I’ve been to Vietnam twice in two of its biggest cities and yet I was not able to try one of its most iconic sweets. Chè is a sweet made coconut milk and beans, fruits, tubers, jelly, cereals or a mixture of two or more of them. There are so many varieties of chè including those with savory ingredients like sausages, roast pork or eggs.
And that makes it difficult to label chè especially with Westerners. In the English-speaking world, I have come across definitions of chè as a sweet pudding, a dessert soup or a sweet beverage. None of which encapsulates what chè is. To be fair to the Vietnamese, chè is a class all its own.
To understand chè, one has to view it in the context of Asian sweet snacks. Because, yes, it is essentially a snack. And it is has siblings all over Asia. Think of the Malaysian cendol, the Filipino halo-halo and the Taiwanese baobing.
What makes it difficult for non-Asians to understand this vast array of sweet snacks is that they are sometimes listed as a desserts in restaurants. Not because they are desserts (dessert is a Western concept, really, that has been adapted in Asia) but to make it simpler for Westerners to make them fit into their meals.
It’s not that hard to grasp. Westerners eat cakes and pastries not always at the end of a main meal as dessert, but as snacks, with or without coffee. We Asians have our own sweet snacks.
That said, here is a delectable recipe for chè chuối, a version of chè with banana and tapioca balls. Remember that you don’t have to reserve this dish for the end of your meal. Enjoy it any time of the day.
Chè Chuối, a Vietnamese Banana and Tapioca Sweet Snack
- 6 tablespoons small tapioca balls uncooked
- ⅔ cup coconut milk
- 3 tablespoons white sugar
- 1 generous pinch salt
- 4 ripe bananas peeled and cut into half-inch cubes
- ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract optional
- Measure three and a half cups of water into a sauce pan. Add the tapioca balls. Bring to the boil. Cook the tapioca balls, stirring occasionally, until swollen but the centers still opaque.
- Stir in the sugar, salt and coconut milk. Bring to a simmer.
- Stir in the cubed bananas and vanilla extract, if using.
- Turn off the heat, cover the pan and allow the tapioca balls to cook fully in the residual heat (see notes after the recipe).
- Serve the chè chuối warm or at room temperature.
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