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Around the World in 15 Desserts

Older person enjoys a dessert
Hallo, mein Name ist Rebecca!

Rebecca’s first visit to Italy was a coup de foudre and her affection for Il Bel Paese has only grown over almost 30 years of living here, during which time she has mastered the art of navigating the sampietrini cobblestones in heels but has yet to come away from a plate of bucatini all’amatriciana with an unsullied blouse. She covers Italy travel, culture, and cuisine for a number of print and online publications.

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Hi, I'm Rebecca!

Rebecca’s first visit to Italy was a coup de foudre and her affection for Il Bel Paese has only grown over almost 30 years of living here, during which time she has mastered the art of navigating the sampietrini cobblestones in heels but has yet to come away from a plate of bucatini all’amatriciana with an unsullied blouse. She covers Italy travel, culture, and cuisine for a number of print and online publications.

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National dishes are as varied as the people who create and love them, and desserts are no exception. Though some cultures have only adopted the idea of ending meals on a sweet note relatively recently, the human craving for sugar is almost universal. How that translates onto the plate, however, runs the gamut from honey-laced or sweetened bean paste morsels to delicacies made with cow milk simmered so slowly that its natural sugars caramelize.

No matter what form these bonnes bouches take, local desserts are sure to surprise, delight, and offer a unique perspective on an area’s cuisine as a whole. Here are a few of the top desserts to search out as you nibble your way around the world.

Gulab jamun, India

Gulab Jamun on a black plate in India.
Gulab jamun is a popular Indian dessert. | Bildquelle: / Shutterstock

Super sweet and crispy, this dessert is popular across the Pakistani and Indian diaspora.

Don’t mistake these deep-fried balls for simple doughnut holes. The dough is laced with khoya, a type of dry curd made by slowly simmering the liquid in cow or buffalo milk, giving the fritters a rich dairy flavor and creamy texture. Each ball is deep fried in ghee for an extra-crisp outer layer, then soaked in a sweet syrup flavored with rose extract and cardamom seeds. Though most common in India, where they're a mainstay of Diwali celebrations, these bite-sized morsels are also popular treats in Pakistan, Nepal, and other areas of the Indian subcontinent.

Related: Know Before You Go: Celebrating Diwali in India

Japanese cheesecake, Japan

Japanese cheesecake for sale in a shop window.
Sampling Japan's jiggly, souffle-esque cheesecake is a must. | Bildquelle: MR. AEKALAK CHIAMCHAROEN / Shutterstock

This indulgent Japanese dessert is squishy, soft, and oh-so-delicious.

It was only a matter of time before the secret got out about Japanese cheesecake, and now you can find purveyors of the country’s unique souffle-like style of cheesecake popping up around the world. Made with whipped egg whites, it combines the rich flavor of classic cheesecake with a light, airy texture that makes it extra jiggly (and extra delectable). Though the trend is taking off worldwide, Japan is where you’ll find the most authentic versions sold in chain or boutique bakeries.

Mooncakes, China

Pastel mooncakes on a pale dish in China.
Pastel-perfect snowskin mooncakes. | Bildquelle: Elena Veselova / Shutterstock

Popular for the Mid-Autumn Festival, but available year-round.

If you happen to visit China during the Mid-Autumn Festival, you’re bound to be served a celebratory mooncake. The most common variation of this ubiquitous pastry is the Cantonese mooncake, with a chewy outer dough that is decorated with traditional designs or Chinese characters and a sweet filling of bean or lotus seed paste (or, in the savory version, the yolk of a salted duck egg). Though they're most commonly exchanged as gifts during the festival period, you can sample mooncakes all year long in most Chinese pastry shops.

Mango sticky rice, Thailand

Mango sticky rice being served up by a vendor in Thailand.
Mango sticky rice being prepared on the street in Thailand. | Bildquelle: Tow Hai Nguang / Shutterstock

This Thai treat layers sweet on sweet to create a delicious after-dinner snack.

The perfect foil to its fiery cuisine, Thailand’s mango sticky rice is a soothing balm that pairs fresh sliced mangos with glutinous rice, coconut milk, and palm sugar. The cool fruit, creamy rice, and rich coconut milk come together as the perfect street food or post-meal dessert to offset chili-laden Thai dishes. This specialty is at its peak in April and May, when mangos are in season, and can also be found in other Southeast Asian countries.

Pavlova, Australia and New Zealand

A huge fruit pavlova being served up with cream.
A pavlova with the traditional toppings. | Bildquelle: Maria_Usp / Shutterstock

Debate rages on over which country can *really* lay claim to this elegant dessert.

The jury is out about where this meringue-based dessert was invented, but whether you side with the Aussies or the Kiwis, you’ll be won over by their luscious pavlova. Supposedly named for the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, this dish features a crisp meringue shell with a chewy, almost marshmallow-like interior, topped with sweetened whipped cream and fresh seasonal fruit (kiwi, passionfruit, and strawberries are the most common). Dig into this messy but decadent treat the next time you’re Down Under, or learn how to make it yourself.

Qatayef, Middle East

Qatayef, tea, and pistachios in the Middle East.
Qatayef is just the thing for breaking a Ramadan fast. | Bildquelle: dieddin / Shutterstock

Enjoyed across the Middle East, this dessert is a festive favorite.

There is no better way to break a Ramadan fast than with this festive delicacy found in most of the Middle East and Egypt. Griddled on one side, these small leavened flat cakes are folded and stuffed with sweet cheese, clotted cream, or chopped nuts and can also be drizzled with rose- or cinnamon-laced syrup for an extra kick of sugar. Qatayef (also spelled katayef) is a mainstay of an iftar spread, the evening meal served after sunset during the month of Ramadan.

Knafeh, Levant

Knafeh being served up as a sweet treat by a vendor.
Knafeh is a popular Arabic sweet. | Bildquelle: Ali Alawartani / Shutterstock

Nuts, syrups, and pastry come together to create this super-sweet bite.

One of the most beloved sweets in the Middle East, this toothsome delicacy is made with a crisp upper and lower kataifi (shredded pastry) crust enveloping a layer of orange- or cardamom-flavored sweet cream cheese. The entire dish is soaked in lemon and orange blossom syrup and topped with chopped nuts, for an explosion of flavors and textures that is hard to beat. Said to have been invented in the Palestinian city of Nablus, knafeh (in its many local variations) is a popular treat from Turkey to the Red Sea.

Mandazi, East Africa

A floral plate filled with Kenya mandazi.
A Kenyan version of mandazi, which is found across East Africa. | Bildquelle: Sopotnicki / Shutterstock

Regional variations abound, but all types of mandazi are man-delicious.

A satisfying all-day treat in most of eastern Africa, these triangles of leavened dough are laced with cardamom, fennel seeds, or other spices, then deep-fried and served hot or cool. Their simple presentation lends itself to endless local variations, from the addition of coconut milk to the dough in South Sudan for extra sweetness to various dipping sauces made from local fruit in Kenya.

Tiramisù, Italy

A waiter shaves chocolate on top of tiramisu in Italy.
Putting the final touches on a tiramisu. | Bildquelle: Adam Melnyk / Shutterstock

An Italian classic that's perfect for rounding out any carb-heavy meal.

Many desserts on this list have histories that stretch back centuries, if not millennia. However, Italy’s most popular dolce is a relative newcomer, said to have been invented in a 19th-century brothel as a way to give customers an energizing kick. Though that story is probably nothing more than legend, it’s undeniable that tiramisù (literally translated as “pick me up”) gets the heart racing with its bracing mix of espresso, sugared mascarpone and egg cream, lady fingers, and cocoa powder. Sample it in virtually any Italian restaurant or learn to prepare it from scratch in its hometown of Treviso.

Nanaimo bars, Canada

A plate of Canadian nanaimo bars filled with chocolate and mint.
Canada's official unofficial (very) sweet treat. | Bildquelle: photogal / Shutterstock

Canada does sweet delicacies too ... and Nanaimo bars are among the best.

These no-bake bars are Canada’s unofficial official national dessert, and one bite will explain why. Named after the city of Nanaimo—where, legend has it, a home cook invented them for a magazine recipe contest—they consist of a graham cracker and coconut crust topped by a layer of custard and finished with dark chocolate ganache. Extremely sweet, Nanaimo bars deliver a satisfying combination of snap, creaminess, and crunch that make them a crowdpleaser from bakeries to backyard picnics.

Kanelbullar, Sweden

Kanelbullar pastries on a plate in Sweden.
Comforting Swedish kanelbullar are just the thing you need to accompany a coffee. | Bildquelle: Starcookie / Shutterstock

Swedish snacks are surprisingly cozy and comforting.

Sweet, sticky cinnamon rolls have become so ubiquitous across much of the world that it’s easy to forget that they are deeply Swedish, so much so that the country celebrates Kanelbullens Dag (Cinnamon Roll Day) each year on October 4. Generally enjoyed during a fika coffee break, these spirals or twists of sweetened leavened dough spiked with cinnamon (and/ or cardamom) are a pastry shop staple in Sweden and across northern Europe.

Sticky toffee pudding, United Kingdom

Sticky toffee pudding and custard on a plate in Britain.
Sticky toffee pudding is a hearty British classic. | Bildquelle: Richard M Lee / Shutterstock

A British classic, this rich and indulgent dish is the ideal way to end a Sunday roast.

Nothing conjures up a Charles Dickens vision of England more than this retro dessert that comes in and out of fashion but never completely disappears. Made of dense sponge cake (kept moist with chopped dates), smothered in a rich toffee sauce, and served with a dollop of thick cream or custard, this is a classic Sunday roast or pub supper pud from the posh quarters of London to the quaint villages of Cornwall.

Related: Around England in 15 Dishes

Key lime pie, US

A slice of key lime pie with a wedge of lime.
Key lime pie is an American classic. | Bildquelle: viennetta / Shutterstock

A tangy all-American favorite that beats out the bogstandard apple pie.

There are few things as American as apple pie, but that classic dessert is kissing cousins with the strudels of the central European Alps. Key lime pie, meanwhile, is 100 percent stars and stripes. This custard-based pie is made with sweetened condensed milk flavored with the juice of key limes (a smaller, more aromatic type of lime) and is often topped with meringue or whipped cream to cut its tang. There is no better place to sample this regional specialty than the Florida Keys, where key limes are grown.

Polvorones, Mexico and Central America

Polvorones, the Latin American biscuit, dusted in icing sugar.
Crumbly polvorones can be found across much of Latin America. | Bildquelle: Bojan Pavlukovic / Shutterstock

Crumbly cookie favorites, that pair well with a cup of coffee.

Often called Mexican wedding cookies in the US, these shortbread morsels are one of the most common cookies across Mexico, Central and South America, the Philippines, and even Spain. Buttery, crumbly, often flavored with chopped nuts, and always covered in a thick layer of powdered sugar, polvorones are popped into the mouths of after-school snackers and wedding guests with equal gusto.

Related: Around Mexico in 15 Dishes

Alfajores, South America

Alfajores stuffed with dulce de leche.
Few things are quite as delightful as a freshly baked alfajor. | Bildquelle: Ober Ramirez / Shutterstock

With or without a chocolate coating, alfajores are favorites for a reason.

Dulce de leche, a caramel-like spread made by simmering milk and sugar slowly until it thickens and caramelizes, is a mainstay of many South American sweets. One of the handiest ways to try it is sandwiched between two shortbread cookies as an alfajor, a popular treat across the region. You can feast on fresh alfajores at virtually any bakery, or pick up a package of these indulgent cookies in grocery stores.

Explore more sweet tooth–tours around the world

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