The finale of every childhood family function was the same. Aunties would unveil a tray of gulab jamun and start to circulate the house, or the servers at whatever restaurant was hosting would plop a bowl on the table in front of us. At this point my stomach was usually roiling from the samosas and tandoori earlier, but even if it wasn’t, I couldn’t understand why my relatives scooped three, four, five sugar-soaked balls onto their plates. I could barely finish one without feeling my tongue pucker, my throat beginning to stick to itself as my skin buzzed from the oncoming sugar rush. At that age, I could drink strawberry Nesquik with every meal, but this was just too sweet.
In adulthood, I’ve come to prefer desserts that are not too sweet. I choose mint ice cream over chocolate cookie dough, fruit and honey over fudge, and when it’s an option, regularly opt for a cheese plate, or just no dessert at all. My spouse mocks the fact that my biggest praise for strawberry gelato is that “it tastes just like strawberry,” as if the point of a treat should be a lack of transformation. But that’s the glory, I think: the full spectrum of sweetness instead of the one-note punch of white sugar.
In the past few years, I’ve learned there are others like me, and no one is louder about good desserts being “not too sweet” than the Asian American diaspora. Perhaps you’ve seen a meme about how calling a dessert “not too sweet” is something almost every Asian American has heard from their relatives, and how it’s the highest compliment an Asian person can give a dessert. Or maybe you’ve seen that it’s the name of multiple Asian bakeries and pop-ups. The phrase is not just a marker of taste, but one of identity. For a dessert to be Asian, it must be “not too sweet.” And to be Asian, one must like it that way.
Like any in-joke among a marginalized group, “not too sweet” is a defiant shorthand, and one that in its construction necessitates a binary: “too sweet” compared to what? Often, in the Asian American usage, it’s a contrast to Western desserts filled with milk chocolate, sticky caramel, and corn syrup. To say “not too sweet” is to say actually, I don’t want your frosted red velvet cupcakes or your sticky toffee pudding; I long for the subtlety of red bean, the freshness of mango over sticky rice. It’s to say that Asian dessert traditions and flavors — matcha, black sesame, jellies laced with lychee — are superior to flavors associated with whiteness. It’s to proclaim that my culture has given me different tastes, better ones, and no amount of soft power can take that away.
But while I relish in the sentiment, something sticks like taffy in my teeth. If this is emblematic of “Asian” tastes, then what of the trays of gulab jamun and jalebi at every wedding, sweeter than any sundae? What of Vietnamese iced coffees and Thai iced teas I could barely finish for the sugar, the coconut roti drenched in palm treacle I ate on my honeymoon in Sri Lanka, Malaysian honeycomb cake, or Korean dalgona, literally caramelized sugar candy, as sweet as English toffee?
Food remains at the center of the ongoing search for identity, belonging, and community within the Asian diasporas. One’s culinary traditions are a source of pride, something to reclaim. And it’s fun to rally around a dish or flavor that white people just don’t get. But with every declaration of what Asian food is or isn’t, what belongs and what doesn’t, is something, or someone, that gets cast aside. Asian American, which originated as a phrase to build solidarity, becomes one of adherence to norms and assumptions. If something sweeter means it’s supposedly less Asian, then where do these traditions, and the people who keep them, belong?
“As a child, I always rejected Chinese desserts, and felt that they were inferior to Western desserts,” says Jon Kung, chef and author of Kung Food: Chinese American Recipes from a Third-Culture Kitchen, who grew up in Hong Kong and Toronto. “Whenever something was made with red bean instead of chocolate, I remember being so disappointed.” But as an adult, Kung has come to prefer the “delicate flavors” of Chinese desserts, such that last year they tweeted this truth: “I don’t know who needs to hear this, but ‘not too sweet’ is literally the best compliment a dessert can get from an East Asian.”
The phrase was already a meme. In 2020, my now-colleague Bettina Makalintal wrote for Vice that not-too-sweet desserts were becoming more popular, and noted, “it’s a common refrain in the Asian diaspora that calling a dessert ‘not too sweet’ is the peak form of praise.” That same year, Patricia Kelly Yeo wrote about Asian cakes for Eater, and referenced her aunt complimenting a not too sweet cake from South Korean bakery chain Paris Baguette. Tweets and TikToks about Asian families using the phrase began showing up more, and more publications began referencing it in relation to Asian desserts.
It’s no surprise to Kung that among the Asian diaspora, more people are recognizing this preference in themselves as they get older, and are joking about it. “It’s just one of those things our parents said all the time to describe something that they actually like,” they say. “So it’s a little bit of tongue in cheek, but also an admission that oh my god, I’m becoming my parents.” It’s funny because it’s true.
There is some scientific data as to why people of Asian descent may prefer less sweet things. According to a 2020 study published in Food and Quality Preference, people of Asian descent are more likely to be phenotypically supertasters and “low sweet likers,” as well as more sensitive to sour and metallic tastes. There are also material reasons why sugar wasn’t around. Robert Ji-Song Ku, a food studies scholar and associate professor of Asian and Asian American studies at Binghamton University, says his parents grew up hardly eating sweets in Korea. “That generation went through war and famine,” he says. “Having really sweet foods was a rarity, sugar was really expensive.” Dalgona candy was something they’d eat on special occasions, but the flavor wasn’t pervasive. He notes that now, younger Koreans have embraced sweetness, adding the flavor to foods that didn’t used to be sweet, like fried chicken. “The older generations don’t like it.”
Soleil Ho, culture critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, also says they grew up with the saying, so they immediately recognized the posts and memes as coming from real life. “I think part of it is that diasporic people are maybe emulating older people, like to say something is not too sweet is a marker of maturity,” they say.
Perhaps especially in a diaspora — when you do not have to eat the food of your ancestors, or where in fact it may be difficult to find — embracing and riffing on and joking about these phrases is a way to ensure the thread between the generations. How lovely to turn into your parents, especially if you were born in different countries or speak different languages. “I think there is a constant hunger to find connection and common ground when it comes to anyone in any diaspora,” says Kung.
But then again, there’s data that suggests the adage is literally untrue. While the U.S. and Germany were the largest consumers of sugar in 2020, Malaysia and Thailand beat out both in per-capita consumption — 41.63 kilograms and 38.66 kilograms per year, respectively, compared to 33.17 kilograms in the U.S., and with Cambodia coming close behind at 32.21 kilograms. The study does not specify how this sugar is consumed, whether it’s in desserts or sodas or slipped into other everyday products, but it certainly complicates the narrative.
Ho is skeptical of the phrase as a universal. “I’ve caught myself saying it a few times too and then really thinking: What do I mean by this? Do I actually not like sweets?” And Kung, Ho, and Ku all note there are plenty of “too sweet” concoctions throughout Asian cuisines. Kung mentioned Hong Kong milk tea, black tea made with evaporated milk with loads of sugar, or Vietnamese coffee. Ho says that on a recent trip to Japan, they noticed many of the beverages they tried were incredibly sweet. “I was like wait, huh? And I was in Asia Asia,” they said. “I think that the idea that Asians don’t like things being too sweet is bullshit.”
“Granulated sugar is no more than 2,500 years old, and white crystalline sugar started its career even more recently, about 1,500 years ago, in Asia as a pure luxury, a sign of power and wealth,” writes Ulbe Bosma in The World of Sugar: How the Sweet Stuff Transformed Our Politics, Health, and Environment over 2,000 Years. In it he chronicles the colonialism and slavery behind “sugar capitalism,” and how Europeans, hungry for sugar they couldn’t grow on their own land, used slavery and forced labor to turn sugar from a luxury product in Asia to something commodified the world over.
Bosma writes that sugar cane is ubiquitous in many parts of Asia, and that thousands of years ago, people in what is now northern India developed jaggery by boiling sugarcane juice. This was traded both locally and internationally; Indian sugar may have reached China as early as 200 B.C.E. White crystalline sugar, prized for its more uniform taste, is incredibly difficult to make. In an interview, Bosma describes one early process in India that used water plants and moisture to separate white sugar from molasses; this process took weeks.
The difficulty of making white sugar meant that it remained only for the wealthiest, used for sculpture at royal banquets and in medicine. And when it was sprinkled into cuisines, that was often due to European influence. For example, “consumption [in Japan] really expanded when the Portuguese introduced candies, caramels, and cookies to Japan in the sixteenth century, and when sugar entered the traditional rice cakes and dumplings,” writes Bosma.
Asia exported sugar to Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, but Bosma notes that until the 1830s, European traders did very little to influence the Asian sugar trade. That changed when the Dutch East India Company introduced a forced cultivation system, mandating sugar production along Java’s northern coast. That sugar industry flooded markets in India, China, Japan, and Thailand, as well as Europe. “Of course,” says Bosma, “it was at the expense of the population of Java,” creating a system in which Javanese villagers could barely cultivate food for themselves, were confined to their villages, and were paid next to nothing.
In the 1850s, the development of centrifugal technology made producing white sugar easier; thanks to its association with royalty and European tastes, it was widely considered superior. “People got used to consuming white sugar, and having white sugar became a matter of prestige,” says Bosma. By the 1930s, a fully industrialized sugar industry made sugar more affordable, at least for the urban elite. And white sugar was fully considered “better” tasting. It was pure sweetness on a molecular level. You could use it in any recipe and it’d taste the same, as opposed to the differing terroirs of brown sugars. It came with the sheen of wealth.
When Anita Mannur, a professor of English at Miami University and author of Intimate Eating: Racialized Spaces and Radical Futures, hears “not too sweet,” it doesn’t sound like praise of Asian preferences. To her, it sounds like a capitulation to Western tastes. “Most Indians or South Asians, growing up, hear people say, ‘I like Indian desserts, but they are too sweet,’” she says. “My familiarity is more with South Asian and Filipino culture, where they’re trying to say, our stuff isn’t so heavy or so excessive that it can’t be palatable.”
Many overly sweet Asian desserts do have colonial or European influences — sweetened condensed milk in Vietnamese coffee, Thai iced tea, and halo halo; Thai desserts based on Portuguese recipes involving refined sugar and eggs; Vietnamese banh flan and Filipino leche flan. But there are plenty of intensely sweet desserts throughout Asia that existed long before colonial influence, and without white sugar at all: Indonesian onde onde stuffed with palm sugar; roti doused in coconut treacle in Sri Lanka; and Filipino minatamis na saging, bananas cooked in sugar syrup, or sticky, gelatinous biko. And of course any jalebi, gulab jamun, or laddoo found across India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. So why, then, is the stereotype that sweetness is just not what Asians are into?
Part of it is a failure of language. The term “Asian American” was originally coined by Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka, who in 1968 founded the Asian American Political Alliance. They wanted to harness people of different Asian backgrounds into a movement of political solidarity. By encouraging those living in a white supremacist society to think of themselves not as only Japanese American or Vietnamese American, but as part of the same community, they felt they could more effectively fight for equal rights. At the same time, larger (white) American culture was busy conflating Asianness with East Asian identities — the 1970 U.S. census only allowed Asian Americans to identify as Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, or “all other.”
“I think [the phrase] intended to be inclusive,” says Mannur, “But it isn’t always. Particularly refugees are left out. So then that allows for a statement like ‘Asian American desserts are not too sweet,’ because it’s also assuming that Asian American equals East Asian.”
This is what got my hackles up every time I saw a blanket “Asian” or “Asian American’’ descriptor around this supposed preference. Estimates put Asia as encompassing about 50 countries, and 4.7 billion people. Do you hear how silly it sounds to describe a cuisine, a behavior, literally anything as “Asian”? How dare you speak for everyone! I called my Bengali grandmother and asked her about desserts, just for extra proof, and she waxed about the roshogulla in her hometown outside Kolkata, the kalakand she ate at college in Lucknow, her mother’s kheer. “I love sweets,” she told me, even though at 93 she now limits her intake. Still, this was proof that the preference for “not too sweet” is not universal among Asians, and that “Asian” and “Asian American” cease to be useful frameworks when we start talking about the nuances of culture.
But as I stewed in my righteous annoyance, I knew that wasn’t quite true either. Because enough friends had sent me memes for me to know that praising something for being not too sweet is something I do all the time. I’ve heard my cousins say it, my aunts and uncles. I’ve taken a bite of dessert across the table from a friend as we knowingly looked at each other and laughed as we sang it out in concert. I thought about the less sweet Indian desserts I’d had, like chhena poda and daulat ki chaat. And as I thought about what my grandmother said, it didn’t sound quite like praising sweetness. She reminisced over her mother’s kheer, and how it was always made with bay leaf. She brought up the flavors of cardamom and saffron, astringent spices used for both flavor and preservation. This was not about sweetness. It was about flavor.
There seems to be a second failure of language. When someone says “not too sweet,” it’s not just about how much is “too” much, but what we’re even talking about when we say “sweet” — which may not be sweetness at all.
When I think of white sugar I think of an empty room flooded with cold, fluorescent light. Yes, I can see, but something about this feels uncomfortable, harsh. I long for warmth, or at least something to distract me from the pummeling brightness.
As Bosma explains, early sweeteners like jaggery are full of fiber particles. “It’s a specific taste, which is not sweet,” he says. It has a mellow, earthy flavor, or more importantly, it has a flavor. It’s sweet, but it’s not just sweet. The same goes for honey, palm treacle, date sugar, and other less refined sweeteners — the ingredients available across Asia for generations — used before industrial processes made white sugar the universal standard.
“The older generation, they’re the ones who really knew on an intimate level the differences between sugars,” says Ho, “because there were these big industrial transitions that happened during their lifetimes.” Instead of a binary model of sweet versus savory, “not too sweet” could instead mean that something embodies a specific kind of sweetness, an older one, full of spice or fruit or floral notes, one that deserves to be appreciated in a world where white sugar is the standard.
Ku theorizes that this is what’s happening when he hears his mom praise desserts. “[Something sugary] is maybe too much for that generation, because it’s so unfamiliar.”
If a younger generation of Asian Americans are celebrating and emulating their elders by embracing “not too sweet” as a marker of identity, they are emulating people whose tastes were forged by different circumstances, people who maybe directly suffered the effects of colonialism, or fought to keep their traditions alive in a new country, or missed what they left behind. It’s not about sweetness, but about asserting a different frame of reference. If Europeans and royals were intent on refining sugar into a flavorless expanse of whiteness, “not too sweet” says there was nothing that needed to be “refined” in the first place.
“Sometimes expressions like this get too caught up in reality,” says Ho. “You start to make a narrative of it being because Asian desserts aren’t sweet... it’s a story that people tell in order to fill in some gaps. But really, to me, it is about reinforcing difference, and not in a bad way.”
Because there is a difference, as anyone who’s watched the judges on Great British Bake Off taste a non-European dessert understands. No matter how popular ube is getting, the standards in America and Europe still center chocolate and caramel, or sugared apples and not mangoes, or sugar combined with only a select few flavors. Through this lens, the memeification of “not too sweet” is a moment of the solidarity of Asian Americans on display. Asian people like and don’t like sweet things, things made of jaggery and palm treacle and white sugar, things the colonists brought and things we made on our own. But if the “not too sweet” narrative exists to counter what Western culture considers valuable, then regardless of one’s personal tastes, we can all participate in it.
A few years ago, at an uncle’s funeral at a temple in Pennsylvania, I had the best gulab jamun of my life, served in styrofoam bowls under the fluorescent lights of the gathering hall. The jamun were held together by a tissue-thin crust, softly falling open at the slightest pressure of my plastic spoon. I tasted rose and curd, the tannins of saffron and burnt caramel. It was still sweet, but with so much other flavor and texture bursting through that the sweetness dissolved from too much to not too. What a fine line between the two.
Nhung Lê is a Vietnamese freelance illustrator based in Sydney.