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Kem chuối the traditional way

It is no exaggeration to say that every person who lives in the Mekong Delta is familiar with kem chuối and has wolfed it down at least once and more likely countless times.

For generations, delta dwellers have had such a strong attachment to the frozen banana treat with extras that nowadays they care not where or when it originated. Indeed, any research into its origins draws a blank.

And talk about cheap; even as early as the 1990s, when this writer was little with a big appetite for sweets, a chunk of alluring kem chuối cost just VND500 (2.4 US cents).

In English, the name can be understood as "banana cream." However, the traditional Vietnamese "banana cream" is totally different from the American or European types that can be found in certain fancy eateries, for kem chuối has no cream in it.

When making kem chuối, the denizens of the delta have been very creative to get the best out of their land's prime produce: bananas and coconuts.

As plain as can be, the snack does not require its maker to be qualified or adept in the kitchen. The steps in making a batch of kem chuối are straightforward and easy.

First comes the choice of banana, which must be ripe and should have a dark yellow color. It must be one of the sweet varieties and should be medium in size. Best is the commonest banana in Vietnam, known as chuối xiêm in most places and chuối sứ in some regions. Other kinds of banana taste a bit sour, which makes them inappropriate for kem chuối.

The banana is peeled and put into a small, clear plastic bag and a small stick is pushed through to make it easy for the eater to handle. Then the bagged banana is pressed flat to make it the size of a human palm.

Preparing the coconut milk is the next step. First some coconut flesh is shredded then moistened with a little water so that the coconut milk can be squeezed out. The milk is then cooked with some tapioca starch to thicken the liquid, and a little salt and sugar is added. 

The cooked liquid is poured into the nylon bag containing the pressed banana, and some ground roasted peanuts are sprinkled on both sides of the squashed banana. At this stage, some people like to decorate their kem chuối with strips of coconut flesh.

The whole nylon bag with pressed banana, coconut milk with tapioca starch, and roasted peanuts is then frozen for around five hours, so there's no choice but to wait.

Kem chuối is not only delicious and aromatic but also very healthy thanks to its fresh and nutritious ingredients.
It's still not considered old hat even with all the snacks and takeaways that are now available in Vietnam. Kem chuối has no substitute.

These days in Ho Chi Minh City, a piece of Mekong Delta kem chuối can be obtained at some grocery stores for VND5,000 to VND10,000.

Then there's the ice-cream shop Chu Tam at 2 Truong Han Sieu Street, Da Kao Ward, District 1, which serves it in a small cup with boiled banana, cream, roasted peanuts and a peeled, deseeded longan.

At Trop B, 306/4 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street, Ward 5, District 3, there is a dish called chuối Ä‘ông, which means "frozen banana", somewhat like traditional kem chuối but the banana is not pressed. It's served on a small plate and topped with shredded coconut flesh and a sprinkling of ground roasted peanuts.

It costs VND5,000 and must be ordered with other dishes from Trop B's menu.

But no matter how kem chuối is modernized, the plain version in a plastic bag with coconut milk inside, the traditional one that originated somewhere in the Mekong Delta long ago, is still the one and only.

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