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…

Comments

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

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.

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?

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.

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

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 :)

Cheers,
An Indian who LOVES Central European dessert

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.

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.

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.

"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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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