Five must-try sweets in Thailand
Bangkok Street Food
America has apple pie, Japan boasts mochi, and the French are famous for crème brulee. Thai cuisine is known the world over for its explosively spicy and savory tastes, but the Kingdom is not typically noted as a great place to indulge on sweets. Even so, Thais carry on a deep tradition of delectable desserts that often play on the indigenous flavors of coconut, fresh fruit and sticky rice. Here are five that any self-respecting sweet tooth would be wise to sample while in Thailand.
1. Khao niew bing (sweet sticky rice wrapped in banana husks):
The process of making khao niew bing (also known as khanom bing) starts with sticky rice being slow-cooked in a traditional Thai basket along with coconut milk and sugar before being molded around hunks of banana or sweet taro root, wrapped up in banana leaves, and finally grilled over a fire. What then emerges from the natural wrapper is a distinctly Thai treat that features a warm and gooey inside to go with a slightly charred, crispy outside. Khao niew bing are usually not overpoweringly sweet, but the undertones of coconut and fruit along with smoky hints from the grilled banana leaf make them a worthy accompaniment to morning tea, or as a late night snack to satisfy both your sweet tooth and your hunger.
Where to try?
The strip of food stalls that line up daily on the sidewalk in front of Platinum Shopping Mall in Pratunam are a good place to find khao niew bing, as well as similar variations like khanom jaak (coconut meat fire-roasted with sticky rice in a particular palm leaf) and khao lam (sticky rice stuffed in a hollow piece of bamboo along with peanut and sweet bean and grilled). Before purchasing, be sure to ask, “wan mai?” (“is it sweet?”). There’s no shortage of Thai foods that come wrapped in banana husks or other leaves, and I’ve unwittingly purchased what I thought were sticky rice goodies only to unwrap the leaves and find fishy curry cakes or grilled pork fat - both yummy in their own right but a major let down when you’re expecting a dessert!
2. Luk chup:
In one of the world’s most brilliantly colorful cuisines, the bright and shiny bite size sweets known as luk chup stand out. A distinctly Thai adaptation of a sweet almond snack that was introduced to Thailand by Portuguese adventurers way back in the 1600s, luk chup are made by boiling mung bean, sugar and coconut milk into a pulp, which is then kneaded into the uncanny shapes of miniature cherries, oranges, watermelon slices, or even eggs or cute little piglets - the sky’s the limit! As a finishing touch, colorful jellies are artistically applied, and the adorable finished products are almost too pretty to eat. Although the rich (and not at all fruity) flavor is memorable, the colorful experience is half the fun.
Where to try?
Luk chup are readily available in most large-scale prepared food markets such as Or Tor Kor Market near Chatuchak Weekend Market, but Baan Luk Chup Café just past Arun Ammarin Soi 37 in the Bangkok Noi area of Thonburi has been offering a wide array of styles and colors since the 1970s.
These yeast-less breads resembling pancakes actually originated in India and can be found throughout south and southeast Asia. Ever popular among Thais, however, roti deserves a place on the short list of must-try Thailand sweets. Thai style roti is crafted by swiftly flipping dough continuously on a hot, greased skillet until it reaches just the right consistency - flaky on the outside and soft in the middle. Roti can be ordered plain (tammada) or with fillings like banana or pineapple, but a drizzling of sweetened condensed milk on top is a must. Even before trying a bite, watching the quick hands of a roti master at work is an experience in itself.
Where to try?
Roti is a popular snack among both locals and tourists, and roti vendors can be found throughout Bangkok, including many on Khao San Road. For the best I’ve tried, however, head over to Roti Mataba Restaurant across from Phra Sumen Fort, near the river on Phra Athit Road. After almost 60 years in business, the folks at Roti Mataba are Bangkok’s unequivocal roti gurus.
4. I-dtim mat phrao (coconut ice cream):
Although traditional European-American style ice cream was first introduced to Thailand by foreigners, Thailand has quickly adapted it’s own unique versions. Some of Thailand’s icy treats, like nam kang sai and tup tim kab, are reminiscent of Italian style shaved ice in that they consist of plain, pounded ice with some combination of sweet flavored syrups, coconut milk, sweet gelatin, or fresh fruit added on top.
These are tasty indeed, but my favorite frozen Thai treat is I-dtim mat phrao (i-dtim is how the word “ice cream” has been rendered by Thai accents over the years, and mat phrao means “coconut”). Made with coconut milk rather than cow’s milk, Thai i-dtim is both sweet and refreshing, and locals often take it with kernels of boiled corn or gingko biloba sprinkled on top. A more literal depiction of the “ice cream sandwich”, many Thais also enjoy i-dtim mat phrao wedged between a folded piece of white bread - come on, you know you want to try it!
Where to try?
Mobile coconut ice cream vendors can be found wheeling around all parts of the city, but be careful not to mistake them for the regular, low quality name brand ice cream carts. You’ll know the real deal by the tall, round stainless steel canisters used to keep the ice cream frozen. If you fail to spot an ice cream cart, one authentic i-dtim mat phrao vendor sets up on most late afternoons just outside the Lumpini park entrance closest to the Silom MRT station entrance, Rama V monument and Silom Road. If on a tour of Thonburi’s canals, keep your eyes peeled for floating ice cream vendors navigating the canals in their tiny longtail boats.
5. Khao niew mamuang (coconut sticky rice with mango):
What do you get when you add authentic, slow cooked coconut sticky rice and decadent coconut cream to some of the world’s most delicious mangoes? The answer: a treat worth writing home about. In fact, if there were only one sweet that would decidedly be the classic Thai dessert, it would have to be khao niew mamuang (khao niew refers to sticky rice and mamuang to mango).
It’s true that this popular dessert can be found in Thai restaurants all over the world, but it always seems to taste better in Thailand. One reason is the quality of mangoes - there’s just nothing like the golden sweet and amazingly cheap mangoes produced within the Kingdom. I personally find the mango version to be a sublime blending of flavors, but if seeking something more adventurous, look for coconut sticky rice with notoriously pungent (or putrid?) slices of fresh durian fruit in place of the mango. Just remember to be considerate of your neighbors at the hotel by refraining from bringing fresh durian indoors!
Where to try?
Quality coconut sticky rice with mango is widely available throughout the city, including from several vendors on Khao San Road. The durian version can be more of a challenge to locate - I’ve been lucky (or unlucky?) enough to find it regularly from a particular fruit vendor in Pak Khlong Talad flower market, in the fresh fruit section along the sidewalk towards the north of the market.
And there you have it: in a foodie’s dream destination like Thailand, it can be tough to refrain from all out gorging on the divine curries, haunting soups, spicy salads, and endless finger foods on every corner. Most don’t expect the country’s sweets to be all that memorable, but if you manage to save a little room for dessert, you might just be pleasantly surprised. Happy tasting.