Hors d'oeuvres are good and entrées are the centerpiece, but there’s something about that last course that’s just… sweeter than the rest. Around the globe, dessert has taken many different forms -- from savory pastries to fruity drinks -- and they’re all insanely delicious. Let’s take a look at how history and shared cultures have given us the sprawling variety of confections available today.
The Middle East is all about the honey
It only seems right to start with the Middle East, since practically half the world’s desserts derive from Turkish culture. The Ottoman Empire controlled much of the Middle East/Western Asia during the 16th and 17th centuries, and inevitably impacted the way those countries (and subsequently the rest of the world) eat today. At this time pastries made with crazy thin phyllo dough spread from Turkey to the rest of the continent. You bet your sweet tooth we mean baklava. The rich treat is made from layers upon layers upon layers upon... phyllo, chopped nuts (pistachios, walnuts, and almonds), and tons of syrup or honey. Usually prepared in a large sheet tray, the dish is then cut into individual pieces. In many parts of Turkey, it’s served with kaymak (a thick cream made from the milk of water buffalo, cows, goats, or sheep) or even ice cream in the summer.
For good reason, easily one of the most well-known sweet snacks from the Middle East is halva. Named from the Arabic word “helw,” meaning “sweet,” every country and every culture in the region has some version of the nut-based candy. At its most basic, halva is made from tahini (sesame paste) or some other nut butter and sugar or honey for sweetness. The result is a block of crumbly, gritty goodness that can be enhanced with the mix-ins of your choosing. Dried fruit, whole nuts, a chocolate coating -- its variations are uniform only in their nut-buttery deliciousness.
Chocolate treats aren’t on the table too often in Middle Eastern countries, which can be explained simply: you make do with what you’ve got. Turkey and Iran are two of the top producers of tree nuts in the world. In 2014, they managed to supply the world with a combined 7.1 million metric tons of almonds, walnuts, pistachios, etc. So, whichever way you slice it (it being the baklava), that’s a whole lot of nuts -- to go with the 4 million pounds of honey Turkey produced in 2013.
The Arabic influence in Africa
When the Ottoman Empire ruled over the majority of North Africa and the Horn of Africa throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, it changed the dessert game. At this time, Africa was introduced to new culinary methods from abroad. People of Algeria, Tunisia, and neighboring countries learned how to fill thin sheets of dough to make sweet pastries (similar to baklava), cheese pastries, and even honey-soaked pastries. The Turks also introduced the use of nuts and dried fruits as sweetmeat, and today, North African countries indulge in pistachios, walnuts, pine nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, and almonds as dessert.
Though Morocco was never conquered by the Ottoman Turks, their influence is still strongly present. James Beard-winning and Ethiopian-born chef Marcus Samuelsson dives into this in his book, The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa. He found pastries in Morocco have a “purely Arabic sensibility,” meaning thin layers doused in honey or sprinkled in orange water. When it came to eating habits and practices he writes, “In some cases, ‘dessert’ in Morocco was part of the main course, as in the Moroccan b’steeya, a traditional pie made of layers of stewed pigeon and sweetened almonds wrapped in a thin pastry called warqa and flavored with cinnamon and sugar.” (Fear not, the pigeon can totally be swapped out for a different protein.)
No matter where in the world you set your tastebuds, gelato is a good choice. Talenti is an American twist on an Argentine treat with ingredients from the finest sources around the world. Try the newest flavors: Cinnamon Peach Biscuit Gelato, Peanut Butter Fudge Sorbetto, Vanilla Chai Gelato, and Vanilla Blueberry Crumble Gelato.
When they’re not mixing savory with sweet, a true Moroccan dessert is kaab el ghazal (gazelle’s horns). Served typically only when you have guests or at weddings, this crescent-shaped pastry is filled with almond paste and topped with sugar.
Samuelsson notes that in the South African region, Dutch influence has played a huge part in the cuisine -- and you don’t need to look much further for proof than the names of treats. Take one of the most popular sweets, for example. Koeksisters derive from the Dutch word “koekje” (cookie). The deep-fried crueller-like pastry is dipped in a sugary syrup or honey then coated in cinnamon sugar.
Southeast Asia is paradise for the lactose intolerant
In Southeast Asian desserts, one thing is for certain: you won’t find much milk. Unlike North America and many European countries, in this region, milk, yogurt, cheese, and other dairy products aren’t considered major sources of nutrition. Instead, most sweets tend to be soups and puddings made with tapioca, coconut, mung bean, and red bean. Because they’re often both salty and sweet, it’s rare you’ll save dessert for the end of a meal in Southeast Asia. Instead, you might eat these dishes as afternoon snacks with coffee or tea or save them for rare and special occasions, like a wedding, New Year’s celebrations… or to celebrate your lactose intolerance diagnosis.
Coconut milk can be found in countless recipes -- like Cendol, which is popular in Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and other neighboring countries. The sweet drink is made by mixing coconut milk, palm sugar, and shaved ice, with green jelly noodles made from rice flour.
Then there’s khao niaow ma muang, aka mango sticky rice. This well-known Thai dessert also happens to be one of the easiest to prepare. After cooking the sticky rice on a stovetop (in a combination of water and coconut milk for flavor and texture), it’s simply garnished with mango slices and smothered with a coconut milk sauce (sweetened with brown sugar). In the summer, some serve the dish with coconut milk ice cream instead.
East Asia carves out time for their sweets
In Japanese, the word “kashi,” meaning sweets, originally only applied to fruit and nuts. Sugar wasn’t used as a confectionary until the 16th century. Plus, the Japanese prefer confections way less sweet than their Western neighbors. Market research firm Euromonitor found that in 2015, the average Japanese resident consumed 56.7 grams of sugar/day compared to someone in the US who eats a whopping 126.4 grams/day.
Everyone’s got a cheat day though, and in Japan it’s June 16. On “Japanese Confectionary Day,” it’s believed that eating sweets is actually good for you. So that’s when one might indulge in a staple like dango, a sweet dumpling made from mochiko (rice flour). Typically served on a skewer, dango comes in many varieties that often reflect the season. The festive pink, green, and white hanami dango is often eaten while cherry blossoms are blooming during spring.
In China, baked goods like cakes and cookies are widely available, but most people aren’t making them at home. The reason is simple: most households don’t have ovens. Instead, you’ll have to go into a city center for treats like these, as well as more traditional Chinese desserts like red bean soup. (Yes, beans. Like most Chinese desserts, it’s not overwhelmingly sweet. To cut the savoriness, most add rock sugar, tapioca pearls or lotus seeds and orange zest.) The most popular time to get some is actually between 9pm and 6am. Known as siu yeh or night-time snack, dessert shops stay open late to cater to the after dinner/drinks crowd.
The pride of Australia and New Zealand
The love of traditional desserts is alive and well down under, where everything from fruits to chocolate to nuts to plenty of sugar is consumed. Before European immigrants arrived in the 18th century, the indigenous people of Australia had insanely healthy and balanced diets. (We’re talking meat, fish, nuts, fruits, veggies, and honeys. Jillian Michaels would be proud.) Then they were introduced to pies, biscuits, cookies, cakes -- you name it -- and the Aussie dessert game blossomed.
Now, the world has so many Australian treats, like the well-favored pavlova. If it sounds familiar, it’s because this delicate meringue-based cake is named after the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. The dancer visited both Australia and New Zealand in the 1920s and was so inspirational, she prompted Chef Herbert Sachse to create what would become a national favorite.
On the other hand, some desserts don’t need to be complicated to be delicious -- and no country owns that statement more than Australia. Parents go ALL out for birthday parties here, but the treats are effortless. Chocolate crackle (what we might know as Rice Krispies Treats) is made by mixing together cocoa, coconut oil, sugar, and Kellogg’s Rice Bubbles (as they’re called there).
And NO birthday party (literally not one) is complete without fairy bread. Australians serve this local treat instead of cake for a reason: it’s ridiculously fun and delicious. You get the freshest white bread you can find, spread a generous serving of butter (never margarine!), and then cover it with round sprinkles (never long ones!). The combination of sweet, just vaguely salty, and bright colors makes it the most fun slice of bread you’ll ever eat.
You’re going to want to visit Eastern Europe
If cake is what you desire, you might want to consider Germany for your next vacation. Here, the fluffy treat is usually served as part of “Kaffee und Kuchen” or “coffee and cake” (which is similar to England’s afternoon tea). Often, families will get together for homemade cakes (like German apple cake or Streuselkuchen, aka German crumb cake) around 4pm on Sundays. The confection is also hugely important for birthdays and it’s perfectly acceptable to bring your own cake to restaurants.
But to heck with cake in Austria. It’s ALL about the strudel here. The layered pastry has been part of Eastern European cuisine since the 17th century, and gained popularity through the Habsburg Empire in the 1700s. The most well-known variation is none other than the apple strudel, which is constructed from a puff pastry dough made of flour with a very high gluten content, water, oil, and salt. Once baked, the apples (tossed in brown sugar) should retain a semi-firm texture. And though it kind of sounds like a McDonald’s apple pie, it’s been around for just a tad bit longer.
And if you really (like really really) like sweets, make a stop in Poland. Some dishes are served not after the meal, but instead as the main course. Pierogi, for example, are often filled with berries and topped with cream and brown butter, and pancakes known as racuchy are deep fried in lard or butter and served with fruit and cream or caster sugar. To be honest, we’ve never wanted to visit a country more…
There’s more to Southern Europe than gelato and tiramisù
While we might think we know everything about Italian desserts (because we’ve all eaten about 400 cannoli in our lives), there’s more to this Southern European country’s confections than just panna cotta and tiramisù. (Though if that had been it, we’d be more than satisfied.) Melanzane al cioccolato hasn’t made it past the Almafi coast, for instance. In this regional delicacy, fried eggplant slices are used to make a layered cake filled with chocolate sauce and ricotta cheese.
And though sweets have become a regular indulgence in Italy, the cost of more expensive ingredients made it quite an exclusive treat until more recently. To stretch the supply of nuts and desserts in general, unlikely and inexpensive elements (like eggplant above) would often be incorporated since they were accessible. A dish that’s still eaten today is panzarotti con ceci, a not-so-savory ravioli filled with jam-sweetened puréed chickpeas.
Now, a country as vast as Spain varies region to region as well. The northern Cantabrian coast is home to natillas de leche, a smooth custard flavored with cinnamon and vanilla and typically served warm, and filloas, aka Spanish crepes (usually served with cinnamon and honey).
Down south, fried treats are more popular. Here you’ll find rosquillas (Spanish doughnuts) and calientes, or what you probably know as churros. The dough is made by simply mixing flour, water, and salt. And you know the rest: deep-fry it and sprinkle it with as much cinnamon sugar as you can find.
Dulce de South America
Since Brazil is the leading producer of sugarcane in the entire world, you can bet that things are pretty darn sweet in South America. (According to the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, this year the country is expected to export 645 million metric tons of the stuff.) And good thing, too, because if that weren’t the case we might not have as much dulce de leche in the world.
Made by letting milk, sugar, vanilla, and baking soda slowly simmer until it becomes a thick caramel sauce (or by slowly heating condensed milk and sugar), the confection -- which translates to “milk candy” or “sweetness of milk” -- can be used on or in anything. And while this version is huge in Argentina and Uruguay, they prefer manjar in Chile and Ecuador -- which is dulce de leche minus the vanilla.
Not just found in dulce de leche, condensed milk is a main ingredient in many desserts. The Brazilian brigadeiro is a chocolate truffle made of sweetened condensed milk heated with cocoa powder to form a thick paste. It’s then mixed with cold butter and formed into balls. Roll it in the topping of your choosing (sugar, sprinkles, coconut shavings, or almonds to name a few) and take a bite.
Non-chocolate lovers, needn’t worry: there are SO many ways to consume condensed milk. Tres leches cake (a delicate sponge) let’s you have milk three ways: condensed (duh), evaporated, and as heavy cream. Though the dairy treat is believed to have originated in Mexico, it became popular in South America simply by good marketing. Throughout the 1940s, recipes for tres leches appeared on Nestlé condensed milk cans (and anything that tasty is bound to catch on).
North American pie people
According to The American Pie Council, approximately $700 million in pies are sold in grocery stores throughout the country every year. We’re just... we’re pie people. Regionally, however, we’re divided. In the northeast, it’s all about the apple pie (which actually, nearly one in five Americans prefer). If made correctly, the apple slices (coated in cinnamon and brown sugar) will bake down in the oven and become super soft and even sweeter. Often, apple pie is eaten à la mode, meaning with ice cream, though sharp cheddar cheese is also common in New England once autumn turns cold -- after that, a common treat in the inland Yankee states is maple syrup taffy, aka maple snow candy. It's as simple as pouring hot maple syrup on real snow or freshly shaved ice.
Down south, pecan pie takes the crown. With pecans themselves native to North America (growing in areas along the Mississippi River), this confection is a true US creation. After the Civil War, commercial developers started growing pecans in Georgia, and trees began popping up in Louisiana as well. Pretty soon, the nut was a staple of the south. And though the earliest recipes for this beloved pie can be found in cookbooks that date back as far as the 1870s, it wasn’t until Karo corn syrup started printing recipes on their cans in the 1920s that the dish really took off. Today you won’t find a Thanksgiving table from Virginia to Tennessee to Alabama without a pecan pie on it.
Neighbor to the north Canada does things a little differently (though its sweet tooth is just as big as America’s). One dessert has garnered attention worldwide. Why? The flavors and textures speak for themselves. Nanaimo bars, invented sometime in the 1950s in the town of Nanaimo, BC, is a no-bake crowd-pleaser. The triple-decker dessert has a wafer, then a custard-flavored butter icing layer, then a layer of melted chocolate. Trust us: only those who can handle a decadent treat should attempt this one.
If you’re in need of slightly less chocolate, Canadians swear by their blueberry grunt. Basically a deconstructed pie, it features the sweet berry cooked down and topped with soft, steamed dumplings -- and a dollop of whipped cream, because what isn’t better with a dollop of whipped cream?
Steamed dumplings from Canada, red bean soup from China, bread with sprinkles from Australia -- dessert doesn’t have to fit a certain mold. Or even be eaten at a certain time. What makes it a treat is enjoying it however it you want, when you want. And what we want... is to travel the world and enjoy every single one of these.