When we talk about dessert in Vietnam, what we’re really talking about is che. It’s a word used to describe a myriad of sweet combinations, but it is essentially a soup or pudding that can be topped with anything from red beans to green jellies to lotus seeds to fruits, depending on your preferences. Though it’s wildly popular with the locals, che tends to have a cold, gooey consistency that can be unsettling for newcomers. Enter banh troi tau, the most comforting member of the che family, especially when the weather turns cold.
We had a bit of trouble finding a dedicated banh troi tau stand, as most had shuttered for the Tet holiday, so we resorted to a che spot we knew would be open for business: Che Huong Hai (93 Hang Bac, Hoan Kiem), family-owned and serving up sweet goodies since 1985. There on the sidewalk was a bubbling cauldron, little white dumplings bouncing on the surface. It’s a small hole-in-the-wall place frequented by locals and passing tourists alike, with a very helpful picture menu for the Westerners. As soon as we crouched down on our little plastic stools, we had two small bowls of steaming goodness in front of us.
The Kindest Cut
Two yellow dumplings float in the middle of a white sea, sprinkled with chopped peanuts. Dip your spoon below the creamy surface and you’ll find a dark-brown, syrupy soup below. I picked up an entire dumpling, attempting to put it all in my mouth at once, when our photographer laughed. “Cut it first!” Khanh advised. So I sliced it open and found a thick yellow filling dotted with shredded coconut. I took one bite, and then the bowl was gone in seconds. My brain wanted more, and at VND15,000, it’s no stretch to get a second. This dish is surprisingly filling for its size.
We sat for a while and watched the women at work. The dumplings are made fresh each day, lined up in a basket and ready for boiling. Mung bean paste and shredded coconut are rolled together and wrapped in a shell of glutinous rice flour. Then, the little white balls are tossed into a giant boiling pot and boiled in homemade ginger syrup, where they sink to the bottom. You’ll know they’re fully cooked when they float to the surface, where they are ladled into a bowl with a hearty serving of sweet broth, topped with fresh coconut milk, and sprinkled with peanuts.
Typically popular as a snack between lunch and dinner, banh troi tau satisfies in three ways. First, the harsh bite of ginger syrup warms your throat like a healing tea, then the sugary coconut milk soothes you, and finally, the heavy dumplings fill your stomach.
It’s truly impressive the amount of bases this simple dish is able to cover. It’s strictly a winter delicacy, though, so be sure to get your hands on some before the weather warms up again.
Che Huong Hai is at 93 Hang Bac, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi