or durian ice.

Desserts from Europe are just as much an acquired taste as those from Asia. I've heard numerous complaints about European grainy icing and the preferences of Euro "cake eaters."

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I lived in Japan a few years and saw that dessert is very popular there, but has nothing to do with meals. Whether you eat at home, a restaurant, or other outing, there is no notion of having a post-meal dessert. I would also guess that European style desserts are more popular than traditional ones, with specialty shops and bakeries being almost as frequent as convenient stores, even in the countryside.

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Maybe it is due to the poor business practices from which too many Asian restaurants suffer. Desserts in the US are sold and middle of the road and upper class restaurants using presentation (the desert tray) and the server encouraging the sale. At the average asian restaurant, the server has no clue how to make a sale and cannot make suggetions that lead to things like eating dessert.

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Regarding deserts generally, rather than any particular culture's:

Seems like preferences that rank sugars low are better. I wonder what biology says -- when you give sweets to a kid who's never been exposed to sweets, does he like them right off the bat?

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Wouldn't the high level of lactose intolerance in Asians have something to do with this? After all, most of our desserts involve the use of dairy products.

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Jeff, Babies are born liking sweet things. Breast milk is very sweet.

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Michael H and others,
I think the Indian sweets you refer to are the usual suspects, but keep in mind that Indian food is extremely diverse and what you see in an Indian restaurant in the US represents less than 1/10th of the diversity of Indian food and desserts. So, dessert from the southern state of Kerala is very different from Kashmiri or Bengali desserts.

If you're ever in New York, go to "Babu" and try the dessert there, for instance, and then tell me you don't like Indian sweets :)

An Indian who LOVES Central European dessert

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I know that in Japan sweets are not often a part of the meal. Instead they are often taken with tea separetly.
I think this might just be something that develops in countries with tea ceremonies i.e the UK, and Japan.

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Differences in the gene for lactose tolerance?

The vast majority of Europeans north of the Alps are lactose tolerant, which opens up a wonderful range of desserts that include dairy products.

Outside of some herding tribes in Africa, most of the rest of the world is lactose intolerant.

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Japan is another Asian country with no comparable tradition of post-dinner sweets. People there snack on a wide variety of cookies, crackers, other treats, but in general the Japanese have much less of a sweet tooth than Americans do. (I've yet to come across a Japanese who could, say, eat an entire American-sized Snickers bar.) Although every new generation of young people in Japan seems to have a higher tolerance for rich, European- or American-style sweets, this is still a recent phenomenon. Traditional Japanese candy (wagashi), with few exceptions, doesn’t even approach the sugar content of even old-fashioned (let alone modern) American sweet treats such as ice cream, cola, cakes, and pies, etc. Even Japanese versions of imported confections register lower on the sweet-o-meter. (Ever tried Japanese chocolate? Most of it tastes like soft wax with some chocolate mixed in.)

The ultimate reason could be that until recently in historical terms, the Japanese diet was high in carbs (rice) and vegetables but low in protein -- fish and meat were considered the ultimate gastronomic treat, not high-sugar-content desserts. This also explains the postwar explosion in sushi shops: fish so fresh that you can eat it raw was, before that, a luxury affordable only the very well-to-do. So, after industrialization, people began eating more sushi and more beef. (But still not at American levels. Until Japan began importing more beef in the last 10-15 years, it was much more expensive than in America and at many households was -- and still is -- a special treat reserved for company or other special occasions.) It could be that our sweet-tooth gene kicks in only after long-term protein intake reaches a certain level. Historically, perhaps Europeans, with supplies of beef and other animal protein more ample than what was generally available to Asians, could then move on to the next step: sugar.

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"Most restaurateurs are simply unwilling to go to the trouble, particularly since the profit margin on desserts is generally smaller than that on the main dishes."

Is this actually true? With the way waiters are pushed to sell desserts, it would seem the opposite.

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is there a reason for no cheese in Chinese cuisine?

See my comment at 5:25 on 1/29, echoed by Steve Sailer, on lactose intolerance.

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I can't speak for Asia in general but I do have a couple thoughts on Japan (where I lived for a decade). A few reasons why Japanese don't eat sweets immediately after their meals.

1. The whole structure of 'courses' is purely cultural. The generalized western meal structure of appetizer-salad-entree-dessert doesn't hold in Japan, even in many so-called western-style restaurants. In Japan meals usually consist of many smaller portions served more or less simultaneously, or as they are prepared. There style is more 'mix-and-match' rather than a 'courses' style.

2. Japanese often drink beer or sake with meals out (or in). Sweets and beer (in particular) don't mix.

3. Japanese cooking already uses a fair amount of sugar in their entrees, and perhaps this is sufficient to satisfy most cravings for sweetness in the diet.

4. Japanese have less taste for concentrated tastes, particularly sweetness. Soft drinks are sold with much lower sugar content, for example, and sweets such as french pastries use probably half the sugar than one might find in america or europe. Japanese cooking doesn't use a lot of spices or taste additives, preferring natural flavors. Traditional sweets in Japan were things like sweet beans rather than cane sugar.

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Western dining is based on how to manipulate the testebuds of customers through various courses and beverages; eastern food is functional. For instancewestern-style appetizers entice people for more food by use of foods, beverages, and spices that produce salivation. Each course satisfies an entire range of flavors until the dessert produces either satsfaction or exhiliration. Eastern food is fuctionally healthy. Most foods I eat actually include very little extra spice, but the ingredients blend in different ways. Family members talk about how different foods create benefits for different parts of the body. For instance, green tea is good for the stomach, sweet potatoes for the heart. Some foods, like rice cakes, compared to German-style desserts are almost tasteless, but very satisfying. But I find simple fruits and fruit juice the best way to end a meal of spicy or oily food. Western food should concentrate more on this fuctionality, while striving to maintain flavor without resort to artificial preservatives and sweeteners.

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I can't speak to East Asian desserts but my own experience as a second-generation Indian-American is similar to Tyler's but even more extreme in that I think Indian sweets at dedicated sweet shops are also miserable. I think Indian food is not only some of the best in the world but also some of most complex in terms of ingredients, flavors, and cooking styles and methods. Indeed, it seems to be that the complexity of the cuisine and its high quality are correlated strongly. But consider Indian desserts and sweets -- they completely lack the complexity present in the rest of Indian cuisine! The fundamental problem is that they all rely on the same three ingredients -- sugar, milk, and ghee. Different desserts combine and cook these ingredients in different ways but it always comes back to those three things. Now compare that to Western desserts which have an endless variety of ingredients and cooking methods. Plus, the simple absence of chocolate is a serious detriment to any cuisine's dessert.

So while I like the attempt to get at an economic reason, I think the real answer just lies in the fact that, at least for Indian food, the ingredients and cooking techniques available a few hundred years ago just seem to lend themselves more readily to very complex and very flavorful savory foods rather than a highly developed dessert cuisine.

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Aren't those excellent central European pastries usually eaten in the afternoon with coffee? My experience in Germany was that people tended to have a simple supper followed by maybe a liqueur, with desserts only on festive occasions.

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I have found the best Indian sweets shop in Kent,WA. They make everything from scratch, and the taste is incredible. Everything from the fresh, crispy, and juicy jalebi to the soft and succulent gulab jamun! I haven't found anything better in the entire NW. If you are ever in the area, give this place a try and maybe some of the people who posted about Indian sweets will change their mind about Indian desserts in the US.

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Samsung X660--- $150
Samsung X820--- $150
Samsung Z107V--- $150
Samsung Z130--- $150
Samsung Z140--- $150
Samsung Z300--- $150
Samsung Z320i--- $150
Samsung Z400--- $150
Samsung Z500--- $150
Samsung Z510--- $150
Samsung ZM60--- $150

Sagem Mobile Phones
Sagem MY100X--- $130
Sagem MY201X--- $130
Sagem MY300X--- $130
Sagem MY400X--- $130
Sagem MY405X--- $140
Sagem MY501X--- $140
Sagem MY700X--- $140
Sagem MYC-1--- $140
Sagem MYC2-3--- $140
Sagem MYC-3--- $140
Sagem MYC3-2--- $140
Sagem MYC4-2--- $140
Sagem MYC5-2--- $140
Sagem MYS-7--- $140
Sagem MYV-55--- $140
Sagem MYX1-2--- $150
Sagem MYX-2--- $150
Sagem MYX2-2--- $150
Sagem MYX-3--- $150
Sagem MYX3-2--- $150
Sagem MYX-4--- $150
Sagem MYX5-2--- $150
Sagem MYX-6--- $150
Sagem MYX6-2--- $150
Sagem MYX-7--- $150
Sagem MYX-8--- $150
Sagem MYZ-5--- $150
Sagem MYZ-55--- $150

Siemens Mobile Phones
Siemens AL21--- $130
Siemens C62--- $130
Siemens C65--- $130
Siemens C75--- $130
Siemens CF110--- $130
Siemens CF75--- $130
Siemens CFX65--- $130
Siemens CL75--- $130
Siemens CX65--- $130
Siemens CX75--- $130
Siemens M55--- $130
Siemens M65--- $130
Siemens M75--- $130
Siemens MC60--- $130
Siemens ME75--- $130
Siemens S65--- $130
Siemens S75--- $130
Siemens SF65--- $130
Siemens SFG75--- $130
Siemens SK65--- $130
Siemens SL55--- $130
Siemens SL65--- $130
Siemens SL75--- $130
Siemens SP65--- $130
Siemens SX1--- $130
Siemens SXG75--- $130

BenQ-Siemens Mobile Phones
BenQ-Siemens C81--- $100
BenQ-Siemens CF61--- $100
BenQ-Siemens CL71--- $100
BenQ-Siemens E61--- $100
BenQ-Siemens E71 -- $110
BenQ-Siemens E81--- $120
BenQ-Siemens EF81--- $130
BenQ-Siemens EF91--- $130
BenQ-Siemens EL71--- $140
BenQ-Siemens M81--- $140
BenQ-Siemens P51--- $150
BenQ-Siemens Q-fi EF51--- $150
BenQ-Siemens S68--- $145
BenQ-Siemens S81--- $160
BenQ-Siemens S88--- $130
BenQ-Siemens SL91--- $120

LG Mobile Phones
LG 7050--- $130
LG 7100--- $130
LG B2050--- $130
LG C1200--- $130
LG C3300--- $130
LG Chocolate KG800--- $130
LG F2250--- $130
LG F2400--- $130
LG KG220--- $130
LG KG225--- $130
LG KG920--- $130
LG L343i--- $130
LG L5100--- $130
LG P7200--- $130
LG S5200--- $130
LG U300--- $130
LG U400--- $130
LG U8110--- $130
LG U8120--- $130
LG U8130--- $130
LG U8138--- $130
LG U8150--- $130
LG U8290--- $130
LG U8330--- $130
LG U8360v--- $130
LG U8380--- $130
LG U880--- $130
LG U890--- $130

NEC Mobile Phones
NEC 343i--- $120
NEC e101--- $120
NEC e122--- $120
NEC e228--- $120
NEC e313--- $120
NEC e338--- $130
NEC e606--- $130
NEC e616--- $130
NEC e808Y--- $130
NEC N223i--- $140
NEC N22i--- $140
NEC N341i--- $130
NEC N343i--- $130
NEC N400i--- $130
NEC N401i--- $130
NEC N410i--- $130
NEC N411i--- $130
NEC N412i--- $160

I-MATE SP5----- $150
I-MATE SP5m--$155
I-MATE SP4m--$120
I-MATE JAM----- $160
I-MATE PDA2--$190
I-MATE SP3i--$130
I-MATE SP3----- $135
I-MATE PDA2k-$168
I-MATE JAMin--$240
I-MATE K-JAM--$180
I-MATE Pocket PC--$140
I-MATE JAM Black--$150
I-MATE Smartflip--$140
I-MATE Smartphone2--$110
I-MATE Smartphone----- $115
Treo 700--$200
Treo 600--$150
Treo 650--$160

Sharp Mobile Phones
Sharp 550SH--- $130
Sharp 703--- $130
Sharp 770SH--- $130
Sharp 902--- $130
Sharp 903--- $130
Sharp GX1--- $130
Sharp GX10--- $130
Sharp GX10i--- $150
Sharp GX15--- $150
Sharp GX17--- $150
Sharp GX20--- $150
Sharp GX25--- $150
Sharp GX29--- $150
Sharp GX30--- $150
Sharp GX30i--- $150
Sharp TM100--- $150

Qtek 8500.....$130
Qtek S200.....$100
Qtek 9000.....$120
Qtek 8310 ....$170
Qtek 8300.....$180
Qtek 9100.....$185
Qtek 8100.....$195
Qtek S110.....$190
Qtek S100.....$180
Qtek 9090.....$185
Qtek 8020.....$195
Qtek 8010.....$160
Qtek 2020i....$200
Qtek 2020.....$190
Qtek 8080.....$120
Qtek 8060.....$130
Qtek 1010.....$120
Qtek 7070.....$210

Orange Mobile Phones
Orange SPV C500--- $130
Orange SPV C550--- $130
Orange SPV C600--- $130
Orange SPV M1500--- $130
Orange SPV M2000--- $130
Orange SPV M3100--- $130
Orange SPV M500--- $130
Orange SPV M5000--- $130
Orange SPV M600--- $130

Panasonic Mobile Phones
Panasonic GD55--- $130
Panasonic GD67--- $130
Panasonic GD87--- $130
Panasonic VS2--- $130
Panasonic VS3--- $130
Panasonic VS6--- $130
Panasonic X500--- $130
Panasonic X70--- $130

Panasonic TH-42PD50U TH42PD50U 42" Plasma TV 852 x 480 ----- $550
HP PL4245N 42" HDTV-Ready Plasma TV ----- $620
Samsung SPR4232 42" Flat Panel EDTV Plasma TV ----- $510
Samsung HPR4252 42" High Definition Plasma TV ----- $510
Samsung PPM42S 42" Inch HDTV Black Plasma TV ----- $530
Panasonic TH-42PX50U/P TH42PX50U/P 42" Viera Plasma TV ----- $520
Samsung HP-R5052 50" Plasma TV ----- $610
Samsung SPN-4235 Flat Panel 42-inch Plasma TV ----- $440
SVA 42" Plasma TV (852x480; 16) 550:1, 480i/480p/720p ----- $510
Hitachi CMP-420V2 42 inch EDTV Plasma TV in Silver ----- $450
Panasonic TH-50PX50U 50" High Definition Plasma TV ----- $510
Philips - 50PF7320A - Philips 50" HDTV Ready Wide SCRN ----- $510
Optoma PD50 50-Inch 1366 x 768 3000:1 Contrast ----- $500
Panasonic TH-42PX500U 42"" HDTV Plasma TV ----- $700
Toshiba 42HP95 42"w Integrated HD Plasma TV ----- $700
Sharp PZ-43HV2U 43" High Definition Plasma TV ----- $1,200
Gateway 42" Plasma TV 16 : 9 Aspect Ratio ----- $655
Samsung HPR5052 50 High Definition Plasma TV ----- $1,100
Vizio P42HDe 42" 1024 x 768 5000:1 Contrast ----- $655
Samsung SPP4251 42" Plasma TV 16 852x480 Resolution ----- $655

LAPTOPS SONY VAIO A217S-- 100GB-- 512MB RAM-- XP HOME-------------$900
SONY VAIO B1VP-- 40GB HD-- 512MB RAM-- XP PRO--------------$930
SONY VAIO T370P/L-- 60GB HD-- 512MB RAM--XP----------------$900
SONY VAIO A215Z 60GB HD-- 512MB RAM--XP------------------$950
SONY VAIO A397XP-- 80GB HD-- 512MB RAM--XP----------------$1000
SONY VAIO B100B08 60GB HD-- 512MB RAM--XP---------------$950
SAMSUNG LAPTOP-- M40 HWM 745--------------------------------$500
TOSHIBA SATELLITE LAPTOP--P20-801-----------------------------$500
HP PAVILION LAPTOP--ZX5275EA----------------------------------$800
SONY VAIO LAPTOP-- VGN PCGK215S---------------------------$800
HP PAVILION LAPTOP--ZT3350EA----------------------------------$800
SAMSUNG LAPTOP-- X15PLUS HZM--------------------------------$800
SONY VAIO LAPTOP--PCGK215M---------------------------------$800
SONY VAIO DESKTOP--RS504-------------------------------------$800
HP PAVILION LAPTOP--ZX5030------------------------------------$800
TOSHIBA SATELLITE LAPTOP--M30-106----------------------------$800
HP PAVILION LAPTOP--ZV5230EA---------------------------------$600
SAMSUNG LAPTOP-- P28 LTC 330---------------------------------$600
SONY VAIO DESKTOP--V1------------------------------------------$600
TOSHIBA SATELLITE LAPTOP--A40-231----------------------------$800
HP PAVILION LAPTOP--ZV5169EA---------------------------------$800
TOSHIBA SATELLITE LAPTOP--A40-892----------------------------$650
HP PAVILION LAPTOP--ZV5213EA---------------------------------$600
SONY VAIO B100B08 60GB HD-- 512MB RAM--XP---------------$900
SONY VAIO FS295VP 80GB HD-- 512MB RAM--XP---------------$950
SONY VAIO FS215Z 100GB HD-- 512MB RAM--XP---------------$950
SONY VAIO A417M 80GB HD-- 512MB RAM--XP-----------------$950
SONY VAIO B1VP-- 40GB HD-- 512MB RAM-- XPPRO-------------$800
SONY VAIO T370P/L-- 60GB HD-- 512MB RAM-- XPPRO----------$900
SONY VAIO LAPTOP--VGN-A117S-----------------------------$900
SONY VAIO LAPTOP--VGN-S1XP--------------------------$800
ALPHASMART DANA PALM POWERED LAPTOP------------------------$830
TOSHIBA SATELLITE LAPTOP--P20-102--------------------------$900
TOSHIBA SATELLITE LAPTOP--P10-803-----------------------------$900
ALPHASMART DANA PALM POWERED LAPTOP------------------------$850
ALPHASMART DANA PALM POWERED LAPTOP------------------------$800
TOSHIBA PORTEGE R100 40GB-- 512MB-- XP PRO------------------$900
TOSHIBA SATELLITE LAPTOP--M30-742-------------------------------$960
HP PAVILION LAPTOP--ZD7145EA-----------------------------------$800
HP PAVILION LAPTOP--ZD7255EA-----------------------------------$800
APPLE CINEMA HD 23-INCH TFT LCD MONITOR---------------------$800
SONY VAIO LAPTOP-- VGN PCGK21 5Z----------------------------$800
SAMSUNG LAPTOP-- X30 LWC 1500--------------------------------$800
SONY VAIO PCVW2 DESKTOP-------------------------------------$800
HP PAVILION LAPTOP-- ZX5151EA PHOTOSMART-------------------$800
TOSHIBA SATELLITE LAPTOP--M30-832----------------------------$800
HP PAVILION LAPTOP--ZT3215EA----------------------------------$800

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