10/05/2010

Chè - delicious dessert served by street vendors

A popular Vietnamese dessert, chè refers to any traditional sweet soup or sweetened porridge that can have numerous varieties. They may be served hot or cold in bowls, glasses, or over ice, with dumplings, potatoes, or with about just anything that’s good to add. Each variety of chè is designated by a descriptive word or phrase that follows the word chè, such as chè đậu, chè sắn bộtor or chè củ năn. But coming up with a complete list of chè varieties would be impossible because of the endless possibilities on the mix and match of ingredients added to it. Though chè literally means literally "red bean chè, makers of the dessert around Vietnam had explored the many possibilities of mixing up the dessert using mung beans, moon beans, hyacinth beans, black beans, azuki beans and pea varieties. Apart from all chè concoctions being called by different names in separate parts of Vietnam, different regions also has developed their own methods of making the dessert.

Generally, Chè are prepared with one of a number of assortment of beans and/or glutinous rice, cooked in water and sweetened with sugar. Other ingredients may include tapioca starch, salt and pandan leaf extract. In southern Vietnam, chè are often garnished with coconut cream. In Northern Vietnam, popular chè combinations include chè ngô (with corn as the main ingredient) and chè con ong (a mix of glutinous rice, ginger root, honey and molasses that makes up a honeybee-sweet soup).

This delicious, protein-rich refreshing favorite that offers a quick relief for thirst and hunger for just VND4,000, is very popular in stalls, peddling carts and quick eateries. But if you live in Ho Chi Minh, it would be impossible that you wouldn’t know where to find the city’s best chè. No matter how vast the place could be, and no matter how busy the streets could get, people would find way to stop by in the little corner on Cong Quynh and Cao Ba Nha streets (in District 1) where 50-year old Thanh have been selling chè for the past 3 decades.

You heard it right - 30 years, she goes through the same routine of soaking beans and glutinous rice every single night before going to bed, and getting up every 3 a.m. to boil one pot after the other of the sweet, bean-based dessert. By 9 a.m., she hauls her stools, washing buckets and serving bowls to her little corner and makes sure she is ready to mix up the large aluminum containers of sticky rice and sweet coconut soup, then starts selling at 11 a.m. On the next few hours, a wonderful work of art can be witnessed as she skillfully mix and match the many ingredients into colorful and delicious concoctions. Her hands move swiftly from one pot to the other as she makes her way from the cubed taro pot, sweet potato, scoops the coconut milk soup and tops them on wads of rice.

As she does this almost non-stop until afternoon, she sells her very last scoop as early as 4:00 p.m. She doesn’t take home anything as people are just so willing to have a taste of her chè every single day. Where she gets the energy to do that? Perhaps the 3 decades of practice at seven days a week, is more than enough to master the skills she have. And with a lot of discipline, she makes it easier to accomplish such routine. Thanh is usually in bed by 9 p.m.

This amazing chè vendor used to make several varieties of the sweet dessert. But over time, she had learned to stick to just five – all of which are slathered in her frothy coconut broth – and have been the most-selling. Chè khoai combines al dente bits of purple taro in a gummy sticky rice porridge. Chè táo xọn consists of a clear tapioca gel studded with green lentils. This assortment uses less mung beans. Chè bắp is filled with condensed creamed corn. Chè bà ba simmers bright orange chunks of cassava, chewy translucent tapioca cubes and sweet potato in a lighter version of the coconut base. It is mostly topped with boiled peanuts.

Thanh could still recall the exact look of the stretch of Cong Quynh. But now, most of those in her memories had long moved on. She estimates that 70 percent of the families residing in the area have sold their homes and moved. Today, the old tiny homes that used to surround her corner are replaced with huge structures. Her little chè spot have stood all the years that had gone by and so did she. And her scoops of chè - are just becoming more and more sought for.