Con Dao Islands: A sweet paradise

By Tam Ngoc, Thanh Nien News

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About 97 sea miles from the coast of Vung Tau, the Con Dao Islands are not only a retreat for tourists thanks to its wild beaches; it is also a paradise for foodies, especially those who have a sweet tooth.
Like many other places across the southern region, the islands has a snack culture built on two things: banh (cakes) and che (Vietnamese collective term for any sweet beverage, dessert soup and pudding).
While many are made from typical ingredients like glutinous rice and coconut milk, locals cleverly add native things like la mo or stinkvine leaves, and la gai or ramie leaves to their recipes.
What's more, the snacks are quite cheap and most can be found easily at Con Dao Market.
These wondrous rolls are known as banh kep xoi la cam. The purple part is glutinous rice naturally colored with magenta plant's leaves, or la cam in Vietnamese. Other stuffings are mung bean paste, coconut flakes, and a mixture of sesame seeds, crushed peanuts, salt and sugar. All are wrapped in a special type of rice paper which is sticky and slightly sweetened.
Remember wet rice pancakes which Vietnamese call banh uot and often eat with fish sauce and cha (pork roll)? These rolls are known as banh uot ngot, which is literally translated as sweet wet cakes.
Although it is similarly "wet," the wrapper here is sweet and creamy thanks to sugar and coconut milk. It is also colorful, with natural colorings from purple magenta leaves, green pandan leaves, and red beetroots.
Its filling consists of mung bean paste and coconut flakes.
Banh la mo (stinkvine rice cake) does not look as impressive as the above cakes, but it is in no way less tasty, especially when it is eaten with sweet and creamy coconut milk. There are some health benefits too as its main ingredient is extract from la mo, a common herb for many diseases and pains like digestive disorders in folk medicine.
These sweet and spongy little cakes are popular in the southern region, where they are known as banh bo, which can be translated as either cow cake or crawling cake.
The name's origin remains unclear -- in an ancient dictionary, it is explained as coming from the fact that the cake looks like cow udders; but some believe it is named so, because the flour "crawls" from its container during dough proofing.
Although its origin is from China, Vietnamese banh bo has a distinguished taste brought by coconut milk which is used as not only a main ingredient, but a dipping sauce.
Banh it is a pyramid cake made from glutinous rice colored with ramie leaves, and filled with mung bean paste. It is quite popular and can easily sold out before noon.
Che troi nuoc is not only a popular sweet snack but also a common dish Vietnamese in the south offer to their ancestors on special occasions including when their children turn one month old or one year old.
Big glutinous rice balls are stuffed with mung bean paste, while smaller ones are delicious without filling. The balls are served in thick and brown syrup and topped with roasted sesame seeds and coconut milk.
Che dau trang is a pudding of black-eyed peas and sticky rice. Like many other che dishes, it is too eaten with coconut milk.
Che hoa cau gets its name from the fact that it looks like a bowl of areca palm flowers, or hoa cau, even though the little yellow pieces are actually mung beans. It is served with thick sweet water and coconut milk.

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