As the weather defines our appetite, summer could be called the season of drinking, rather than eating. This explains why during the summer months, Hanoi is so rich in different types of drinks. From nuoc mia or sugar cane juice to tra da, tra chanh or iced tea, lemon tea and che or sweet soup, these drinks can be seen on almost every street in the capital.
Of the summer drinks, my favourite is che. Personally, I don’t think the word ‘soup’ expresses the correct meaning of this concoction. Che is certainly not an appetizer and it’s neither savoury nor condensed — it’s an any-time-of-the-day drink. You can give yourself a treat in the morning, also a dessert after lunch, or afternoon tea, even for supper in the late evening while wandering around the Old Quarter.
Traditional sweet soups include black bean, green peas or lotus seeds with the scented smell of jasmine. But in recent years, imported versions are becoming popular. Besides Singaporean bobo-chacha, and various versions from Malaysia or Hong Kong, Thailand sweet soup, known as che Thai, has garnered a following. Available at eateries on Doi Can, Giang Vo, Hang Than and in Nam Dong Market, it is however only at the eatery on Kim Ma where diners can enjoy an authentic Thailand-like experience.
A Homage to Thailand
Located down a small alley, Che Thai Lan is easily recognisable thanks to its Thai script signage. Thai-styled silver bowls and pots with typical elephant patterns are displayed in a glass cabinet in the interior, and the shop owner comes from a Vietnamese family that used to live in Thailand.
The eatery offers two signature dishes, che Thai and kem xoi or sticky rice with ice-cream, and sometimes, Thailand’s layer cake. Their che is also totally different from that of other shops. While elsewhere sells Thai sweet soup with green thin-shaped pieces, this eatery offers white and green pieces in a variety of shapes — some even look like insects. Another special element is the fresh pieces of coconut within the soup. Instead of a dense soup, the light broth is earthy, flavoury and tender, and is made 100 percent from coconut juice.
“The secret in delicious che Thai lies in the fresh coconut juice,” says the owner. “Our che Thai is made from coconut without any additives or milk. You can distinguish fresh and authentic coconut soup from fake versions after drinking it — you don’t feel thirsty.”
The other signature dish, kem xoi, is served up in a small bowl with green sticky rice at the bottom and a scoop of white coconut ice-cream topped with shining pieces of coconut. The green of the rice comes from pineapple leaf extract — making it gently scented and very soft. The coconut is also dry and crispy, giving the dish a nice range of textures.
“Few diners can imagine how many steps it takes to make these dishes,” continues the owner. “Every day we make four batches of kem xoi and che Thai. Due to the hot weather, these sweet dishes easily become sour, so we only make a limited quantity for each batch.”
She adds: “Che Thai has been well-known in Hanoi around 20 years, but we started this shop 29 years ago when hardly anyone in Vietnam owned a Thai soup shop. Now che Thai seems to be everywhere. But our che is different to elsewhere. And I don’t want to change. It makes us stand out. It’s also our own memory of our Thailand — our second homeland after Vietnam.”
Che Thai and kem xoi costs VND15,000 a bowl. The eatery opens at 10am and closes around 10pm at night. Go on to Kim Ma and stop at the junction between Kim Ma and Tran Huy Lieu. Turn right onto the small alley opposite Hanoi Toserco building at 273 Kim Ma and stop at the end of the alley. The eatery is a perfect escape at sunset