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The Sweet Life: L.A.’s Southeast Asian Dessert Diaspora


PHOTO by RICARDO DEARATANHA / L.A. TIMES

In Los Angeles, where international cuisines are examined with the rigor of sociological study, dessert is often a dish born under a foreign flag. There are those who lust after the cinnamon-dusted ridges of freshly fried churros, others who long for the ephemeral sakura-wrapped mochi available only during cherry blossom season. But whether it’s by willful avoidance or total unfamiliarity, Southeast Asian sweets have yet to earn that same admiration.

Bhan Kanom Thai, meanwhile, is a rainbow rush of colors: Fresh mango glistening the brilliant orange of a late-summer sun, glutinous rice balls glowing a radiant pandan green, tender taro cakes blooming the same piercing purple as a field of lilacs. The Hollywood favorite is a den of overstimulation, its shelves stuffed with Thai desserts alive with vivid colors, focused flavors and foreign textures. To a particular set of Los Angeles diners, the sweet shop is an essential experience. Yet even as Southeast Asian flavors move from places like Thai Town and Little Saigon and into the mainstream, the region’s diverse desserts remain largely unknown, tropical curiosities far more complex than a simple batch of banana fritters. Across greater Los Angeles, however, are countless examples of these sweets, a vast dessert diaspora as varied and unique as the ingredients and cultures that comprise each confection.

Nearly every Southeast Asian nation is represented in Los Angeles’ own sprawling geography: Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. These are the very same sweets found on the streets of Bangkok and Jakarta and Manila. Here, they’re imported by former culinary school instructors and avid cooks no longer confined to borrowed kitchens, by expatriates recreating tastes of home and younger generations now carrying on those traditions.

Southeast Asian sweets have even gone upscale. At restaurants like Lukshon, Red Medicine and the Spice Table, dessert draws inspiration from the region’s honeyed heritage: pearls of palm sugar boba, dollops of avocado and coconut creams, strata of thick kaffir lime custard. It’s an evolution in Los Angeles’ appetite, one finally primed to embrace Southeast Asia’s sweet side.

Read my Southeast Asian dessert picks at the L.A. Times.

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