Southeast sugar rush

We explore the sweet sensations from East and Southeast Asia. We live in a multicultural society: it’s time we got to know our flavour neighbours.

Photography by Anna Briggs

Featured in Capital #82
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Get to know your pandan from your ube. Two foodies give us a run-down of their favourite ingredients from East and Southeast Asia.

Vicki Young was the head pastry chef and baker at Floriditas and Loretta. She’s a been mainstay of the capital’s food scene, having worked with a number of restaurants, and as a private chef, to craft exquisite savoury and sweet menus. When she’s not doing any of these things, Vicki makes jaw-dropping celebration cakes for clients all over the region, and puts on dessert degustation pop-ups. She is a keen advocate of local produce and supports New Zealand producers as a member of Eat NZ’s 30-strong Kaitaki Collective. You can keep up with Vicki’s culinary endeavours on her popular Instagram page, @vickieats.

Elaine Loh is co-founder of Pour and Twist café, which serves manually filtered coffee and a variety of specialty drinks incorporating Asian flavours like matcha, taro, and black sesame. Although she was born and raised in Wellington, Elaine’s parents made sure she knew about her Malaysian-Chinese heritage: this meant speaking Mandarin in the house, and regular trips to Malaysia. “Food is important in many cultures, it brings everyone together. I like how symbolic it can be; for example, fish. Eating fish, especially during Chinese New Year, is a must because the character for fish is a homophone for abundance.”


Soft, fleshy fruit about the size of a grape with a hard rind. Sweet with notes of grape, pear, and rosewater.

E: They’re so sweet and juicy. I only had these when I was at my grandpa’s or aunty’s house in Malaysia. Fruit in Asian culture is a love language! Your parents cutting up fruit for you is their way of showing love.


Sago is the starch from the core of palm tree stems. It’s sold commercially in small balls which can be used in various forms.

V: There is a Cantonese dessert with coconut and sago. It’s a real treat and a textural delight. I have it often after a banquet meal at Chinese restaurants.


Powdered green tea leaf; a versatile flavour and colouring, with a vegetal, slightly bitter taste.

E: It has a floral umami flavour profile. Yukimi is a famous Japanese brand of matcha ice cream mochis. At Pour and Twist we do a lot of matcha drinks – ceremonial-grade matcha, matcha taro, matcha strawberry, matcha lychee.


Taro is a mild-tasting root tuber. It’s one of the world’s earliest cultivated plants.

V: We love a savoury dish with taro and pork belly cooked in fermented bean sauce, which is from my dad’s village in China. Growing up this was a real treat! Taro milk tea is a really popular option at bubble tea shops.


Ube is another root tuber, bright purple in colour. It’s very popular in Filipino cuisine.

E: Ube is a bit sweeter than taro. You can get halo-halo sundaes, which use ube ice cream as a base.“Haluhalo” is Tagalog for “mixed,” so they come with a whole bunch of stuff. Another classic Filipino food is ube pandesal: sweet bread with a cheese filling.

Chinese yam

The Chinese yam 山药 (shānyào), also called the cinnamon vine, is one of the few tubers that can be consumed raw.

V: These give a very popular flavour profile in Chinese cooking and can be eaten in sweet or savoury dishes. My grandma would always buy us yam cookies.

Red bean paste

This paste comes from boiling and mashing red adzuki beans. Sugar is added to make a popular filling for dessert foods.

E: At most Asian supermarkets you can get matcha and red bean taiyaki – a Japanese filled cake shaped like a fish. You can get different fillings like matcha, chocolate, and even cheese, but the traditional filling is always red bean paste.


Tapioca is the powdered starch from the cassava plant, another root tuber. It’s grown mainly in Thailand and Indonesia and consumed all over East and Southeast Asia.

V: Tapioca is a popular base for boba or bubble tea, a textural drink I grew up with on visits to Guangzhou, China. The balls are basically flavourless, so it’s more of a textural thing.


Cultivated all over East and Southeast Asia, the green leaves provide a distinctive flavour and colour.

E: The leaves have a sweet, grassy aroma, with hints of coconut. Pandan is often used in little cakes, which are dyed green with the leaves. There are steamed Malaysian cakes known as kuih; some have green and white layers – pandan for green, coconut milk for white.

Silken tofu

Tofu is the curd from soy milk. The soft, silky varieties come from curdling the milk with an organic acid also used in the cheese-making process.

V: Sweet silken tofu is a popular, refreshing dessert in Chinese cuisine. It is served with sugar syrup and best eaten after your roast duck noodle soup.

Black sesame seeds

The darker, nuttier version of the hamburger bun variety. Black sesame has been shown to contain more nutrients than its white counterpart.

E: Tang Yuan are glutinous rice balls, often stuffed with black sesame paste. We have them in a pandan and sugar soup. They’re a big part of Chinese culture, but I never liked them as a kid. Now I love them!


This East Asian citrus fruit is a hybrid of the tasty mandarin orange and the unpalatable papeda fruit.

V: Yuzu is a fragrant citrus from Japan. Gelissimo do a great yuzu sorbet. Neville Chun is the only grower of yuzu in New Zealand. You can try yuzu olive oil in dressings or with vanilla ice cream.


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