International Sweets

Lara’s Bakery, Clive. Photographer: Duane Tinkey.

Writer: Seeta Mangra-Stubbs 

Sometimes, the holiday table needs an unexpected touch—specifically, international sweets to mix in with the familiar cookies, cakes and candies. Imagine the layout as your relatives pile in: Right next to the cut-out frosted reindeer cookie is a new-to-the-scenes piña pan leche. Among the eggnog and mulled wine is a warming ginger beer. 

Greater Des Moines boasts several dozen markets that carry Indian, Latin, Asian, African and Middle Eastern delicacies. In my international market adventures, the challenge wasn’t finding ways to satisfy my sweet tooth; it was how to limit the options. Sure, the boisterous, tradition-loving uncle might be perplexed when he sees a Filipino purple cake at the table, but your cousins and their kids with adventurous palates will thank you for adding the diverse discoveries to your holidays. 

Here are my favorite finds.

India: Kulfi 

If you’re looking for ice cream but want something that isn’t as sweet as American options, kulfi is a great alternative. It’s a frozen treat made primarily of milk and sugar along with different flavors like mango and pistachio. Basically, it’s an Indian Popsicle. While prowling for chai at Namaste India in Clive, I found a freezer of Shahi brand kulfi by the checkout. This light dessert is especially good when too much sugar sounds heavy after the big meal. 

(7700 University Ave., Clive; 

Philippines: All Things Ube

This year’s closing of Lola’s Fine Kitchen in Ankeny drops area Filipino food options to almost nothing, but if you’re craving ube, the Filipino Store on Des Moines’ south side helps. I bought prepackaged ube sponge cakes in the signature purple color (they’re made with mashed purple yams), but I’ll be returning on a Saturday for halo-halo. That well-known, colorful dessert is a hodgepodge of ingredients usually including ube ice cream, fruit, beans, jellies, shaved ice and sweetened milk. The Filipino Store is only open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., so get there early! 

(1300 Cummins Road, Suite 110; 

Liberia/West Africa: Ginger Beer

I’m a huge fan of ginger beer, so as I wandered in the smallish Trusty African Market in Windsor Heights and saw ginger beer in the refrigerator, I immediately grabbed it. Heads up: It’s nothing like fizzy, sweet Jamaican ginger beer. This is closer to fresh-out-of-the-juicer ginger pineapple juice. The initial, bitter, ginger flavor is intense. It leaves that delightful ginger burn on your tongue, so it’s only for those who truly adore fresh ginger. It’s a guaranteed way to warm up on a cold day. 

(7221 Apple Valley, Windsor Heights;

Mexico: Pan De Leche

Lara’s Bakery in Clive (pictured above) has fresh, beautiful, fragrant sweet carbs to load up your holiday spread. I stood there forever trying to decide on one thing. Ultimately, I left with a piña pan leche (a sweet milk bread) that was soft and tempting. The pineapple cream’s texture in the middle matched perfectly; I almost couldn’t tell where it started and the bread ended. I also left Lara’s with a package of Gansito, which is life-changing. The chocolate-covered, cream-filled cake is a fan favorite. 

(1800 N.W. 86th St., Suite 19, Clive;

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