Around the World in 30 Desserts
Travel and eating go together. I guess I should say travel and adventurous eating go together. Anyone who loved Anthony Bourdain can tell you that.
I met no one who loved travel and checking out new places but didn’t love checking out new foods. Have you? They might exist, but if you’re inclined to see the world, you’re also inclined to sample the delicacies available wherever you end up. That’s the theory, anyway.
But it needn‘t be all Anthony Bourdain-style. You know, eating bugs and pigs’ eyes and God-knows-what-else comprises the local lunch.
It needn‘t be a competition to eat the most hardcore, authentic fare you can find. You can give yourself a break if you want and try a dessert.
Something we all have in common, wherever we are, and whatever else we eat, is our propensity to indulge now and then. Maybe we live hard lives and maybe we’re poor. But we all enjoy a dessert.
Dessert is a treat, an indulgence for us, something to enjoy amid the daily grind of life. There is no other reason for dessert than to make you feel good, to give you a break from the norm.
And that is as good a reason as any. Sometimes it’s the little things that get us through.
So what’s your dessert of choice? Or a better question is, what would be your dessert of choice if you were somewhere else, in another country?
Below, in no particular order, check out how people around the world enjoy that wonderful little part of life we all have in common.
One of the most delicious desserts in the world, this milky wonder soaks three milks (tres leches means three milks – condensed milk, evaporated milk, and cream) through soft sponge to create something amazing. Popular in Mexico, Nicaragua, and elsewhere in Central America, we award this one to Costa Rica because it tastes better there than anywhere.
Canada’s greatest ever invention. Who would think you could put custard powder, wafer crumbs, and chocolate together in the fridge – no baking here – and come up with these slices of heaven? Someone in the city of Nanaimo, on Victoria Island in British Columbia should receive a special place in heaven for inventing these.
If you find yourself in Sweden between Christmas and Easter, you’ll try a semla or two or three. You might even indulge during the rest of the year, too. Once upon a time, Swedes only ate these vanilla cream-type buns on Mardi gras, like pancakes. But Swedes were like that’s not enough and the timeframe spread. That’s a great thing.
The classic French dessert, this screams opulence and indulgence. It might be the mixture of eggs, vanilla, cream, and sugar that makes crème brûlée so tantalizing. And also that this is the only dessert in this list that needs a butane torch to create that caramelized crusty top.
You’d think this layered jewel of pastry and dulce de leche (a thick, sticky, caramel and milk mix) was from Chile. It’s right there in the name. But you’d be wrong. If you go to Costa Rica, you’ll be committing a crime if you don’t try this. Go to a restaurant called Spoon. They have the best torta chilena to die for. You’re welcome.
What crème brûlée is to France, tiramisu is to Italy. It’s the classic dessert. The original dessert. The best dessert. Tiramisu means “pick-me-up” or “cheer me up”, the exact sentiments needed to express the singular point of dessert. Sponge fingers dipped in coffee with eggs and sugary goodness? How could that not cheer you up?
Guyanese Black Cake
If you like Christmas pudding, you’ll love Guyanese black cake, a speciality of Guyana in South America. They add a bunch of rum to this instead of brandy and also put chocolate icing on top. Oh, yeah – and Guyanese black cake is forever not just for Christmas.
There are tons of desserts from the USA. Americans like their sweet stuff. But baked Alaska, an ice cream and sponge pie with a meringue crust could be their best one. The name comes from the mixture of hot meringue and cold ice cream – baked Alaska’s old name was Alaska Florida – Alaska for cold, Florida for hot. Florida got dropped but Alaska stayed. Whatever. This dessert is amazing, no matter the etymology.
This Persian delight might be the world’s oldest dozen dessert. It originated in the city of Shiraz, Iran around 400 years before Christ. And it’s still going strong in Iran today, sold all over the place to everyone. Thin rice noodles with semi-frozen rose water and cherry syrup, it’s exotic to western tastes, but delicious. Serve it with Persian-style ice cream and you have a classic on your hands.
British food, eh? Source of a million jokes from the rest of the world about how much it sucks. And when they give their desserts names like spotted dick that doesn’t help. But wait. Have you tried spotted dick? You should. We’re talking spongey fruity goodness here. Don’t forget the custard.
Traditional Tahiti Banana Poe
This is the dessert of choice in the South Seas, or the Pacific islands of Polynesia. But the word is they do it best in Tahiti. You blend bananas into a puree and add cornstarch, vanilla, and sugar. Bake it, cut into cubes and serve with coconut cream. Tropical goodness and island living encapsulated in a dessert. Lovely!
Australia’s national cookie, Anzac biscuits get their name from the ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps.) forces who fought in WWI. The troops wives and girlfriends sent these biscuits to them as a pick-me-up during the hell of war. By themselves, Anzac biscuits are regular oat and coconut cookies, super yummy, but still simple cookies. The ANZAC connection provides a much deeper context.
Dessert in Egypt means Umm Ali. Think of it like a bread pudding without the eggs, but with raisins, almonds, and nuts.
This is a famous Turkish dessert (the most famous Turkish dessert?) originating back in the days of the Ottoman Empire. We’re talking layered pastry with nuts and cinnamon. The honey holds it all together like a delicious glue.
Gulab Jamun is an Indian milk-based dessert popular all over the Subcontinent, in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Traditionally made by evaporating milk over a long slow heat into a solid, now you can make it with milk powder turned into a dough and kneaded into balls. Serve with a rose water syrup and you got it down.
Pandan Chiffon Cake
Pandan chiffon cake is the National Cake of Singapore, which is quite a big deal. It’s a circular sponge cake, shaped like a wheel with a hole in the middle. But unlike the sponge cake you’re used to, it’s also green. That green color comes from the juice of the pandan leaf, a local plant long used to flavor food in this part of the world. The pandan leaf provides a fresh, nutty flavor.
Mango Pomelo Sago
Also known as Hong Kong’s favorite dessert. No baking needed here, the whole idea is staying cool in the tropical heat. Mangos, syrup, and evaporated milk blended together and served with ice and fruits.
Melktert is Afrikaans for “milk tart”, which tells you a lot about this South African dessert. It’s a pie filled with a custard-like mixture of milk, eggs, and sugar with cinnamon sprinkled over the top. There’s always a time for melktert in South Africa, usually accompanied with a nice cup of tea.
Shuku shuku means coconut balls and they love these things in Nigeria. If you grew up in Nigeria, you’ll have fond memories of popping shuku shuku into your mouth until you’re stuffed full. It’s that kind of dessert. They’re like macaroons except with a total coconut vibe.
Halwa Dyal Makina
Without learning too much Arabic, the name of these Moroccan cookies comes from their shape. They pass the dough through a pipe to create that shape and then they dip the ends in chocolate.
Russians love their desserts too and this one could be their favorite, popular across all the nations that once made up the Soviet Union. Medovik is an intricate, layered sponge cake with cream and honey. It takes a long time to make, but one you taste it you know it’s worth it.
Another tropical dessert to chill you out in hot climes. Es tiler is an Indonesian fruit cocktail, served in a glass. The question here is whether es teler is a drink or a dessert. Can it be both? We think so.
Pierniki is a source of pride in Poland, considered a national dish. It’s a gingerbread derived from the city of Torun, popular at Christmas, but enjoyed year round. Kids love pierniki because they’re both yummy and cut into fantastic shapes.
Gizzada is another one of those desserts that make people nostalgic. If you’re a Jamaican living abroad, chances are you miss gizzada and get homesick at the thought. You probably make them yourself to stay in touch with your roots. An open top tart, filled with a sweet and spicy coconut mixture.
Turron is a Spanish nougat candy. It’s super popular at Christmas and served in slices as a dessert after the main meal. The basic turron comprises three ingredients; honey, sugar, and egg white. But it’s common to add almonds and other nuts to the mix.
Germany is a major dessert country and bienenstich is a major dessert. The name means “bee sting” and the word is that it derives from the honey almonds on top. On top of what, we hear you ask? On top of an intriguing type of pastry cream. So don’t let the painful name put you off here. Germans do dessert like pros and bienenstich is no exception.
Another country that knows full well the pleasures of eating is Belgium. Mattentaart is a curdled milk tart but don’t let the word “curdled” put you off. These things are great. They’re so great they have special European Union protection. So only mattentaart made in Geraardsbergen can call itself mattentaart. They’re an institution.
If you live in Greenland, one of the coldest countries on the planet, you might need some cheering up during those long winter nights. That might be why it’s a dessert that’s the country’s national dish and not a main meal like whale blubber. Kalaallit Kaagiat, a sweetbread, has Danish origins. It’s best served with jam.
Coming from the Island of Crete, portokalopita is a Greek yogurt cake made with phyllo dough and oranges. This is one of those desserts that tastes better after two or three days if you can hold off from eating it that long. It’s about giving it time for the syrups to soak in. So try to wait, but if you can’t, we understand!
These cupcake-like chocolate truffles are a favorite dessert in Brazil. How could something made with condensed milk, cocoa powder, butter, and chocolate not be a favorite dessert anywhere? The name comes from the Portuguese for the military rank “brigadier”, when supporters made these cupcakes to sell at political rallies for Brigadier Eduardo Gomes when he ran for president of Brazil in 1945. And over 70 years later, Brazilians of all political stripes still love these things. So will you.
So concludes our trip around the world and its desserts.
What’s your dessert of choice? Or a better question is, what would be your dessert of choice if you were somewhere else, in another country? Would it be any of these? It doesn’t have to be.
And remember there’s nothing wrong at all with a simple bowl of vanilla ice cream. Sometimes a bowl of vanilla ice cream is as indulgent and makes you feel as good as the most elegant crème brûlée in Paris.