How ‘Not Too Candy’ as an Asian American Meme Turned Into Stereotype

The finale of each childhood household perform was the identical. Aunties would unveil a tray of gulab jamun and begin to flow into the home, or the servers at no matter restaurant was internet hosting would plop a bowl on the desk in entrance of us. At this level my abdomen was often roiling from the samosas and tandoori earlier, however even when it wasn’t, I couldn’t perceive why my kin scooped three, 4, 5 sugar-soaked balls onto their plates. I might barely end one with out feeling my tongue pucker, my throat starting to stay to itself as my pores and skin buzzed from the oncoming sugar rush. At that age, I might drink strawberry Nesquik with each meal, however this was simply too candy.

In maturity, I’ve come to desire desserts that aren’t too candy. I select mint ice cream over chocolate cookie dough, fruit and honey over fudge, and when it’s an possibility, commonly go for a cheese plate, or simply no dessert in any respect. My partner mocks the truth that my greatest reward for strawberry gelato is that “it tastes identical to strawberry,” as if the purpose of a deal with must be an absence of transformation. However that’s the glory, I believe: the complete spectrum of sweetness as an alternative of the one-note punch of white sugar.

Up to now few years, I’ve discovered there are others like me, and nobody is louder about good desserts being “not too candy” than the Asian American diaspora. Maybe you’ve seen a meme about how calling a dessert “not too candy” is one thing virtually each Asian American has heard from their kin, and the way it’s the best praise an Asian individual can provide a dessert. Or perhaps you’ve seen that it’s the title of a number of Asian bakeries and pop-ups. The phrase isn’t just a marker of style, however one in every of identification. For a dessert to be Asian, it should be “not too candy.” And to be Asian, one should prefer it that means.

Like several in-joke amongst a marginalized group, “not too candy” is a defiant shorthand, and one which in its building necessitates a binary: “too candy” in comparison with what? Typically, within the Asian American utilization, it’s a distinction to Western desserts crammed with milk chocolate, sticky caramel, and corn syrup. To say “not too candy” is to say truly, I don’t need your frosted purple velvet cupcakes or your sticky toffee pudding; I lengthy for the subtlety of purple 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 related to whiteness. It’s to proclaim that my tradition has given me totally different tastes, higher ones, and no quantity of sentimental energy can take that away.

However whereas I relish within the sentiment, one thing sticks like taffy in my enamel. If that is emblematic of “Asian” tastes, then what of the trays of gulab jamun and jalebi at each wedding ceremony, sweeter than any sundae? What of Vietnamese iced coffees and Thai iced teas I might barely end for the sugar, the coconut roti drenched in palm treacle I ate on my honeymoon in Sri Lanka, Malaysian honeycomb cake, or Korean dalgona, actually caramelized sugar sweet, as candy as English toffee?

Meals stays on the middle of the continuing seek for identification, belonging, and group inside the Asian diasporas. One’s culinary traditions are a supply of delight, one thing to reclaim. And it’s enjoyable to rally round a dish or taste that white folks simply don’t get. However with each declaration of what Asian meals is or isn’t, what belongs and what doesn’t, is one thing, or somebody, that will get solid apart. Asian American, which originated as a phrase to construct solidarity, turns into one in every of adherence to norms and assumptions. If one thing sweeter means it’s supposedly much less Asian, then the place do these traditions, and the individuals who hold them, belong?

“As a baby, I all the time rejected Chinese language desserts, and felt that they had been inferior to Western desserts,” says Jon Kung, chef and creator of Kung Meals: Chinese language American Recipes from a Third-Tradition Kitchen, who grew up in Hong Kong and Toronto. “At any time when one thing was made with purple bean as an alternative of chocolate, I keep in mind being so disenchanted.” However as an grownup, Kung has come to desire the “delicate flavors” of Chinese language desserts, such that final yr they tweeted this fact: “I don’t know who wants to listen to this, however ‘not too candy’ is actually the very best praise 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 had been rising in popularity, and famous, “it’s a standard chorus within the Asian diaspora that calling a dessert ‘not too candy’ is the height type of reward.” That very same yr, Patricia Kelly Yeo wrote about Asian muffins for Eater, and referenced her aunt complimenting a not too candy cake from South Korean bakery chain Paris Baguette. Tweets and TikToks about Asian households utilizing the phrase started exhibiting up extra, and extra publications started referencing it in relation to Asian desserts.

It’s no shock to Kung that among the many Asian diaspora, extra persons are recognizing this choice in themselves as they grow old, and are joking about it. “It’s simply a kind of issues our dad and mom stated on a regular basis to explain one thing that they really like,” they are saying. “So it’s somewhat little bit of tongue in cheek, but additionally an admission that oh my god, I’m turning into my dad and mom.” It’s humorous as a result of it’s true.

There may be some scientific knowledge as to why folks of Asian descent could desire much less candy issues. In keeping with a 2020 research printed in Meals and High quality Desire, folks of Asian descent are extra doubtless to be phenotypically supertasters and “low candy likers,” in addition to extra delicate to bitter and metallic tastes. There are additionally materials explanation why sugar wasn’t round. Robert Ji-Track Ku, a meals research scholar and affiliate professor of Asian and Asian American research at Binghamton College, says his dad and mom grew up hardly consuming sweets in Korea. “That technology went via struggle and famine,” he says. “Having actually candy meals was a rarity, sugar was actually costly.” Dalgona sweet was one thing they’d eat on particular events, however the taste wasn’t pervasive. He notes that now, youthful Koreans have embraced sweetness, including the flavour to meals that didn’t was candy, like fried hen. “The older generations don’t prefer it.”

Soleil Ho, tradition critic on the San Francisco Chronicle, additionally says they grew up with the saying, so that they instantly acknowledged the posts and memes as coming from actual life. “I believe a part of it’s that diasporic persons are perhaps emulating older folks, wish to say one thing isn’t too candy is a marker of maturity,” they are saying.

Illustration of a South Asian woman holding up a gulab jamun with swirls of sugar and flowers emitting from it.

Maybe particularly in a diaspora — when you don’t have to eat the meals of your ancestors, or the place actually it might be troublesome to seek out — embracing and riffing on and joking about these phrases is a means to make sure the thread between the generations. How pretty to show into your dad and mom, particularly for those who had been born in numerous nations or converse totally different languages. “I believe there’s a fixed starvation to seek out connection and customary floor in the case of anybody in any diaspora,” says Kung.

However then once more, there’s knowledge that implies the adage is actually unfaithful. Whereas the U.S. and Germany had been the largest shoppers of sugar in 2020, Malaysia and Thailand beat out each in per-capita consumption — 41.63 kilograms and 38.66 kilograms per yr, respectively, in comparison with 33.17 kilograms within the U.S., and with Cambodia coming shut behind at 32.21 kilograms. The research doesn’t specify how this sugar is consumed, whether or not it’s in desserts or sodas or slipped into different on a regular basis merchandise, however it actually complicates the narrative.

Ho is skeptical of the phrase as a common. “I’ve caught myself saying it just a few occasions too after which actually considering: What do I imply by this? Do I truly not like sweets?” And Kung, Ho, and Ku all observe there are many “too candy” concoctions all through Asian cuisines. Kung talked about Hong Kong milk tea, black tea made with evaporated milk with a great deal of sugar, or Vietnamese espresso. Ho says that on a latest journey to Japan, they observed lots of the drinks they tried had been extremely candy. “I used to be like wait, huh? And I used to be in Asia Asia,” they stated. “I believe that the concept Asians don’t like issues being too candy is bullshit.”

“Granulated sugar is not more than 2,500 years previous, and white crystalline sugar began its profession much more just lately, about 1,500 years in the past, in Asia as a pure luxurious, an indication of energy and wealth,” writes Ulbe Bosma in The World of Sugar: How the Candy Stuff Remodeled Our Politics, Well being, and Surroundings over 2,000 Years. In it he chronicles the colonialism and slavery behind “sugar capitalism,” and the way Europeans, hungry for sugar they couldn’t develop on their very own land, used slavery and compelled labor to show sugar from a luxurious product in Asia to one thing commodified the world over.

Bosma writes that sugar cane is ubiquitous in lots of components of Asia, and that 1000’s of years in the past, folks in what’s now northern India developed jaggery by boiling sugarcane juice. This was traded each regionally and internationally; Indian sugar could have reached China as early as 200 B.C.E. White crystalline sugar, prized for its extra uniform style, is extremely troublesome to make. In an interview, Bosma describes one early course of in India that used water crops and moisture to separate white sugar from molasses; this course of took weeks.

The issue of constructing white sugar meant that it remained just for the wealthiest, used for sculpture at royal banquets and in drugs. And when it was sprinkled into cuisines, that was typically as a consequence of European affect. For instance, “consumption [in Japan] actually expanded when the Portuguese launched candies, caramels, and cookies to Japan within the sixteenth century, and when sugar entered the normal rice muffins and dumplings,” writes Bosma.

Asia exported sugar to Europe within the seventeenth and 18th centuries, however Bosma notes that till the 1830s, European merchants did little or no to affect the Asian sugar commerce. That modified when the Dutch East India Firm launched a compelled cultivation system, mandating sugar manufacturing alongside Java’s northern coast. That sugar trade flooded markets in India, China, Japan, and Thailand, in addition to Europe. “After all,” says Bosma, “it was on the expense of the inhabitants of Java,” making a system by which Javanese villagers might barely domesticate meals for themselves, had been confined to their villages, and had been paid subsequent to nothing.

Within the 1850s, the event of centrifugal know-how made producing white sugar simpler; due to its affiliation with royalty and European tastes, it was broadly thought-about superior. “Individuals obtained used to consuming white sugar, and having white sugar grew to become a matter of status,” says Bosma. By the Nineteen Thirties, a totally industrialized sugar trade made sugar extra inexpensive, at the very least for the city elite. And white sugar was absolutely thought-about “higher” tasting. It was pure sweetness on a molecular degree. You can use it in any recipe and it’d style the identical, versus the differing terroirs of brown sugars. It got here with the sheen of wealth.

When Anita Mannur, a professor of English at Miami College and creator of Intimate Consuming: Racialized Areas and Radical Futures, hears “not too candy,” it doesn’t sound like reward of Asian preferences. To her, it feels like a capitulation to Western tastes. “Most Indians or South Asians, rising up, hear folks say, ‘I like Indian desserts, however they’re too candy,’” she says. “My familiarity is extra with South Asian and Filipino tradition, the place they’re making an attempt to say, our stuff isn’t so heavy or so extreme that it may possibly’t be palatable.”

Three generations of a South Asian family hold shoulders, while the youngest woman holds a plate of galub jamun.

Many overly candy Asian desserts do have colonial or European influences — sweetened condensed milk in Vietnamese espresso, Thai iced tea, and halo halo; Thai desserts based mostly on Portuguese recipes involving refined sugar and eggs; Vietnamese banh flan and Filipino leche flan. However there are many intensely candy desserts all through Asia that existed lengthy earlier than colonial affect, and with out white sugar in any respect: Indonesian onde onde filled 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 naturally any jalebi, gulab jamun, or laddoo discovered throughout India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. So why, then, is the stereotype that sweetness is simply not what Asians are into?

A part of it’s a failure of language. The time period “Asian American” was initially coined by Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka, who in 1968 based the Asian American Political Alliance. They needed to harness folks of various Asian backgrounds right into a motion of political solidarity. By encouraging these dwelling in a white supremacist society to consider themselves not as solely Japanese American or Vietnamese American, however as a part of the identical group, they felt they may extra successfully combat for equal rights. On the identical time, bigger (white) American tradition was busy conflating Asianness with East Asian identities — the 1970 U.S. census solely allowed Asian People to determine as Japanese, Chinese language, Korean, Filipino, or “all different.”

“I believe [the phrase] meant to be inclusive,” says Mannur, “Nevertheless it isn’t all the time. Notably refugees are neglected. So then that enables for an announcement like ‘Asian American desserts usually are not too candy,’ as a result of it’s additionally assuming that Asian American equals East Asian.”

That is what obtained my hackles up each time I noticed a blanket “Asian” or “Asian American’’ descriptor round this supposed choice. Estimates put Asia as encompassing about 50 nations, and 4.7 billion folks. Do you hear how foolish it sounds to explain a delicacies, a habits, actually something as “Asian”? How dare you converse for everybody! I referred to as my Bengali grandmother and requested her about desserts, only for further proof, and he or she waxed in regards to the roshogulla in her hometown exterior Kolkata, the kalakand she ate at school in Lucknow, her mom’s kheer. “I like sweets,” she instructed me, regardless that at 93 she now limits her consumption. Nonetheless, this was proof that the choice for “not too candy” isn’t common amongst Asians, and that “Asian” and “Asian American” stop to be helpful frameworks after we begin speaking in regards to the nuances of tradition.

However as I stewed in my righteous annoyance, I knew that wasn’t fairly true both. As a result of sufficient mates had despatched me memes for me to know that praising one thing for being not too candy is one thing I do on a regular basis. I’ve heard my cousins say it, my aunts and uncles. I’ve taken a chew of dessert throughout the desk from a good friend as we knowingly checked out one another and laughed as we sang it out in live performance. I believed in regards to the much less candy Indian desserts I’d had, like chhena poda and daulat ki chaat. And as I thought of what my grandmother stated, it didn’t sound fairly like praising sweetness. She reminisced over her mom’s kheer, and the way it was all the time made with bay leaf. She introduced up the flavors of cardamom and saffron, astringent spices used for each taste and preservation. This was not about sweetness. It was about taste.

There appears to be a second failure of language. When somebody says “not too candy,” it’s not nearly how a lot is “too” a lot, however what we’re even speaking about after we say “candy” — which might not be sweetness in any respect.

Once I consider white sugar I consider an empty room flooded with chilly, fluorescent mild. Sure, I can see, however one thing about this feels uncomfortable, harsh. I lengthy for heat, or at the very least one thing to distract me from the pummeling brightness.

As Bosma explains, early sweeteners like jaggery are filled with fiber particles. “It’s a particular style, which isn’t candy,” he says. It has a mellow, earthy taste, or extra importantly, it has a taste. It’s candy, however it’s not simply candy. The identical goes for honey, palm treacle, date sugar, and different much less refined sweeteners — the components out there throughout Asia for generations — used earlier than industrial processes made white sugar the common commonplace.

“The older technology, they’re those who actually knew on an intimate degree the variations between sugars,” says Ho, “as a result of there have been these massive industrial transitions that occurred throughout their lifetimes.” As a substitute of a binary mannequin of candy versus savory, “not too candy” might as an alternative imply that one thing embodies a particular type of sweetness, an older one, filled with spice or fruit or floral notes, one which deserves to be appreciated in a world the place white sugar is the usual.

Ku theorizes that that is what’s taking place when he hears his mother reward desserts. “[Something sugary] is perhaps an excessive amount of for that technology, as a result of it’s so unfamiliar.”

If a youthful technology of Asian People are celebrating and emulating their elders by embracing “not too candy” as a marker of identification, they’re emulating folks whose tastes had been solid by totally different circumstances, individuals who perhaps straight suffered the consequences of colonialism, or fought to maintain their traditions alive in a brand new nation, or missed what they left behind. It’s not about sweetness, however about asserting a distinct body of reference. If Europeans and royals had been intent on refining sugar right into a flavorless expanse of whiteness, “not too candy” says there was nothing that wanted to be “refined” within the first place.

“Generally expressions like this get too caught up in actuality,” says Ho. “You begin to make a story of it being as a result of Asian desserts aren’t candy… it’s a narrative that folks inform in an effort to fill in some gaps. However actually, to me, it’s about reinforcing distinction, and never in a foul means.”

As a result of there’s a distinction, as anybody who’s watched the judges on Nice British Bake Off style a non-European dessert understands. Regardless of how fashionable ube is getting, the requirements in America and Europe nonetheless middle chocolate and caramel, or sugared apples and never mangoes, or sugar mixed with solely a choose few flavors. By means of this lens, the memeification of “not too candy” is a second of the solidarity of Asian People on show. Asian folks like and don’t like candy issues, issues product of jaggery and palm treacle and white sugar, issues the colonists introduced and issues we made on our personal. But when the “not too candy” narrative exists to counter what Western tradition considers useful, then no matter one’s preferences, we are able to all take part in it.

A couple of years in the past, at an uncle’s funeral at a temple in Pennsylvania, I had the very best gulab jamun of my life, served in styrofoam bowls underneath the fluorescent lights of the gathering corridor. The jamun had been held collectively by a tissue-thin crust, softly falling open on the slightest strain of my plastic spoon. I tasted rose and curd, the tannins of saffron and burnt caramel. It was nonetheless candy, however with a lot different taste and texture bursting via that the sweetness dissolved from an excessive amount of to not too. What a effective line between the 2.

Nhung Lê is a Vietnamese freelance illustrator based mostly in Sydney.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *