Rich or poor, rain or shine, hot or cold, chè is one of Vietnam’s most unique culinary offerings.
Is it a desert? A breakfast? A snack? Chè, a variety of sweet soup, is one of Vietnam’s most versatile foods, consumed by the old and young, the rich and the poor.
There are literally dozens of versions of these pudding-like soups with ingredient’s ranging from mango to mung beans. While flavors and colors differ for each type, most are prepared with many varieties of beans and rice and are garnished with coconut milk.
No matter the ingredients or the temperature when served, each name starts with chè and is followed by qualifying adjectives referring to the soup’s main ingredients.
It’s common to be served chè at restaurants or at home after a meal, but the main distribution platform for these sweet treats are pushcarts.
Chè carts can be found at busy intersections, outside of schools and alongside parks.
While the myriad of flavors and colors are impressive unto themselves, perhaps more so is the dedication chè sellers apply to their trade. Many wake up before sunrise to prepare 6 – 10 offerings before hitting the hot, mid-day pavement. Since the soups go bad within a day, most chè vendors sell until they run out.
Due to its low price, usually around $.25, chè is particularly popular with students, who need a little something between meals, and office workers who eat them as a dessert after lunch.
Beyond the culinary importance of the soup, it serves as a focal point for social interaction as well. It’s common for groups of friends to go have chè and talk about life, gossip about co-workers, and relax.
For some westerners, the soup’s ingredients may seem a bit strange and, admittedly, it is an acquired taste. But once you get over the fact that there are beans in your desert, it’s hard to get enough.