“Eat North, dress South”, is a Vietnamese saying that originated in the mid-20th century. Hanoians have always taken great pride in their understated sophistication which manifests itself in various ways, one of which is their refined taste in food. Proudly sloganned “purely Hanoi”, Che Muoi Sau is one such quintessential Hanoi sweet shop.
This half-a-century old establishment started out in Hom market in 1958, and in 1976 moved to its present location at 16 Ngo Thi Nham, at the corner with Le Van Huu — a neighbourhood known for delicious and authentic local fare without the higher prices found in the Old Quarter.
Every year on the 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month is the Cold Food festival, or Tet banh troi banh chay, which is widely celebrated in the north. The media is always on hand to record the super-long queues in front of this small shop to buy banh troi (rice balls with brown sugar filling) and banh chay (rice balls with mung bean paste in tapioca soup).
People flock here because they want to offer the best food on the altar to their ancestors. Hanoi dishes tend to be simpler than their southern and central counterparts, and are often made with fewer ingredients. Thus the secret is to use the right ingredients of the finest quality. The rice balls must be made with 100 percent glutinous rice flour to make them chewy.
For banh troi, brown sugar cubes should be used instead of white ones. For banh chay, the mung bean paste must be consistent and smooth in texture — the beans have to be meticulously soaked, separated from their skin, steamed and ground into paste. Banh chay at Che Muoi Sau has a higher ratio of mung bean paste to rice flour than most shops and hence is less filling. The tapioca soup is quite light and not too sweet, to enhance rather than overpower the exquisitely made rice balls.
Apart from the quality banh chay, another dish that I come to Che Muoi Sau for is che dau den (black bean sweet soup). It’s a household staple and a favourite after-lunch snack to combat the summer heat in the north. Served with thach den (grass jelly) and dua nao (shredded coconut) on top, it is as good and cooling as a glass of che can be. Che Muoi Sau also sells a lesser known version of che dau den in which the soup is thickened with tapioca — this version is often made at home rather than sold in shops.
Other dishes at Che Muoi Sau are all Hanoi specialities such as com xao (young sticky rice cooked with sugar), che sen (lotus seed sweet soup), and xoi che (sticky rice coated with mung bean eaten with tapioca soup). Whenever I come back to town, I always make it a point to visit this spot, watching the young and old enjoying the sweet snacks by themselves here, soaking in the feel of a bygone Hanoi.
With banh mi served with pickles and pho with onions gaining popularity in town, that authentic Hanoi taste has become ever more elusive. Che Muoi Sau stands out thanks to its authenticity. And its unwavering popularity hopefully means that die-hard Hanoians like me will some day get to take our children there and enjoy a taste of old Hanoi together.
Che Muoi Sau is at 16 Ngo Thi Nham, Hai Ba Trung, Hanoi. Each dish costs from VND10,000 to 20,000 a go