Chendol was named one of the 50 best desserts in the world by CNN in 2018, and I believe it is right. Imagine a massive mound of shaved ice poured in a rich and creamy coconut milk, then topped with a thick palm sugar syrup that tastes almost like thick caramelized honey. And amid the scorching heat of Singapore, relishing its refreshing yumminess bite by bite. Is there any way it could get any better?
Soon after CNN published its list of the world’s 50 best desserts, a controversy erupted when the article listed chendol as a Singaporean specialty. They credited cendol to Singapore, despite the fact that the flavor and diversity of cendol in Singapore pales in contrast to its neighbors, even with the country’s distinctive scoop of sweetened red bean paste. It has elevated cendol to the status of the “Henry Golding of desserts”—sweet, humble, and originally from Malaysia, but frequently misinterpreted as being from Singapore courtesy to the media. (Golding’s breakout role in Crazy Rich Asians was as the gorgeous Singaporean Nick Young.)
However, due to the scarcity of food history records in Southeast Asia, the exact origins of cendol can be a little murky. While the first mention of cendol was in a 1932 article from the Malaysian journal Saudara, the dessert has been known by a variety of regional names. For example, Indonesians argue that cendol is a variation of their dawet, a drink created with the same ingredients as cendol but without the shaved ice.
Then there’s Thai lot chong and Burmese mont lat saung, which are also dessert-style drinks with similar ingredients. The coconut milk is always fresh, the palm sugar is thick and dark like molasses, and the little strings of rice-flour jelly are stained electric green by pandan, a leafy Southeast Asian shrub with a nutty, grassy flavor, whether with or without the shaved ice.
The Dodol Dawet ceremony, which is a Javanese tradition, incorporates this drink into weddings. This custom takes place a day before the wedding, when the bride’s parents sell the Dawet to visitors and relatives. The guests would then pay the parents in terracotta coins, which represented the family’s wages.
Meanwhile, the word Cendol first appeared in the Malay Concordance Project, which documented the food products accessible in Kuala Lumpur at the time. To put it another way, the Indonesians may be correct. Because of Malaysia’s cultural, historical, and even ancestral ties to Indonesia, it is often assumed that the word Cendol was derived from the Indonesian word jendol, which meaning “bulge” or “swollen.” The jendol is a reference to green jellies, which swell in size when exposed to any kind of liquid.
Though the dispute rages on, the use of its essential constituents is unaffected. Chendol, a 900-year-old dessert, may be found in various forms and shapes throughout Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and, of course, Singapore. Shaved ice, coconut milk, and gula melaka (palm sugar) are the major ingredients, but additional popular additions include pandan flavoured jelly, fruits, particularly durian, cream corn, and beans, which lend texture to this rich delicacy.
Try it out if you ever visit the region!
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