Tuesday, 23/10/2018 10:03

Chè specialties a heart-warming Vietnamese tradition

Delicious: Ha Noi is not only famous for its street food but also che ba cot eaten with xoi vo (sticky rice). — VNS Photos Truong Vi
Viet Nam News

By Ha Nguyen

Vietnamese cuisine includes many types of che (pudding) such as che ba cot (pudding made of glutinous rice, ginger, and sugar) and che con ong (honeycomb-shaped pudding).

These che dishes play an important role in Vietnamese culinary history, said a juror of the Viet Nam Master Chef Programme, food expert Pham Tuan Hai.

Women in the northern midland province of Phu Tho still maintain the tradition established by their ancestors: preserving glutinous rice seeds (locally known as nep cai hoa vang) that are fragrant and soft. They grow them in order to have glutinous rice to cook che con ong — called “honeycomb-shaped pudding” because the dish’s grains of rice resemble a hive of bees.

Local Nguyen Thi Mien, 67, said: “When a newborn baby arrives in a family, his or her grandmother often cooks the dish to worship mu, the goddess believed to give shape to and protect babies.”

The dish could not be missing from a locally family’s tray on the occasion of the first and middle days of the lunar month, particularly at the Tet (Lunar New Year) holiday, Mien said.

To cook tasty and delicious che con ong, her mother had to soak one kilogramme of sticky rice in warm water for five to six hours before steaming it for half an hour and then letting it cool.

“I will never forget the fragrant smoke of new glutinous rice spreading out from an earthen steamer,” she said, noting that unlike in other areas where people use white sugar to cook the che, Phu Tho Province’s Phu Khe villagers cook the dish with molasses.

“I still remember that when autumn is approaching, locals never forget to buy several kilogrammes of molasses (often in a rectangular shape) to use it for cooking che,” Mien said, adding that cooking the dish requires a great deal of care. 

“We have to cut the rectangular molasses block into pieces and put them into a pot fire and stir it well until it is melted and fragrant before putting the steamed glutinous rice in the pot and stirring it well for nearly 20 minutes so they mix all together until it turns into a light brown colour, and then is done,” she said.

One critical ingredient is ginger.

“My mother used to pull up an old ginger tree in our garden, asking me to clean and grind into it pieces for her to put it in the che pot and stir it well. The peppery flavour of ginger helps the dish become tastier, attracting every diner,” Mien said.

Kinh people in the northern province of Bac Kan’s Cho Moi District are also famous for their che con ong.

An official from the district, Nong Ich Nguyen, said the che has high nutritional value and it carries the spirit and beliefs of the Kinh (Viet Nam’s majority people) from thousands of years.

The Kinh in Cho Moi consider the fifth lunar month’s fifth lunar day as the day to go out to their fields and kill insects which are damaging crops. As part of the ritual surrounding this practice, they place a big plate of che con ong among different kinds of fruits to worship their ancestors, praying for a bumper crop.

“Local housewives also cook this kind of che for the Tet festival where all family members gather to welcome the country’s biggest holiday,” said Nguyen, adding that nowadays not only Kinh people but also other ethnic groups such as the Tay and Nung in the district have joined in to maintain and preserve the dish.

Meanwhile, Hanoians can enjoy these two types of che at many che shops across the city. One of them is Ba Thin’s shop in the Old Quarter which has been a favourite address for che lovers for nearly a century.

Thin’s maternal grandchild Nguyen Thi Giang said: “My grandmother has sold the dish since 1930s. She handed the job down to my mother and me nowadays.”

Despite the ups and downs, Thin’s shop still carries her name and is always crowded in hot or cold weather.

Long-time customer Tran Thi Ngoc said that in  winter she has to wait for more than 15 minutes to have a bowl of che ba cot mixed with glutinous rice cooked with split peas.

“I enjoy it so much because it helps to warm up my body and my mind. I feel quite healthy after eating the dish.”

Ngoc said the che is not so sweet, but it still has a strong flavour. The glutinous rice is soft but still holds its form. The fragrance from the bowl of che is durable until the last spoonful.

Apart from che con ong and che ba cot, Thin’s shop sells many other types of che such as che sen (lotus), che do xanh (green bean), che do den dac (condensed black bean) and other varieties to meet evolving demands, said Giang. — VNS


Time for sweets: A corner of the famous che shop at 16 Ngo Thi Nham Street in Ha Noi.
It won’t sting: Che con ong (honeycomb-shaped pudding) attracts not only locals but also foreign tourists.
Spicy-sweet: Che ba cot (pudding made of glutinous rice, ginger, and sugar) of Ba Thin in Ha Noi is another famous address for che lovers in and outside the capital for nearly a century.

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