As the weather heats up, I head to my favourite summertime treat, Hanoi’s best crème caramel. Words by me. Edits by Nick Ross. Photos by Harris Spencer. The article is published on Word Vietnam issue July 2015.
Hang Than Street is a gathering place that has been popular with Hanoi’s young demographic for years. The area houses many dessert shops, amongst which Kem Caramen Duong Hoa, said to be one of the best in town, and a must-try for travellers.
The eatery offers a wide selection of desserts, including crème caramel, homemade yoghurt, coconut jelly, mango sweet dessert (che xoai), ice cream in coconut and homemade cakes. However, crème caramel — kem caramen — is the signature food of this streetside eatery. This explains why “Kem Caramen” is written in super-sized letters on their shop signage.
Food blogger Mark Lowerson writes on stickyrice.typepad.com that the truncated cone of custard on the crème caramel had him rewriting his definitions of perfection. I couldn’t agree more.
A Tradition in the Making
I sat with one of the owners, and she told me this: “We opened this shop in 1995, which means it is 20 years old this year. We are confident that our caramel is no less delicious than any hotel’s in Hanoi, because many hotels order our dessert!” She wouldn’t say how they came up with the idea of making this French dessert in Hanoi, localising it with local ingredients and a soft caramel top.
“A challenging life forces people to be creative in coming up with ideas of how to earn a living,” she went on. “In our case, we used to be merchants selling different things at the market, until our siblings came up with idea of making caramel and yoghurt. And we could have never thought at the time that our shop would become the breadwinner for the whole family.” Kem Caramen Duong Hoa now has three outlets — on Hang Than, Nguyen Khac Nhu and Tran Tu Binh.
People often say that when an eatery enlarges or increases its business scale, the quality goes down. But this eatery is an exception. Their crème caramel has been consistent in quality throughout the years, and is still as irresistible as ever. “I think our caramel is even more delicious than it was in the past, because we did not ‘invent’ the recipe of making crème caramel, we had to learn it from others. Therefore, we always remind ourselves to improve it, and embrace every customer recommendation.”
The look of the plate of custard isn’t the only stunning thing here — with a smooth and shining, coffee-coloured layer of topping, bathed in tan caramel. Once you take a scoop of the luscious, bouncy custard, you’ll be compelled to take another, and then many other scoops. You might want to come here between diets.
This “hard-to-resist” caramel is the main chorus in a variety of dessert selections. They also mix their caramel with other options — for instance, caramel with fruits, caramel with jelly, caramel with fermented purple sticky rice. The homemade yoghourt and che xoai also contribute to the popularity.
It’s the throng of people that gathers in front of the Hang Than branch every afternoon and evening that convinced them to open the other two branches. But even though the original shop is always packed with diners, the feeling of enjoying their delicious crème caramel on tiny stools on the street, surrounded by the old French buildings and sometimes being rewarded with a slight breeze of summer sunset is the experience I always long for on summer nights.
Kem Caramen Duong Hoa’s shops are located at 29 Hang Than, Ba Dinh; 33 Nguyen Khac Nhu, Ba Dinh; and 101 C5 Tran Tu Binh, Cau Giay, Hanoi. The crème caramel goes for VND7,000