When it comes down to Asian desserts, most Westerners have a difficult time conjuring up something… traditional. And by traditional, I mean anything that doesn’t include fruit (smoothies) and/or green tea flavored Kit Kats. Asian desserts have been misunderstood for far too long, which is why, when given the opportunity to try out chè, what the Vietnamese refer to as “sweet soup” in English, my curiosity was piqued.
What Is Che?
Che is the generic term for any type of sweet beverage (sweet soup), which comes in the form of a pudding or a sugary soup. There isn’t one strict version of che; in fact, you could dedicate a whole day to eating all the different varieties of sweet soup and chances are you’ll be sick halfway through the mission from all the overindulgence. Forget about flaky pastries and decadent icing and all things typical of Western desserts.
Che is Southeast Asian through and through; in one serving, you might find beans, fruit, vegetables, glutinous rice, and tapioca balls, along with chunks of flan and assorted jellies. You cannot forget the addition of coconut milk, the glue that brings together all these unrelated bits and bobs and makes che what it is. The coconut milk is either poured into a bowl, like milk in a cereal bowl, or is layered between the ingredients in a tall glass like a parfait, making it the most eye-catching of all Vietnamese desserts.
Some sweet soup desserts come warm but for the most part, are served cold with a scoop of shaved ice, making it a popular goodie during Saigon’s dry hot season between the months of November and May. It’s a treat that might be bizarre at first for a non-Vietnamese person but there’s no doubt that it will leave you wanting more.
Here is a list of the most popular versions of che:
- Che Ba Mau – three-color dessert
- Che Bap – Vietnamese sweet corn pudding
- Che Chuoi – banana with sago pearls and coconut milk sweet soup
- Che Troi Nuoc – sweet glutinous rice dumplings
- Che Buoi – Vietnamese pomelo sweet soup dessert
- Che Dau Den – black bean sweet soup with coconut syrup
Where To Find Che in Saigon
You can find che in outdoor markets, although there are some shops that specialize solely. If you don’t have the time to just come upon it serendipitously, consider visiting one of Saigon’s many markets to lessen the odds of missing out on this sweet tooth fix! Here are some honorable mentions but keep on scrolling for the BEST che in town!
- Khanh Vy Che Tray Shop, (the Su Van Hanh street corner) Nguyen Chi Thanh Street, District 5
- Xoi Che Bui Thi Xuan, 111 Bui Thi Xuan, District 1
- Che Ky Dong, 153/7 Ky Dong Street, Ward 9, District 3
- Hot Che Shop, 50 Ly Chinh Thang, Ward 7, District 3
The Best Che in Saigon
Most locals know of Ho Thi Ky Market on the border of District 10 and District 1 as Ho Chi Minh City’s largest flower market but did you know this area is also Saigon’s unofficial Cambodia Town? Down the narrow alleyways of what used to be the former Cambodian refugee camp, lies a small outdoor stall run by a mother-daughter team. For over 60 years, this establishment has been whipping up the best che campuchia, Cambodian-style che dessert, in town.
For over 60 years, this establishment has been whipping up the best che campuchia, Cambodian-style che dessert, in town.
Cambodian-style che is made with shaved ice, coconut milk laced with durian sauce, strands of egg noodles, palm fruit, salted egg with mung bean paste, baby tamarind, and pumpkin flan. If you’ve ever heard of durian, you might be making that “uh-oh” face but their durian has been so finely cooked, completely erasing the pungent smell. The pumpkin flan is truly a sight to behold; egg custard is cooked in a hollowed out pumpkin, imported from Cambodia. The Cambodia pumpkin variety is small but yields a sweeter flavor than pumpkins in Vietnam. Just make sure you don’t eat the rind! The egg noodles will also knock your socks off! These deceiving ribbons of egg noodles look like cheese, taste like cheese, but are actually all egg! For all you bastards, have no fear! It’s not real cheese!
This is only one out of 20 flavor combinations offered, but it is the signature dish. If you want to try more than one flavor, here are two perks. 1) A bowl costs 12,000 VND (roughly $0.50 USD) so gluttony won’t make you go broke here and 2) they use palm sugar instead of processed sugar, a healthier alternative to refined sweeteners.
Read more about Ho Thi Ky Flower Market.
Che Co Co was first opened by the mother in the early 1950s but when The Vietnam War broke out, the family fled to Cambodia to escape the conflict. After the Fall of Saigon in 1965, the family returned to their old homestead, the mother pregnant with her first child. That child ended up taking over the family business and is now the current proprietor of Che Co Co (which means Auntie Co’s che), attending to the stall every single day just like her mother once did. Not to say that momma hen isn’t still in business; she is now in the back of the house, waking up just before dawn to prepare fresh ingredients, while her daughter serves customers out in the front from 7 a.m. up until 7 p.m. But without fail, the shop sells out every single day an hour before the set closing time!
How To Eat Che
Che is simple. Just park yourself around the U-shaped countertop, which creates a pseudo-theatrical experience as you watch Auntie Co whip you up a bowl of sweet soup and wait for the delivery of your sweet soup. Make sure to eat it quickly as the ice melts fast in the heat. If you wait too long, chances are your bowl will overflow. Also don’t try picking it up and balancing it in your hands one negligent move and the che will be be sitting on your lap. Trust me!
Our Advice for Eating Che
For travelers to Vietnam, a spoonful of sweet soup is a necessary to broadening your horizons. If you’re feeling adventurous but don’t want to dive in too deep, a dessert made with egg noodles and red beans are sure to hit the spot. If you go during mid-afternoon during dry season, chances are you will be soaking in sweat as the stall is completely outdoors save for a flimsy canopy shielding you from the sun. Also, don’t forget to ask for water! Not only will it help you fight off the heat, but also prevent a sugar rush from giving you a nightmarish headache.
Dish’s name: Che Campuchia
Price: ~10.000 – 15.000 VND
Opening time: From 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Address: 57 Alley, Ho Thi Ky Street, District 10
So, how about it? Why don’t you give Che a go, and let us know what you think about it in the comments below!
More on this series: Saigon Street Food: Crab Tapioca Noodle (Banh Canh Cua)
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