just accept the jelly

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Never in a million years would Miss Fats think she’d be ok with jelly dessert.  Asian jelly desserts have been a long time problem for her.  Since she was little, the excess of bean and jelly in Asian sweets has created haunting nightmares: you know, the kind where all you want is an excessive amount of chocolate and all you get are wiggly “puddings” stuffed with canned fruit.  Terrifying.  As you all know, Miss Fats has an insane sweet tooth and has gotten used to a certain-standard-of-living that involves a sweet treat post meal.  Always.  It’s damn reflex.

Since she’s been professionally nomming in Singapore and Malaysia, the sweet treat reflex is constantly out of control.  Food here is often super savory and demands a little sugar to clean up the crazy spicy/savory/umami/sweet flavor mouth party.  Typically that means Miss Fats and T will pick up a cold piece of fruit, served up on the roadside, beautifully laid out in an ice-filled case and individually packaged in little bags.  However, sometimes a particularly hot night or especially rich dish demands proper dessert.  At the beginning of her travels, Miss Fats’ taste buds were still in chocolate town, which was problematic in a world of coconut and fruit.  Not to mention chocolate costs a pretty penny in Singapore, and stores seemed to only carry US and British brands like Nestle and Cadbury (and that shit ain’t cheap).  Not to mention, if you buy chocolate in Southeast Asia it basically melts instantly.  That’s recipe for messy purse bottom (believe Miss Fats: she’s made that mistake more times than she’d like to admit).

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Unfortunately this meant that Miss Fats made some pretty critical dessert mistakes in the first week.  Her brain and stomach were still craving the buttery, bready, cakey confections of the U.S.  Nothing sounded better than a cookie, a big ‘ol scoop of chocolate ice cream in a waffle cone, or flaky Danish.  So, if she’d see some sort of “puff” or cake that resembled her favorite baked goods, she’d snatch one up immediately.  Never a wise choice.  None of them were that good.  Not to mention they were often significantly more expensive than the local delights.  Most of her cake, pasty and ice cream endeavors resulted in massive disappointment and waste.  She’d take a bite into a dense croissant, flavorless gelato or spongy cake and throw that shit away.  The reality is that here real butter is damn expensive, so most baked items are in fact made with margarine, producing the fluffy sponge cakes with whipped topping filling and fruit that I’m sure most readers have tried at some point.  These Asian cakes have haunted Miss Fats’ family birthday parties for years.  She just never understood why there wasn’t a damn chocolate ganache ice cream cake.  Miss Fats cannot stand these synthetic oil cakes.  They leave a slippery trail of transfat on the roof of her mouth. Not acceptable.  So, after shelling out S$4 for a flat and oily chocolate almond croissant, Miss Fats made a resolution: she would only eat local dessert specialties.  No matter how good something looked.

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So how does one satisfy a sweet tooth here?  The answer is weird jelly, fruit, sweetened condensed milk and ice.  Most drinks either come standard with some sort of jelly business or condensed milk and they give you real weird looks if you ask for either to be omitted.  She can’t even tell you how many times her “black coffee” has been served up with creamy sweet milk.  Now you’re probably thinking: why not just skip the drink?  Certainly not that big of a deal, right?  Well you just try walking around the sticky streets of Singapore all day and not indulge in the magical drink cart.  These little metal pushcarts just taunt you with their colorful vats of cold cold drink, ladled into plastic baggies (preferred to-go cup) and served up roadside.  Miss Fats dares you to resist that when you’re drenched in sweat and sitting over a hot and spicy bowl of laksa.

At first this problem resulted in Miss Fats ordering drinks, filling her mouth with sweet creamy jelly business, making a face, and handing it over to T.  She was just not into those chunks of tapioca or grass jelly worms swirling around in her mouth.  She just doesn’t believe in chewing one’s drink.  And she’s still a pretty firm believer.  Though the heat has taught her that a cold cube of grass jelly can be a good little temperature break for your mouth in a pinch.  So why the foray into jelly drink versus dessert?  She wanted to contextualize the omnipresence of jelly that exists here, and just how damn tempting the sparkling gelatinous cubes of gelled seaweed and grass can be.  No matter how disgusting you find jelly, the stuff is everywhere and the oppressive heat can breakdown even the most reluctant travelers.

The fact that jelly is always around, taunting her, is what has created a major breakthrough in Miss Fats’ dessert palate.  She’d like to introduce you all to one of the strangest desserts out there: Ais Kacang.

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The name and combination of ingredients varies from place to place: ABC special is probably the most common.  This towering pile of ice starts with a base of jellies: grass cubes, green wormy-looking ones, clear, bright pink little chunks.  Then comes a freshly shaved pile of ice, topped with super-sweet, synthetic strawberry syrup, brown rice syrup, sweetened condensed milk, red beans and canned creamed corn.  Yep.  You read right.  And, if you’re real special, you’ll get a big scoop of cheap imitation vanilla ice cream.  Sounds pretty gross, right?  Yeah, that’s what Miss Fats thought too when she was served up this incredibly weird frozen treat on her first day in Singapore.

As Miss Fats and T sat in the sweaty seats of East Coast Lagoon Food Centre, after stuffing their faces with duck, satay and noodle as they could, they noticed everyone around them had a crazy looking dessert.  Ais Kacang.  It looks just as crazy as it sounds.  Therefore it had to be ordered.  Soaked in sweat, T and Miss Fats were so excited for their cold treat, completely unaware of what exactly went into this thing.  Each scoop unearthed a new ingredient: hmmm jelly; oh weird, bean; ummm, corn?  They found it real weird.  They agreed upon the assessment: “not bad. Just not sure I’m into it.”  The corn had set them a little over.  So Ais Kacang ended up on the back burner for a bit, having been ticked off the “to do list” of food items.  They felt they had bigger and badder things to eat (true, but at the same time naive).

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It should also be clarified that T absolutely does not share Miss Fats’ distaste for jelly.  In fact she loves all things jelly, coconut and tropical.  Perhaps the ultimate concoction being the coconut that is jellified and served up ice cold with a straw and spoon.  So Miss Fats has now had ample opportunity to try a number of jelly drink items via T’s wiggly obsession.  A turning point occurred when T ordered up a milky matcha green tea one day, filled with a soft grass jelly to be broken up and slurped through you straw.  “Actually, not that bad” was Miss Fats reaction, surprising T and herself.  Somehow, this drink’s not-too-sweet tea and springy black jelly business were the perfect combo in that moment: a slippery mouth delight of fun and flavorful textures.

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It wasn’t until Melaka, however that Miss Fats finally dove into the jelly dessert on her own.  Seeing hope after the grass jelly situation, she ordered up a strawberry ice one night following all-out binge fest on peanut sauce satay (more to come).  Full of fish cake, Miss Fats hesitantly ordered the safest looking item on their menu: what looked like a delightful pile of ice topped with syrup and fresh cut strawberries.  Little did she know the jelly that lurked beneath.  Diving into her ice mountain, she unearthed the kaleidoscope of wiggly bits at the bottom: clear chunks, springy tapioca, and delightful boba balls that popped like fish roe when you bit into them: a surprisingly fun array of treats for mouth playtime.   It was like unearthing a colorful and strange nest of jelly monsters for you to destroy with your face hole.

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After this life changing experience (literally.  You have no idea how much Miss Fats complains about jelly and bean.  Just ask T.), she was down on jelly desserts.  The heat and humidity in Asia has required Miss Fats to throw out her very short and flexible list standards (mostly related to sticky skin and hygiene), so out went jelly problems and in came the embrace of all things cold.  The climax of the weird ice jelly dessert came on the second day in Penang.  In a city without much public transportation and a heck of a lot of scooter traffic, Miss Fats and T found themselves walking all over the city, nomming on whatever street food took their fancy.  They had just indulged in the most incredible Nasi Kandar (Malay buffet-like eatery found all over every city) at Line Clear where they had stuffed their faces with mutton, biryani, okra, chicken, etc in an alley way filled with hot burners and hungry cats.  Having had their fill of savory, sweet was obviously required.  So they walked their way to the park located at the northeastern tip of Georgetown.  There, one can find Esplanade Food Centre that houses some of the best food in town.  Looking around, they saw almost everyone with an icy treat from this one stand.  They marched on up and ordered the ABC special, taking a spot at a table facing the water.  The mountain of ice and ice cream came served up looking all crazy as usual.  This variation boasted the usual array of jellies, with the addition of some white bean action, fresh bananas, and a healthy sprinkling of peanuts on top (Miss Fats cannot get over the addition of peanut to everything.  She might adopt this as her religion).  The ABC special provided layer upon layer of strange, cold delights as T and Miss Fats watched the water and sun set over Georgetown.  Unreal.  She was a huge fan of the little cubes of green jelly business as they mixed with the creamy cheap ice cream and crunch toasted peanut bits.  Pure food nonsense.  She was into it.

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With only about ten days left in Asia, Miss Fats is already missing her bizarre ice desserts and sorely regretting not indulging in them daily from the beginning.  She knows this shit is stuff you cannot really get stateside, and certainly not in the heart of Chicago.  However, today, with the beach stretched out in front of her, and Taiwan just hours away, she’s sure she can make up for lost time.

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