Lingering fragrance, lasting taste

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 A bowl of thạch trắng cắt sợi (flavorless jelly cut into stripes and eaten with sugar water) with fresh Jasmine flowers has been the trademark of Hien Khanh Restaurant in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City, for more than half a century./PHOTO: GIANG HUONG

When it was founded in 1959, the Hien Khanh Restaurant attracted many residents of Ho Chi Minh City, then Saigon, with a very simple dish: thạch trắng cắt sợi, flavorless jelly cut into stripes and eaten with sugar water.

The dish was the restaurant's trademark, even though it also sold chè Ä‘ậu xanh (mung beans dessert) and chè kho ưá»›p lạnh (mung beans hulled, ground finely and cooked with sugar and coconut milk, served cold).

Perhaps the dish's popularity had to do with the fact that it was the only one of its kind in Saigon at that time. But, many who favored the dish will assert that the usp unique selling point was the addition of fresh Jasmine flowers. The flowers' light fragrance and even taste lingered in the nostrils and tongues of customers, and invariably brought them back to the restaurant for more.

Fifty-four years on, that special taste still can be found in the dish at Hien Khanh, even though, as owner Nguyen Thi Nguyet Minh admitted, the jasmine flowers just do not have the fragrance that they had in the past. 

Since this is because of changes in the way people grow it, she

is unable to do anything about it, she said.

According to Minh, the restaurant was first located in Da Kao Ward, near the Cau Bong Cinema in District 1. It was named after the native village of Tran Nghe in the northern province of Hai Duong. Nghe ran the restaurant with Minh's father Nguyen Quy Quyen.

Since the restaurant became too small for the increasing number of patrons, in 1965, Quyen opened a branch on Phan Dinh Phung Street, now Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street, District 3.

As time went by, the restaurant in Da Kao closed, while the branch became the headquarters, and is now managed by Minh.

Despite the changes, for many Saigonese, especially the middle-aged and elderly, the name "thạch chè Hiển Khánh" (Hien Khanh jelly dessert) instantly recalls their childhood and youth. 

Minh said she has seen many men take their children to the restaurant and tell them where they used to sit when they were dating the children's mothers.       

So she considers Hien Khanh as a place that keeps people's memories of their old days, Minh said.

She said she has tried to preserve all the poems that were created and handwritten by the restaurant's owners and its patrons during the early days.

The poems were written on white papers in praise of the restaurant's fare. Framed and hung on the walls, they are another distinguishing characteristic of Hien Khanh, making it a favored dessert destination for many residents.

Minh said that the advent in Vietnam a few years ago of bubble-tea, which originated in Taiwan, and of the Thai dessert that is known as chè Thái actually hit the restaurant hard, and business went down.

But, overall, regular customers still visit the restaurant, because, like they say they love the authentic, natural and not too sweet taste of Hien Khanh's chè, Minh said.

Even so, Minh has diversified the restaurant's menu to attract more customers, adding around 20 new dishes since she took over Hien Khanh 20 years ago.

Thạch chè Hiển Khánh

718 Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street, Ward 1, District 3

Open hours: 9 a.m.-12:30 a.m.; 3 p.m.-10 p.m.

Price: Chè thạch trắng, Ä‘ậu xanh (VND12,000/bowl), sâm bổ lượng, thạch sen nhãn (VND17,000/bowl), others (VND7,000-12,000).

Among them are thạch sen nhãn (striped jelly with cooked lotus nuts and longan fruit flesh also known as Long yan rou, usually used as herbs in Chinese medicine), and sâm bổ lượng, which is a common Chinese herbal soup better known as Ching Po Leung in Chinese.

Following her predecessors, Minh is also particular about the dishes' authenticity. For example, she chooses the best longan from the northern province of Hung Yen to cook Long yan rou. She buys the most expensive mung beans, lotus nuts and roots from the Mekong Delta province of Dong Thap.

Above all, she spends around VND1 million (US$46.78) a month on Jasmine flowers to keep the original sugar water.

Those who are new customers should not fail to order a bowl of thạch trắng cắt sợi. It is a valuable opportunity to discover the taste that has won the hearts of many city residents for more than half a century.

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