Over the years, several people have inquired about how to make che Thai, a crazy looking sweet soup comprised of various kinds of tropical fruits, tapioca noodles, jellies, and coconut milk. I always half-heartedly sourced recipes for them because frankly, the time I tried that stuff out at a Viet Tet Festival, it was just awful.
A tall plastic glass filled with lots of ice, a few bits of jackfruit and tons of half-and-half. I didn't get what all the fuss was about. Plus, I don't do well with dairy, if you know what I mean. The experience of standing in the damp, wintry cold at the county fairgrounds trying to enjoy what everyone else seemed to relish, all the while with my stomach going bezerk was no way to celebrate the new year. It also kept me away from che Thai for years. Whenever I stared into the cold case at a Viet deli at the seemingly vast array of che (pronounced "cheh") sweet snack options, my eyes glossed over the little plastic cups containing che Thai.
This last Tuesday, I went to lunch at a hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese food court at the Lion Plaza (corner of Tully and King) in San Jose, California. After a bowl of rice soup with duck and cabbage salad, I wandered over to the Dakao stall where the woman was dishing up a bunch of different kinds of che to a line of customers. (Dakao is well known for its preparations of these sweet snacks that beloved by Vietnamese people.)
I don't know what overcame me, maybe it was being around my people in the food court, or all the psychedelic colors at che vendor's stall -- bright green tapioca strands, chopped up fruits, bananas suspended in a tapioca coconut milk broth, white sticky rice dumplings in amber sugar syrup. I found myself ordering chè Thái.
"Do you want che like Thai tra tea or the sweet snack che?" the vendor asked.
"I want the che the sweet snack," I replied, remembering that in the often ludicrous world known as the Vietnamese language, chè can mean tea (which also goes by tra) and a sweet snack.
The woman quickly went to work buzzing around the cafeteria/ice cream parlor-like set up. From her various bins and half pans, she gathered the ingredients for che Thai. It looked like a parfait in a large plastic cup. A spoon of ruby red tapioca bits went in first, followed by a few longish green strands of tapioca noodles, pieces of yellow jackfruit, and chunks translucent white toddy palm seed. Then she disappeared into the back kitchen and emerged with some lychees and one half sapote in the cup. (Note that all of the tropical fruits came from cans. )
Back at her counter, she added a small ladle of simple syrup and a few spoonfuls of coconut milk. A mound of shaved ice crowned the cup. To finish the packaging, she stuck a huge round straw down the middle along with a plastic spoon so I could choose to scoop or suck up the concoction, and then she capped the cup with domed plastic like, like a Starbucks Frappucino. The cost was $3.50, which is a good thing because it signals that it's a high-class version.
I went outside into the heat and tried it out. Not bad, I thought. It was crazy/cheery looking, full of chewy, soft, crunchy textures and enveloped by the slight richness of the coconut milk. I admit it. It was much better than the nightmare I tasted years earlier. Lacking tons of dairy, my stomach didn't react either. How nice.
So what's with the half-and-half and milk that I'd seen at the delis and Tet festival and in the online chè Thái recipes? My guess is that Vietnamese people were thinking that somehow, this Thai-style sweet soup was take on Thai ice tea or coffee in which dairy is mixed in. This is the confusion between che and tra! Someone probably started out using the half-and-half and found that it was cost effective and produced an okay snack that customers bought up. From there, many others followed suit. Vietnamese people often act like lemmings when it comes to food trends.
I went home and researched in my cookbook library. As it turns out, che Thai is a Vietnamese riff on a popular Thai sweet snack called tap tim krop that features pomegranate juice, water chestnuts, tapioca, and coconut milk. In David Thompson's Thai Food, there's a recipe for tap tim krop that's translated as Rubies. The diced fresh water chestnuts are coated with a pomegranate red layer of tapioca and then poached to resemble jewels, which are eventually floated in a sea of coconut milk and ice. The tasty Viet bastardization comes into play a bit in pastry chef Pichet Ong's version in The Sweet Spot, which he calls Thai Jewels and Fruits on Crushed Coconut Ice. Ong has the jackfruit, toddy palm and keeps the water chestnuts and red coloring. He adds fresh payapa cubes.
Che Thai is a new and recent entrant into the Vietnamese repertoire, and given it's popularity, it's high time I put together a recipe for it. Here you go!
Jackfruit, Toddy Palm Seed, Pomegranate and Coconut Sweet Soup (Chè Thái)
Like the Dakao vendor, you can put whatever kind of tropical fruits into the mix. Typically, there's jackfruit, toddy palm seed (comes from the palm that yields palm sugar), and longans. If you don't have them, that's okay. If you can find a can that combines jackfruit and toddy palm seed, that's extremely convenient. Otherwise, you can always buy cans of each and omit the grass jelly.
As a nod to the Thai original, I use fresh pomegranate seeds, which
were poorly imitated by the bland red tapioca used by the vendor. (It's
pomegranate season now and my neighbor has a tree!) If you don't have pomegranate, consider diced strawberries for a red, jewel- like touch. Or, see the instructions below on how to make Thai Rubies.
The use of grass jelly adds an interesting tea-like quality. It's not part of the Thai original, but once you stir things up, the dark jelly's brown-black liquid colors the concoction like tea. Perhaps that's why some Viet cooks add it to underscore the Thai tea concept. I like the slightly bitter-grassy note, which makes chè Thái seem extra refreshing and energizing. Asian jellies come in a variety of colors (yellow, white, green, ebony) so choose your favorite.
You need some chewy fun so that's the reason for the tapioca noodles.
Normally I make my own but since this chè is nothing more than opening
a bunch of cans, I opted for the commercially produced tapioca, which
are zig-zag shaped. They're sold in plastic bags for under a $1 and are usually near the dried beans at Asian markets.
The flavors of this sweet soup is rather nuanced so I suggest not adding ice. Eating it straight is a more intense experience. If you like things nice and cold, just thoroughly chill the fruits and jelly.
2/3 cup dried tapioca strands/shreds
1 can toddy palm seed and jackfruit in syrup, undrained
1 can longan in syrup, drained
1 can grass jelly, any flavor
1/2 cup fresh pomegranate seeds (1 small pomegranate) or Thai Rubies (see below)
1 1/4 cups Coconut Dessert Sauce (see below)
Crushed or shaved ice, optional
1. Put the tapioca strands in a bowl and cover with water. Set aside to soak for 30 minutes.
2. Drain and put the strands in a small saucepan and add enough water to cover by 1 1/2 inches. Bring to a boil and cook the strands until they are soft to the bite, about 25 minutes. They will look jewel-like clear in about 10 minutes but will still be chewy. Drain the strands and transfer them to a bowl of water to stop their cooking and to keep them from sticking together. Keep at room temperature for up to 4 hours or refrigerate for longer keeping.
3. Empty the jackfruit and toddy palm, along with their canning syrup, into a bowl or plastic container. Inspect the fruit and cut up any unusually large pieces into bite-size pieces.
4. Cut each longan in half lengthwise and add it to the other fruits.
5. Invert and shake the can of grass jelly to remove the jelly. (It may remind you of cranberry jelly for the holidays.) Slice the grass jelly into 1/2-inch-thick rounds. Then cut each round into 1/2-inch cubes. Transfer the cut jelly to a bowl or plastic container.
6. For each serving, put some cut grass jelly at the bottom of a glass or bowl. Add some of the fruit and then some of the tapioca strands. Drizzle on some coconut dessert sauce. If you'd like, top with crushed or shaved ice.
Coconut Dessert Sauce
1 cup coconut milk, canned or freshly made
2 pinches of salt
1 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons water
1 /2 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in 2 teaspoons water
1/4 teaspoon pandan or vanilla extract (optional)
1. In a small saucepan, whisk together the coconut milk, salt, sugar, and water. Place over medium heat and bring to a near simmer, lowering the heat if the coconut milk spews or pops. Give the cornstarch mixture a good stir and add it to the sauce, mixing well. Cook, stirring, for about 30 seconds, or until the sauce thickens, then remove from the heat. Stir in the extract.
2. Let the sauce cool, uncovered, to concentrate the flavors before serving. It will keep in a tightly capped container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Makes about 1 1/4 cups.
I've not tried this out myself, but if I wanted to make the Thai rubies, I'd combine Thompson and Ong's approaches and do this. According to Tuty on 10/29/07, you can substitute jicama for the fresh water chestnuts, which can be hard to find.
1/2 cup peeled fresh water chestnuts, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1/2 cup pomegranate juice or grenadine
1 cup tapioca starch
Soak the water chestnuts with the pomegranate juice overnight. Drain and discard the juice.
Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Combine the the water chestnuts and tapioca starch in a bowl and toss to coat. Transfer to a mesh strainer and shake/tap to remove excess tapioca starch and prevent clumping.
Add the coated water chestnuts to the boiling water and cook, stirring constantly, until they float to the top and are clear, about 5 minutes. Drain, transfer to a bowl of ice water and allow to cool completely. Drain before using or refrigerate until ready to use.
What is Chè?
If you've ever bought a sandwich from a Vietnamese deli, you've encountered displays of che sweet soups atop counters and inside cold cases. They're the most commonly eaten Vietnamese sweet that's enjoyed as a snack or part of a dessert spread.
Viet cooks simmered beans, fruits, seeds, rice, or vegetables with sugar to create che that are thick and creamy like a pudding, light and delicate like a consommé, or cool and layered with other ingredients like a parfait. Some sweet soups are eaten alone, while others are paired with xôi (sticky rice dishes).
In Vietnam and in Viet communities abroad there are people who specialize in chè. An itinerant street vendor may make a living from one or two types. A che parlor offers a broad range. Visiting one is like going to an ice cream parlor. Put in an order and the person behind the counter assembles it right before your eyes, ladling bits of this and that from a vast assortment of little containers. (The photo above is of a che vendor at the Vancouver night market.)
But you needn't go out for it. Tons of home cooks whip up che. They're relatively simple to make and don't require fancy equipment or expensive ingredients, generally take little time, and keep for days.
For another recipe, see Shaved Ice Sundays blog.