A natural, moderate sweetness

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A little stall in a Ho Chi Minh City market serves Cambodian desserts using palm sugar and it makes a difference that people like

A thap cam (mixed) bowl at a Cambodian dessert stall in Ho Chi Minh City includes pumpkin custard, tamarind seeds, toddy palm seeds, and yellow cakes made from rice flour and egg yolk / PHOTOS: GIANG VU

Cambodian desserts were brought into Vietnam around 1970 by Vietnamese who lived and worked in the neighboring country, it is said.

It might take some effort to check the veracity of this statement, but there is no denying that their moderate sweetness, owing to the use of palm sugar, has made them desserts of choice for many Ho Chi Minh City residents.

To taste the real difference made by the use of palm sugar rather than the refined white sugar usually used to make most desserts or sweet dishes in HCMC, check out Huynh Thi Huoi's stall in District 10's Le Hong Phong Market.

It is perhaps one of the city's oldest and most famous sellers of Cambodian desserts.

Of all dishes on the menu, the most exotic is bi chung (steamed pumpkin), a kind of pumpkin custard.

Huoi, who inherited the stall from her mother, said that to make the custard, she chooses small and smooth pumpkins, scoops out their flesh and replaces it with a mixture of milk powder, condensed milk, coconut milk, and egg yolk. Then, the whole pumpkin is steamed until it becomes soft.

You can eat the custard layer by layer or both the skin and the "flesh" at the same time.

Bi chung is available as a stand-alone dish, or a part of a mixed order with other dishes on the menu like thot not (toddy palm seeds), hat me (tamarind seeds), and yellow cakes made from rice flour and egg yolk. It is served with ice and coconut milk.

For the che hat me (che is Vietnamese collective term for any sweet beverage, dessert soup or pudding), Huoi roasts tamarind seeds, dries them and soaks them before removing their covers. After the processing, the seeds are soft and chewy.

Che hat me is also served with ice and coconut milk.

CHÈ CÔ HUÔI

Le Hong Phong Market (in the Alley No. 374 on Le Hong Phong Street, Ward 1, District 10, Ho Chi Minh City)

Open hours: 2 p.m. 9 p.m.

Prices: che thap cam, or mixed dish (VND20,000/bowl), che hat me and xoi xiem (VND10,000/bowl or dish), bi chung and che thot not (VND15,000/bowl)

An ideal simple and light dish is che thot not in which chewy transparent toddy palm seeds are eaten with sugar water, or coconut milk, and ice.

Huoi said all ingredients to make the original dishes are imported from Cambodia every week.

Besides the exotic dishes, the stall also sells desserts that look familiar to their Vietnamese cousins but are still different, like chuoi nuong (grilled banana) eaten with coconut milk. In the Vietnamese dish, the bananas are wrapped in glutinous rice before being grilled.

Another dish worth trying is xoi xiem, in which sticky rice is topped with egg custard, durian flesh and coconut milk.

It is said that xoi xiem was introduced by a Vietnamese-Thai national in Chau Doc, the capital town of the Mekong Delta province of An Giang.

Unlike the variety sold at Huoi's stall, elsewhere in Vietnam, the dish is served with coconut milk and a sauce made with eggs, palm sugar, coconut milk, some durian flesh, and tapioca starch. 

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