Even though corn is native to the Americas, cooks in Asia love to cook with corn. In my Vietnamese kitchen, I celebrate the summer bounty of sweet corn by stir-frying corn with chiles and dried shrimp, frying up batches of corn and coconut fritters and simmering pots of this creamy, risotto like sweet soup. Called chè (“cheh”), sweet soups can be hot, warm, or cold. They are sold as street food, served at restaurants, and made at home. In Vietnamese communities abroad, there are even cafeteria-like chè bars where you can point to various cooked ingredients and the clerk will combine them in a cup for you to eat in or takeaway. Look for chè at Vietnamese banh mi sandwich shops too; they’re typically sold in plastic see-through cups.
Vietnamese sweet soups are beloved snacks that aren’t cloyingly sweet. Last week on Twitter, Leah Crow (@cabeah) asked me to for this sweet soup, which she’d just enjoyed at a Vietnamese restaurant. I tweeted back a 140-character recipe but didn’t feel like the tweet was enough. With leftover ears of corn from Labor weekend, I made a batch of che bap (“cheh bahp”) and jotted down the recipe for Leah and you to use.
Corn and Coconut Sweet Soup
It’s so easy to fall in love with this che preparation. You don’t have to have the pandan leaf (screwpine leaf) but it adds a grassy, floral note that’s very Vietnamese, particular from the southern region. Frozen pandan leaf works just fine as the fresh leaf is hard to find in the United States. Buy the leaves at Southeast Asian markets. Similarly, get the sweet (sticky) rice at the Asian market too. But if you don't have the rice, use tapioca pearls (bot bang), which are sold at mainstream supermarkets. Note that you can make this sweet soup and sauce days in advance for your reheating pleasure.
Serves 4 to 6
1 cup coconut milk
2 pinches of salt
1 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons water
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in 2 teaspoons water
3 cups water
1/4 cup sweet rice, rinsed and drained, or small tapioca pearls (about 1/8 inch in diameter)
3 ears of corn, or 1 (16-ounce) bag frozen sweet corn
1/3 cup coconut milk
5 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 large or 5 medium pandan leaves, rinsed and tied into a knot, optional (see the photo below)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. To make the coconut sauce, combine the coconut milk, salt, sugar, and water in a small saucepan. Place over medium heat and bring to a near-simmer, lowering the heat if the coconut milk spits 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.
2. Let the sauce cool, uncovered, to concentrate the flavors before serving. It will keep in a tightly closed container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Before using, reheat gently over low heat.
3. For the corn soup, put the water in a saucepan and it to a boil over high heat. Add the rice, stirring to prevent them from sticking together. Boil, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes, or until the rice is nearly cooked. If using the tapioca pearls, it will take 12 to 14 minutes for them to turn halfway clear; look for a tiny white dot in the center of each pearl. The water will seem slightly thick and viscous.
4. Meanwhile, if you are using, cut the kernels off the cob. If you are using frozen corn, thaw it for about 20 minutes. You should have 3 generous cups. Regardless of the corn used, use a processor to render it into a coarse texture.
5. When the rice (or tapioca pearl) is ready, add the coconut milk, sugar, salt, and pandan, stirring to dissolve the sugar. When the mixture comes to a near boil, add the corn. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook for about 5 minutes, or until the corn is cooked and the flavors are blended. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla. Allow the soup to cool for about 15 minutes. The resulting sweet soup will be thickish, like Italian risotto. Taste and adjust with more sugar and salt, if necessary. (The soup may be prepared up to 2 days in advance, tightly covered, and refrigerated. Warm over low heat, adding a splash of water to thin and prevent scorching, before serving.)
6. To serve, ladle the soup into small bowls and top with the coconut sauce.