Maybe it’s unusual to think that today’s post is about one of my favorite desserts in the world.
Sure, when I want something sweet, I mean really sweet, it will be from Türkiye. And if I want something pseudo-healthy, it will be an Indian mango lassi.
But when in Southeast Asia, I can’t get enough of those Frankenstein’s monster’s bowls of goop, slop, and ice.
Although I didn’t know the name for the dessert until doing a little reading about, I found out that the Thai name, รวมมิตร (ruam mit), means “get together + friends.” Makes sense, because you’ve got your fruit, tubers, roots, gelatin, syrup, beans, legumes, and weird colors you may never have expected to see in a dessert, all coming together for a saccharine dalliance. So, grab some friends, grab some ladles, order a family-style — I just made that up, but try to order something that contains a little of everything — and then walk it all off in the heat.
A few years ago, I took a road trip with some friends around southeastern Mexico, starting and ending in Orizaba, Veracruz, ultimately getting as far as Cancun. As I may have mentioned before, Mexico – thus far – is one of my top three countries for eating…thus, I was not only looking forward to exploring more of the country with locals, but also to trying new and familiar foods along the way.
Fast forward to my road trip, and the city of Mérida, located in the state of Yucatan. Although counting nearly one million inhabitants in its metro area, its downtown area has a cozy feel to it. Mérida is hot year-round, has boulevards lined with mansions built almost entirely thanks to rope, and owing to Mayan tradition, unique foods found nowhere else in Mexico.
Plus, due to its recognition as being one of the safest cities in the country and with that, a sizable expat population, they’ve got some fine places eat and drink. Places like Ki’XOCOLATL, a small chocolate shop adjacent to Santa Lucia Park.
When it was first discovered nearly 4000 years ago by pre-Olmec cultures, it was consumed in its naturally bitter state, ground into a paste with water. Subsequent civilizations started to add in what was organically found at the time in Mexican jungles and rain forests, namely honey, chilies, and vanilla.
After a long stroll through downtown Merida, I wanted to sit down and relax with some sweets. Ki’XOCOLATL offered hot chocolate, two ways, I as I deem it. The first method was the contemporary style, sweetened with sugar. The latter, evoking how Olmecs and Mayans may have enjoyed it, started off by merely being the bitter cacao seed heated up with water. The waiter served it alongside honey, brown sugar, achiote – a yellow-orange seed typically used to add color to foods, allspice, habanero, and cinnamon, although cinnamon hails from Sri Lanka.
Although the ancient hot chocolate took a bit of getting used to, I admit that the modern one was the best cup of it I have ever tried.
Where did you have your favorite cup of hot chocolate? Whether it was in Mexico or somewhere else, let me know!
My introduction to 馒头 (mántou), steamed wheat bread originally from northern China, is actually one of my fondest food memories. In 2004 I visited Singapore with my dad, and a couple of natives invited us to try chili crab. Not only was the crab delicious – but it was equally fun to sop up the chili sauce with fried mantou.
It’s easy to satisfy salty and umami cravings in China, but what if wanted to grab me somethin’ sweet?
From having lived all over Shenzhen, China – a city built by and on internal migration – I had come to get familiar with menus from regional Chinese cuisines. However, based on those experiences, there seemed to be no better way to conclude a meal drowned in reused cooking oil and loaded with MSG than by getting served A) sliced tomatoes covered in granulated sugar, B) caramelized potatoes that will singe your mouth or C) durian anything.
Or, occasionally, there was choice D) fried (金炸 jīnzhà) mantou with 炼奶 (liànnǎi), or sweetened condensedmilk.
Have you tried this combo before? If you’re really looking to overdo it, order it with can of root beer.
It’s not so easy to determine which place can call itself the true inventor of baklava, since it’s existence isn’t well-documented prior to the 19th century. It may come from present-day Iran, Turkey, Syria, Greece, or Armenia, although its popularity certainly spread throughout the Balkans and beyond because of the Ottoman Empire.
Years ago, the European Union (EU) did Turkish cuisine a solid by considering Turkey to be the creator of baklava, placing it on its list of items protected designation of origin, as well as protected geographical indication. However, one joy of eating is to appreciate food without getting caught up in a geopolitical kerfuffle.
Forming part of a hub of Turkish food in southern central Anatolia, if you want to eat like a local, the city of Gaziantep is known for two things– baklava, and pistachios. There’s also baklava’s cousin, katmer, but it’s not nearly as well-known overseas.
Unfortunately, I accidentally deleted my video of Karagöz Caddesi, or what I consider to be Gaziantep’s “baklava street,” but there are plenty of other sweets shops around to reel you in. However, I did prepare a brief baklava tour of the city; given the deliciousness of the country, more videos of Turkish gastronomy will undoubtedly follow!
My first trip to Turkey was in 2006; I went with my family to Istanbul, Kayseri, and Göreme, the epicenter of Cappadocia and its unusual fairy chimneys:
Now, even 16 years ago, I realized that Turkish food was excellent; the kebabs, baklava, dried fruit … just about everything was delicious. But those were already well-known foods before visiting Turkey. How about something new?
While on a tour of Cappadocia, we were invited to eat with a local Turkish family. Although I recall the entire meal being good, only the dessert is still memorable to this day. Why? Perhaps because it was the only dish that I was trying for the first time– the main ingredients were some sort of grain, mixed with copious amounts of butter, sugar, and pine nuts.
I didn’t know the name of the meal until a chance encounter last year in Skopje, North Macedonia:
I couldn’t believe it. After 16 years, I had finally rediscovered the very same dessert, and perhaps more importantly, found out its name– irmik helvası, in English, semolina halva.
Of course! Semolina, the milled wheat product also commonly used in pasta and couscous, was the grain. More embarrassingly, I’ve had nearly identical semolina-based desserts — similarly called halwah — in India.
But this version, found at a Turkish dessert chain called Helvacı Ali, was a dolled-up one, flavored with pistachios and topped with peanuts.
Last month, I popped by the same chain in Istanbul, for an even more ridiculous exemplar– pistachio and chocolate halva topped with tahini and crushed pistachios:
It’s customary to have semolina halva with black tea during the winter, and Turkish ice cream, called dondurma, during the summer.
Before diving into the titular dessert, I should cover a bit of history of the background of the tarta de santiago.
James — known in Spanish as Santiago — was named by Jesus as one of his 12 apostles, making him privy to Jesus’ preaching and predictions. As a consequence of his loyalty to Jesus, James was martyred by King Herod in the year 44, after which his remains shipped to coastal Galicia, a region in present-day northwestern Spain. Eventually, he was reinterred in what is now Santiago de Compostela; his burial site is exactly where in 1075, King Alfonso VI commissioned the construction of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Nowadays, this cathedral is as important a spot for Catholic pilgrims as the Vatican and Jerusalem.
As with just about anything historical, it’s difficult to say whether or not James had visited Hispania (today’s Spain and Portugal). However, he is viewed as the patron saint of both Spain and Galicia, having helped the Catholics fend off the Moors in a mythical 9th century contest called the Battle of Clavijo; if you’ve never heard of the Mandela effect, it’s when a large number of people think something has happened, yet the event never did.
Riveting, but where’s the dessert?
To prepare a tarta de santiago, or “pie of James,” the primary ingredient is peeled almonds. It is said that almonds have been in Spain since the 600s, and that the tarta de santiago has been around for hundreds of years; though, no one is sure for how long, and if almonds have always been the main ingredient.
Other main components include eggs, lemon zest, and sugar; coincidentally, if gluten is a problem for you, this dessert can be made without issue. To distinguish it from other almond-based pastries, the remate, or final touch, is adding powdered sugar on top, along with the design of the cross of Saint James the Apostle. The design of the cross also became the symbol of the Order of Santiago, a group founded in the 12th century to protect pilgrims and defend Catholics; the cross’ reddish color refers to the blood shed by James when he was martyred.
I tried the tarta de santiago in Santiago de Compostela twice, and found it to be subtle as far as almond-based desserts go, with just the right amount of lemon flavor to balance the buttery sweetness of the almonds. Try it à la mode, with vanilla or raspberry ice cream, for extra goodness.
Verdict: Rasgulla is one of the more approachable Indian sweets. Although it is soaked in sugar, I feel that the lemon juice and maida helped reduce the sugar’s potency. Sometimes cardamom and/or rose water are added, as well as pistachios, though the latter serves more as a garnish. Still, upon looking at that giant bowl of sugar syrup, how could you not want to go bobbing for rasgulla?
*chhena (Hindi)= a curd cheese made from water buffalo milk maida= refined and bleached wheat flour, common in Indian breads and desserts mithai= sweets/confectionery