Sweet bean soup or che is a Hanoi mainstay, the perfect refreshment for hot weather. Words by Huyen Tran. Photos byFrancis Roux. The article was originally published on Word Vietnam Issue August 2013.
During the summer heat, what dish can quench your thirst and provide relaxing refreshment? If you were to ask 10 Hanoians, at least seven of them would give you a very simple and quick answer — che. Also known as sweet soup or sweet gruel, che is such a common dessert that it is found not only in Hanoi but across Vietnam. Eaten either hot or cold, when served with ice, che becomes more like a drink — perfect for driving away the heat of summer.
As che is found almost everywhere in Vietnam, the way people prepare it varies from region to region. In Hanoi, globalisation has seen the import of versions from overseas. Popular among younger crowds, Thailand che, Malaysia che or even Singaporean che are now sold in the capital. However, the traditional variations of this dessert, which have been eaten in Hanoi for generations, remain a firm favourite: che do den or black bean sweet soup, che do xanh or green bean sweet soup and che hat sen or lotus seed sweet soup. The curious may ask how these more traditional dishes tasted in the past. Are they the same as today? For the answer head to Che 4 Mua Hang Can.
The Perfect Che
As its name suggests, the eatery is located on Hang Can, a small downtown street which is among a few thoroughfares remaining that have retained the charm of small houses mixed with French colonial-style buildings. The eatery just serves the three above-mentioned versions of che, but their regular customers never get bored — the taste and the fragrance of che here are special. The soup is not so sweet, not too strong and not so dense. Its smell is tender, light and refreshing with the fragrance of jasmine and lotus, while the beans are perfectly cooked. Put together the soups seem to contain a harmonious blend of ingredients. It is difficult to pinpoint what makes this taste so special except that there is a traditional home-cooked sensation to this dessert, creating a sweet and warm feeling.
“Many of our regular customers ask how old our shop is,” says the middle-aged owner of the eatery. “My mother started selling che on the corner of this street when I was a teenager. I am now in my 50s, and this eatery is going to be in its 40s next year. When my mother passed away, we tried to recreate the exact taste. We three siblings are proud that we still cook che in the way that traditional Hanoians once did it. The taste reflects the old Hanoian way of cooking.”
The ladies here put their che into big glass pots, so that customers can see the clear and pure soup. “There are some specific criteria for making good che,” continues the owner. “For example, che with black beans should be shining and black. Che with green beans should be bright, shiny and yellow. If it is a reddish yellow, then the che is not good as the green beans are not well selected or there are some kinds of chemicals added in. For lotus seed sweet soup or che sen, the soup should be pure and lightly fragrant.”
Lotus seed sweet soup is the dish that this eatery is most famous for. Different from milk fruit or hoa sua, sen or lotus is the symbol of elegant beauty. However, cooking with this fragrant and elegant ingredient is not simple. “Lotus is really beautiful. However, not all lotus seeds can be used for cooking sweet soup. You have to select lotus from ponds that produce friable and soft seeds. For years, we ordered lotus seeds from only one special pond in Hung Yen.”
Adds the owner: “Cooking sweet soup, you have to be patient. The beans and lotus seeds need to be slowly steamed. Ingredients must also be carefully selected — just one old bean can spoil the whole pot of soup.”
Every day the che at 4 Mua is prepared in the same way the owners were taught by their mother. However, few people know the real secret of cooking of these delicious pots of che.
“The cook is my sister, who was born deaf and dumb,” says the owner. “To me, via che, she tells people how sweet her soul is.”