Chè, Dessert In A Glass

Pronounced with a falling or down tone, the Vietnamese chè is the name of a range of desserts that appear quite daunting at first.

Not to be mistaken for any kind of relation to Che Guevara, the Argentine revolutionary, Vietnamese chè is often translated as “sweet soup”. An avid soup-lover myself, the sweet soup translation never really tickled my fancy.

Chè

My Vietnamese colleagues soon put me on the right track. Around the corner from the office was a small restaurant that specialised in chicken with sticky rice and chè. The sticky chicken dish was fairly average, in my opinion, but the chè was an absolute winner.

Soon I was sucking down chè like nobody’s business. Sago and banana chè. Lychee in syrup chè. Lotus seed chè. I tried all the healthy fruit varieties but I kept coming back to the creamy super-sweet versions, with various types of lentils and beans.

At first I couldn’t pronounce chè in a way that the vendors could understand. I carried a tattered scrap of paper in my purse inscribed with the words “chè ba màu”, my all-time favourite chè. Literally three-colour chè, chè ba màu is usually served in a glass, topped with ice. The colours are layered and there’s usually more than three. So you usually get a yellowish custard-like layer of what I’m told is green beans but I think is actually yellow split peas, a red layer of fake pomegranite seeds, a layer of dark lentils and a layer of creamy coconut cream. I like the version pictured below that has a layer of green  jelly snakes too.

My chè is usally gone before the nearest friendly Vietnameses speaker can finish explaining what the various ingredients are. There’s a lot of sugar syrup, for sure.

Chợ Tân Định chè ba màu

chè ba màu

At first the concept of eating lentils and the beans used in baked beans in a dessert didn’t sit right with me. But the more I relaxed and the more chè I ate, the more it started to seem natural in a comfort-food kind of way.

Unfortunately, as most budding artists discovered at the age of  three, mixing beautiful colours together results in a purple-brown sludge. But chè does taste best all mixed up.

Sitting on an aluminium stool, leaning over a sticky aluminum table, with traffic whizzing past, decripit lottery sellers tapping you on the shoulder, drunk guys bumping your back, giggly school girls squirming against your elbow, the vendor yelling across your head at his wife … ah, is there a more romantic setting for a dessert date? Probably. But this is Vietnam, which has a surplus of noise and people and joy. And fantastic food.

Chè, eaten on the street, is to me a lovers’ dessert. But not when your darkly handsome man orders chè Thai Lan, which includes durian. (The Vietnamese word for Thailand is Thai Lan, which actually sounds like Thai Lang.)

If you have never tasted durian, take it from me, it’s like fart-flavoured custard. And fart flavour is not what a Westerner wants in a dessert. Or in a post-dessert kiss.

che

I love chè so much that I order it without ice. Ice just dilutes the taste… and slows me down. (I’m shocking, I know.)

There’s also warm chè, which seems to be more of a restaurant thing. I can’t say no to chè chuối chưng, a warm pudding of banana and sago pearls in coconut cream.

Similar gloopy soupy desserts are served throughout Asia. They have different names but take it from me, they must be tried, even if you don’t like lentils or lurid colours in your food. The Philippine halo halo comes with a purple taro icecream – yum-de-dum lip-smackingly good — and the Singaporean-Malay version is chendol, which comes with a fruit syrup.

However, I never did elicit much enjoyment from Vietnam’s seaweed chè. That may be connected to the bout of food poisoning I got, which was entirely unrelated to the street food seaweed chè I ate just prior to the first stomach pangs.

Editor’s note: Darling Man reckons if a Western says chair baa mao (baa like a sheep, mao like Mao Zedong) a vendor will understand. But I’m not wholly convinced.

My favourite che stall is at the Tan Dinh Market (Chợ Tân Định) at the far end of Hai Ba Trung Street in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 3. (The far end as in the end furtherest from the city.)

Breaking news: This post given an honourable mention over at suzyguese.com

4 years ago

By: Barbara

A career girl who dropped out, traveled, found love, had a baby, went back to work and then decided to drop out again. Blogging from Ho Chi Minh City at the moment. With a new baby!

30 Comments

  1. Rease says:

    This looks delicious. It’s always hard to think outside your comfort zone for food. I felt the same way about rice pudding- what is rice doing in my dessert? These look tasty.

    However, I will definitely stay from anything described as fart-flavored. yuck.
    Rease recently posted..Traveling Larry’s Bleeding Ears

  2. Jozef Maxted says:

    Wow looks really nice. I have to admit though I wouldn’t expect it to be a desert though!
    Jozef Maxted recently posted..Tips &amp Thoughts From Rio

  3. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jozef Maxted, dropoutdiaries. dropoutdiaries said: Latest #foodie post about dessert in a glass http://bit.ly/eMPxZq #Vietnam #streetfood Writing this made me SO hungry. Checking flights now. [...]

  4. am coming down to vietnam this week! i can’t wait to try their version of this dessert. thanks for sharing!

  5. Very vivid descriptions– I really want to try chè now! Your photos are really colorful and well composed too. :)
    Michael Figueiredo recently posted..Top 10- Things To Do in Sedona- Arizona

  6. inka says:

    An ode to che, a poetic post about an incredible food. You have such a vivid way of describing the scene too, I felt as if I was sitting right next to you in all that hustle and bustle.
    inka recently posted..Lifiting the veil in Sharjah’s Ladies’ Club

  7. I’ve got mixed feelings about this. Your photos and descriptions are, as usual, so appealing. I guess it’s just quite different for me — all the more reason I should make sure to try these desserts sometime!

    About the durian — I only recently heard about this from a few people. It does not sound like something I need to experience!
    Cathy Sweeney recently posted..Glimpses of a Golden Age

  8. Amy says:

    I have an aversion to chunks in my food, so I don’t think this is for me! Looking forward to watching the countdown to your 2012 escape.
    Amy recently posted..Tricks and Tips for Dealing with Jet Lag

  9. Ohh, that’s an interesting one. It looks a bit like an ancient Turkish dessert called asure. That’s a sweet syrupy dish with barley, chickpeas and beans in it. I’m slowly growing to like it but haven’t really got a sweet tooth – and like your che – it’s very sweet.
    Julia
    Turkey’s For Life recently posted..Turkish Food- Kars Gravyer Peynir – Photo Story

  10. [...] Traditional Vietnamese dessert: http://bit.ly/eMPxZq A #foodie #travel post to make you rethink lentils and beans Science Fiction and Philosophy: From [...]

  11. Christopher says:

    Yum. Very very sloppy looking, but still yum.

  12. robin says:

    This totally new to me. That photo of chè ba màu looks like some kind of terrible accident that’s happening inside a glass…
    robin recently posted..Present Perfect

  13. Jillian says:

    Totally wish I had read this before we were in Vietnam, I would have gotten up the nerve to try it, but as you said, it’s hard to order and harder to find out what’s inside.

    By the way, I laughed out loud at your description of Durian….fart flavored dessert or a kiss! I see this being advertised for next Valentine’s Day! :P
    Jillian recently posted..International Glamour

    • The Dropout says:

      Jillian, the best Vietnamese food can be pretty inaccessible, especially street food items that can be hard to spot in the chaos of street life. Darling Man and I are working on an ebook on this very topic. Stay tuned.

  14. I’m with Robin here, it looks like a terrible accident! A romantic dessert – for a date with who???! Sarah Palin?
    John in France recently posted..Paris – The City of Wuv!

  15. I was already enjoying this post, and then you mentioned Durian and I got even more excited!!! I want a Che now! I’m waiting for Durian season to start in a few months here in Thai Lan!
    Migrationology recently posted..Pilau or Biryani – Food Faceoff in Zanzibar

  16. Laurel says:

    I love your food posts! It sounds…interesting, I hadn’t heard about it before. Love your description of durians, so true!
    Laurel recently posted..5 Fun Language Learning Techniques

  17. Andrea says:

    Sweet soup, eh? I’m dubious but I’d like to try it!
    Andrea recently posted..Bungas’s Beer of the Week- Dunedin

  18. Ana O'Reilly says:

    I read the title of the post and thought of Che Guevara and you mention him in the second paragraph, how funny is that?!

    I think I would order mine without ice too :)
    Ana O’Reilly recently posted..Road trip to the heart of Texas part II – the heartland

  19. Ever notice all the best addictive type things are brown: coffee, chocolate, beer, coke…..and che (all mixed up)!
    The Domestic Yogi recently posted..Yogi Confession Box 10

  20. Suzy says:

    I think I would have to get over the whole “there are beans and lentils in my dessert”. Ché certainly looks interesting though in color and texture.
    Suzy recently posted..Leon- Nicaragua Wishes You Were Here

    • The Dropout says:

      I must admit the first time I realised there was lentil and beans in the dessert, it was already in my mouth. It took a bit of getting used to.
      There’s a barley water drink that’s popular in Singapore and I can’t do that. Barley is for soup and no amount of sugar will make it taste right in a drink.

  21. Krista says:

    I’m so glad you stopped by my blog! :-) It’s lovely to meet you and I really enjoyed this post. :-) I’ve never eaten anything like this but now I simply have to! Love the crazy colors and ingredients. :-)

  22. The first photo looks so yummy (though just behind them to the left it looks like they have eyeballs in jars).
    I must admit the distant shot look much more appetizing than the close-ups
    South America ME recently posted..88 Earthquake Expat Experiences – Chile

  23. […] eat chè at Tan Dinh Market and then browse the fabric shops along Hai Ba Trung […]

  24. […] a few weeks ago, when we were testing out a chè place for our new street food tour, this tiny ticket seller […]

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