Turns out Chocolate Thunder from Down Under is not really an indigenous dessert of Australia. And fried ice cream is neither Asian nor Mexican, even though it often pops up on food factory menus of each nationality. Fried ice cream actually debuted at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. If you're looking for truly ethnic desserts, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. But don't go searching for your passport just yet; many nationalities are represented right here in the melting pot of Charleston.
Before we take off, it's worth noting that the idea of dessert really developed in Western European countries. In fact, the word dessert has roots in the French word desservir. Which is a verb that in essence means to de-serve, as in clear off the table. Other cultures have sweet dishes, but they're not necessarily served after a meal. They're served as breakfasts or as accompaniment to drinks. So for our tastebuds to sample the sweets of the world, we'll need to include some pastries and sweet dishes. I hope that's OK with everyone.
Let's begin our local world tour of sweets in the Far East. Asia may not be the first place you think of when you hear "desserts" or "sweets," but don't brush them off too quickly — after all China is credited with having invented ice cream1.
Taste of Thai in West Ashley (874 Orleans Road. 843-573-8825) has a full menu of Thai dishes, including several desserts. The most popular of these, and most traditional, is the mango and sticky rice. It's a small dish that is only $4.95, so it's a great way to end a meal of spicy curries. I love its simplicity: sliced mango and white rice combined with sugary coconut milk. That's it. They are served together on a small plate and you cut a piece of mango, scoop up a bit of rice, and enjoy the flavor and texture combinations in your mouth. This is one of those dishes that would work equally as well as breakfast.
Namaste y'all. Next stop: India. At the Bollywood Cafe (6150 Rivers Ave. North Charleston. 843-554-5121), exotic smells fill your nose, bright yellow curtains grab your eyes, and the sounds of Bollywood perk up your ears. In one step you have left North Charleston and landed in New Delhi (well, in a way). Get here for lunch and enjoy the $8.99 buffet where you can sample many traditional Indian dishes. You will need to save just a little bit of room for the popular Indian dessert: gulab jamun, or fried milk balls that have been soaked in a sugar syrup. Imagine deep frying a thick pancake batter and soaking it in syrup; that would get you close to the texture and taste of gulab jamun. It's very light, and before you know it you've eaten five or six of these sugary morsels.
Now, let's head west to the Mediterranean coast by way of King Street. Leyla (298 King St. Downtown. 843-501-7500) offers a wide array of freshly prepared Lebanese dishes. They have everything from hummus to kibbeh, tabbouleh to kafta. I recommend the shankleesh, you'll love it. Go with some friends and dive into the tasting menus. But save room for one of the many desserts offered. The house special is Layali Leyla (say that five times fast), which is ashtaliyyeh, pistachios, almonds, banana, and infused honey. Ashtaliyyeh is a cream (ashta) pudding, with the taste and texture of a really dense cottage cheese. The addition of nuts, fruits, and honey elevates it to a delicious and aromatic light dessert (or perhaps another breakfast dish?). Of course if you're feeling a little less adventurous you could always hit the baklava. Crispy layers of phyllo dough are combined with a sugary nut filling and finished with rosewater-infused syrup. All of the desserts at Leyla are made in house, and the freshness clearly comes through in the taste.
With just a quick jump over the Aegean Sea (read: the Cooper River) we can find a traditional Greek dessert — Galaktoboureko. I'm not sure why the Greeks chose a complicated pronunciation for this dessert, but it is fun to try and say. I usually end up asking for a Galactic-burrito and the waiter knows what I'm asking for. At Zeus Grill & Seafood (725 Johnnie Dodds Blvd. Mt. Pleasant. 843-388-9992), it is tucked in between several cake and cheesecake listings, and happens to be the one dessert they make in house. Galaktobureko is something of a love child between baklava and buttermilk pie, a light custard baked between a top and bottom layer of phyllo dough and topped with a light honey syrup. It's a great way to finish a Greek meal. Well, that, and smashing a plate in the fireplace. Opa!
Before we leave Europe let's grab a treat from a French patisserie, 'cause French people are still ethnic, right? Bonjour and welcome to the very French Macaroon Boutique (45 John St. Downtown. 843-577-5441). It can be hard to distinguish the different pastries as they all seem to be labeled "please don't touch the glass." But if you ask for the baker's favorite he will tell you the apple is incredible. One bite of this fresh-from-the-oven, flaky pastry and you will agree, it is incredible. The puff pastry is deliciously crisp and buttery. The apples inside are soft and sweet, in just the right ratio to the pastry. Mind yourself, you will be covered in crumbs. So if you don't want to be caught having just enjoyed a French tart, make sure to brush yourself off thoroughly.
Next up: Mexico! Just over the border in Hanahan, you will find one of our many Mexican tiendas (small groceries) La Tapatia (282 Yeamans Hall Road. Hanahan. 843-747-9008). Stepping inside will be another cultural immersion for you. Mexican music faintly plays in the back room. The shelves are stocked with dried peppers, beans of every kind, and all the essentials for authentic Mexican dishes. The smells of freshly made chorizo mingle with the day's hot bar special and pan dulces, massive pastries of varying flavors and styles. The sweets display is amazing. There are puff pastries oozing sweet pineapple, big fluffy donuts sparkling with sugar, mounds of cookies dusted in pink, purple, or orange powdered sugar. Each one of them bigger than the last, and none of them more than a buck fifty. The cashiers at La Tapatia are very helpful, but if you ask for the pastry names, they may need to yell to the back room for help, and then they may be answered by blunt chefs who bark the names back, and then you may be told one of them is a Garras, and then you might be alarmed when an internet search turns up pictures of angry bears, but don't be because it's just a bear claw, and it is sweet and delicious.
So ends our local world tour of international treats. Some of these dishes may not be to your liking and that's fine. Just get out there and enjoy the experience. Imagine it's like setting your Pandora on world music for the day. Maybe you hear an Indian song you like or an Asian one, but no one expects you to start listening to a full day of Bollywood hits. But maybe you'll discover something exotic and new that you really enjoy and add it to your playlist. Perhaps in the shuffle of sweets you will come across one that is worth experimenting with in your own kitchen. Enjoy the culture, embrace the experience, and eat the sweets.
1 It's not much to go on, but various websites point to a BBC report saying that "an ice-cream-like food was first eaten in China in 618-97AD." Who knows? I'm just using it as an anecdote for the article at hand.