From ice kachang, cheng teng and chendol, to halo halo and even tadpole sea coconut, there are many ways to enjoy a sweet ice dessert in Southeast Asia. Rachel Hand tells us what to expect when you order one of these tasty, sweet ice treats.
Southeast Asia’s sweet ice desserts involve not ice cream, but real ice, snow-like shaved ice, crushed ice or actual ice cubes, combined with brightly coloured, sweet jelly-like shapes, and any of various ingredients including green lentils, sweetcorn, condensed milk, fruit flavoured syrups and real fruit pieces.
From Mountainous Ice Kachang to Fruity Es Buah
There are so many types of iced desserts to choose from. Let’s begin with the most spectacular. Order an ice kachang in Singapore and you get a towering mountain of fluffy stripy ice.
It looks enormous but the ice is so soft that it melts in your mouth, and before you know it you are eating the surprise ingredients hidden at the bottom.
Get an ice chendol (also spelt es cendol) and the stranger ingredients are on top so you can examine them from the start. Es dawet, found in Indonesia, has jelly-like shapes immersed in a white milky liquid. Es buah (literally ice fruit) actually contains real fruit as well.
Indonesian es campur means “ice mixture” and that’s exactly what it is. You want a sweet ice dessert in Thailand? Look for a nam kang sai stall. Over in the Philippines the most popular ice dessert is called halo halo, which also contains jackfruit, coconut pulp and deep purple yam.
What am I eating?!
Don’t be shocked by the flavour combination – remember, Southeast Asia is a region where chocolate and cheese are thought to be compatible! At the bottom of your ice kachang mountain you might find sweetcorn, red beans, green lentils, jelly shapes and chewy white and red balls.
Those Jelly Shapes Explained
Contrary to many people’s assumptions, you’re not eating some animal’s insides. Those white and red balls are called attap chee or sugar palm fruit, and come from the nipa palm tree. The jelly cubes are made of agar-agar, a harmless vegetable product.
Small round jellies are likely to be tapioca pearls, as found in bubble tea drinks. And those green tadpole-shaped jellies are made from a leaf called camcau or cincau.
Be brave and try a sweet ice dessert
So, be brave and order something you haven’t tried before! These sweet ice desserts are usually very affordable and my personal tip is to share one with a friend.
Many first-timers are concerned about the unusual appearance of the ingredients. But once you know that those jelly things are not from the insides of some animal, you can relax and enjoy some of Southeast Asia’s best-looking sweet ice desserts.
Getting a taste for Southeast Asia? Read about a more controversial Southeast Asian flavour: Durian: Strange fruit.
Have you tasted any of Southeast Asia’s famous sweet ice desserts? What were your first impressions – sickly sweet or refreshingly cool?