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There’s a time and a place for thick slices of rich chocolate cake and gooey, fresh-from-the-oven cookies—and it’s definitely not during a heat wave. When the hot weather rolls around, all I want to do is dive into a cooling category of desserts that appear throughout Asia, from China to the Philippines, which are hard to label but extremely easy to eat.
Refreshingly cold, textural wonderlands that are not quite drinks and not quite soups, these desserts seem to follow the equation of something creamy (like condensed milk or scoops of ice cream), plus something chewy (think tapioca pearls or various jellies), plus something crunchy (like basil seeds). They often feature tropical fruits like lychee, jackfruit, or avocado, and they don’t shy away from a savory element like red beans or vermicelli. They contain as many colors as they do textures.
Here, we explore three of my favorites: es teler from Indonesia, chè khúc bach from Vietnam, and falooda from India and Pakistan. Each of them is as delicious as it is cooling.
From Vietnam: Chè Khúc Bach
In the Vietnamese canon of cooking, there is a brilliant category of sweets known as chè, which, according to chef Doris Hô-Kane, translates roughly to “dessert soup.” There are several types of chè, but they all have one thing in common: They are multitextural dreamscapes made from elements that are creamy, crunchy, and cooling. Hô-Kane, who runs Ban Bè, a Vietnamese-American bakery in Brooklyn, is particularly fond of chè khúc bach, or “white chunk dessert soup.” (“It doesn’t sound as beautiful in [English] as it does in Vietnamese,” says Hô-Kane.)
Chè khúc bach is eaten year-round in Vietnam due to its reputation as a refreshing way to combat hot weather. Traditionally, the dessert is a monochromatic mound of white: squares of almond-flavored panna cotta, piles of coconut cream, shaved ice, pieces of lychee and longan, and soaked basil seeds.
Es teler sits comfortably in the middle of a Venn diagram of “dessert” and “refreshing drink.” The Indonesian treat is served in a glass but is most often eaten with a spoon. At its core, es teler includes six key ingredients, says Lara Lee, the author of the cookbook Coconut & Sambal: cold shards of shaved ice, ripe chunks of avocado, young coconut meat, tender jackfruit, cocopandan syrup (which imparts an almost coconutty-vanilla flavor), and condensed milk for sweetness. Served throughout Indonesia—by street vendors and fancy restaurants alike—es teler is beloved for its cooling properties. Average temperatures in the country tend to hover around 80°F, and es teler is often consumed “as an afternoon snack,” notes Lee.
Like most beloved foods, es teler has varying origin stories. Some claim it was invented during an ice-making competition, while others claim they invented it as early as the 1960s and as late as the 1980s. Even the name of the dish is surrounded in folklore, says Lee. “Teler” is a slang phrase in Javanese that translates to “getting high.” After consuming the dish, someone said, “Esnya bikin teler,” or, “This ice is getting me high,” and the name stuck.
It might seem odd to the Western palate to incorporate avocado chunks into a sweet treat, but the bright green fruit offers a creamy note that underlines the tropical flavors of es teler. Lee notes that versions of the icy dessert can also include other textural pops such as durian pulp and basil seeds. She prefers to add colored tapioca pearls and green squares of nata de coco (or coconut gel) for both color and chew.
From India: Royal Falooda
There is no incorrect way to layer falooda, the milky, traditionally rose-heavy dessert beloved in India, Pakistan, and other parts of South Asia. Everyone has their own preference on how to stack the components—but falooda is always best built in a tall glass.
Falooda is a descendant of the Persian dessert known as faloodeh. Brought to South Asia by the Mughal Empire, faloodeh is most commonly crafted from rose water, vermicelli, and often a scoop of ice cream. The South Asian version is much creamier in nature with a few more textural additions.
When making falooda, I prefer to start with the crunchiest elements and work my way up to the creamiest. Gelled chia seeds sit at the bottom of the glass, offering maximum bite. (Basil seeds are more traditional, but I prefer the way chia seeds have a heartier bloom.) Next is a layer of gently cooked al dente vermicelli. Cubes of rose jelly, the element that makes this falooda “royal,” are added next to offer some bounce.
The most satisfying moment of the entire process is watching the almost-neon pink rose syrup cascade through the milk, creating a sort of edible tie-dye. And once the rose milk fills up the empty spaces in the glass, a generous scoop of creamy vanilla ice cream rounds it all out, mellowing the rich, floral rose notes in the process. When the elements are eaten together, preferably with a long-handled spoon, it’s a dessert that will make your taste buds feel like royalty.