They don’t need your lame maple syrup
Judging by your standard oversized Middle American diner menu, waffles are one of the most diverse breakfast standards on battery tap. From blueberry or chocolate chip to durian fruit or pumpkin-walnut, it seems like there’s a waffle out there for everyone. But if you look past their menu titles, most of these waffles are, at their fluffy core, the same: they all share a common DNA of yeasty batter, only differentiated by toppings, coloring, or flavoring chucked into or on top of their common culinary heart. Even looking beyond the American waffle, to the lighter, crispier Brussels waffle, the soft and dense Liège waffle, or the spherical waffle balls in places like Hong Kong and Macau, there’s a certain commonality of flavor and experience drawn from a common and entrenched waffle lineage.
For those with waffle ennui, or just for those who wouldn’t mind trying something different than the standard European-derived waffle, there are options. Some of the most interesting are coming out of Southeast Asian traditions, rich in core ingredients long used in local baked goods that have started to fuse with the American waffle tradition. This mixture goes far beyond other “Asian waffles” we’ve seen in the past, which mostly add regional flavors or ingredients into or on top of a typical American waffle batter. And it goes beyond just bringing (for Americans) one of the last flavor frontiers to the weary waffle world. It also delightfully plays with some of American diner-goers’ core experiences and expectations of a waffle’s base composition.
Hands down the most developed, best known, and easiest to find Southeast Asian waffles are the Vietnamese bánh kẹp lá dứa, also known as the pandan waffles. From afar, they look like your average pancake—just with bits of mint green, courtesy of an infusion of near-indescribable (with a Western vocabulary) pandan, poking out from under perfect golden brown crisp exterior. But bite in and you won’t just get the sweet, fragrant flavor of pandan, but a crisper crunch and different density and chewiness than any type of American waffle you’ve ever encountered.
The distinctive experience likely stems from a fusion of a unique waffle-adjacent tradition in Vietnam with the Euro-American waffle tradition. As the food historian Erica J. Peters points out, the country was awash in rice and flour cake-breads (báhn) throughout its history. There are references to vendors in the nation selling waffles going back to the late 19th century, but both Peters and Vietnamese cuisine authority Andrea Nguyen suspect these waffles were more like the European pizzelle—a thin waffle-batter wafer cookie—perhaps influenced by French colonial tastes and cooking equipment, but still made with local rice flour and flavor.
Nguyen and Peters suspect that the modern pandan waffle emerged fairly recently, through the (fraught) contact between America and Vietnam in the mid-20th century and Vietnamese immigration to the US; Nguyen notes that she’s never seen them on the streets in Vietnam. And that makes sense, because they feel like an attempt to map older, well-established ingredients and tastes onto American culinary norms and the different manner of electric waffle irons we use.
Instead of milk, the pandan waffle uses coconut milk, a richer and fattier liquid base. Instead of straight wheat flour, or some variant thereof, most recipes use a mixture of rice flour, tapioca starch, and all-purpose flour, with the rice lending the crispiness and the tapioca a distinctive chew. Factoring in the pandan’s flavor, and often the inclusion of grated coconut as well, alongside this fundamentally different consistency, you get a waffle you can (and probably should in order to fully experience it) eat plain, without the need for syrups or toppings (which would be overkill), for its complexity, novelty, and inherent sweetness and potent aroma.
Pandan waffles are certainly the most developed and easiest to find Southeast Asian waffles—simple enough to find anywhere with a big Vietnamese population. (Think greater Los Angeles where you can get your fix at the nondescript Ba Le or the San Francisco Bay area where shop’s like Monster Pho or Van’s Bakery can get you set up.) But they’re not alone.
A couple of Filipino chefs on the east coast, like those at New York’s Maharlika or Toronto’s Platito, have recently introduced the world to the ube waffle, named for the deep purple cousin of the sweet potato at the base of many Pinoy desserts. Ube’s grown increasingly popular with the rise of Filipino cuisine in American cities of late, but it’s difficult to find in the raw. Fortunately, though, it’s easy to acquire in its milled and powdered form, which makes it a perfect base for a hot Pinoy take on the waffle—more akin in crispness to an American waffle than its Vietnamese cousin, but likewise offering up a wholly new (here earthy, savory, yet sweet) flavor profile to American breakfasters that requires no toppings and lending a hearty density to the final product.
Ube waffles are still fairly rare. But they and pandan waffles are signs of a welcome trend. After years of Americanized Thai and (beyond Vietnamese enclaves) so-so phở, the nation has started to embrace the incredible diversity that Southeast Asian food and its distinctive ingredients and flavor profiles have to offer—not just for dinner, but for breakfast as well, especially when it comes to their oft-neglected pastry traditions. America still has many other regional traditions to explore, from Myanmar to Malaysia, whose flavors and ingredients can lend equal innovation not just to the once-tired old waffle, but also to many other breakfast standards. The day that the work of local and diaspora chefs, who’ve undoubtedly started in on this redefining fusion work, reaches the masses cannot come soon enough. But as you wait for further innovation, you ought to go cram a hot pandan waffle in your maw and blow your mind with its sweet, chewy crisp.