The chè lady

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The best dessert in Ho Chi Minh City is being ladled up on a street corner


Ms. Thanh preparing chè Ä‘
u at her spot near the corner of Cao Ba Nha and Cong Quynh streets in Ho Chi Minh City's District 1

Thanh, 50, lives in an endless cycle of chè.

Every night, before going to bed, she starts soaking the beans and glutinous rice for tomorrow's batch. Up at 3 a.m., she begins boiling pot after pot of the subtly sweet, bean-based dessert.

By nine, she hires a man to help her haul her low red stools, washing buckets and serving bowls to her little corner on Cong Quynh and Cao Ba Nha streets in District 1. The operation takes two trips. The xe om (motorbike taxi) driver doesn't seem to mind. And no one has ever bothered to steal her dented aluminum vessels filled with sticky rice and sweet coconut soup.

"They're very heavy," she said.

Thanh cracks on a coal fire and begins simmering the dessert just as the streets fill with throngs of motorbikes and mini-trucks. By 11 a.m., she is open for business. For the remainder of the day, she navigates between the pots like an octopus ladling coconut milk soup on top of wads of rice on top of more soup.

She moves in fluid sweeps of her hands and arms. Occasionally, she rises to tend her fire, or to lift a shopping bag hanging off the rusty coils of barbed wire behind her and dump a mass of cubed taro, manioc or sweet potato into the pale sweet broth.

The motions follow a sort of flawless pattern, one that has been practiced seven days per week for some 30 years. Thanh hardly ever takes a day off and she only goes home when she has sold off every last scoop of chè. This may happen as early as 4 p.m. Don't expect to find her after 6 or 7 p.m.

Once home, she usually eats half a bowl of rice and is in bed by 9 p.m.

In her free moments on the corner, when she is not being harried by customers, she uses an open-bottomed cup to fill clear plastic baggies with the various desserts. When customers sidle up on motorbikes, she twists a rubber band quickly around the baggies and hands them over with a grin.

She doesn't eat her own concoctions. Instead, she lunches on a cup of tepid winter melon soup. Some days, she says, she doesn't get around to eating it.

Thanh has an excellent stomach, she swears, and it tolerates whatever she chooses to eat or not eat.

She used to make many varieties of chè, but she is getting old, she says. So, now, there are just five all of which are slathered in her frothy coconut broth. Chè khoai combines al dente bits of purple taro in a gummy sticky rice porridge. Chè táo xn consists of a clear tapioca gel studded with green lentils while chè bp eats like some sort of condensed creamed corn. Chè bà ba simmers bright orange chunks of cassava and chewy translucent tapioca cubes in a lighter version of the coconut base. She serves it with a spoonful of boiled peanuts.

Thanh says that even if we watched her make her chè Ä‘u, we still wouldn't know how to cook the white cow beans without turning them to mush. They are perfectly firm as your teeth sink into the glutinous mass of sticky rice swimming in the creamy coconut soup.

Chè Ä‘u has a familiar feel in the mouth, not unlike Christmas cookie dough, though all of Thanh's concoctions maintain a subtle flavor that can't be found in most western sweets. She is selling comfort food simple, gooey with a soft homey flavor that can only be likened to the taste of carrot soups.

Even though her little spot is located on a neat stretch of sidewalk under a striped awning, she wears a conical famer's hat on top of her tidy hair bun. On two separate visits, she wore a long-sleeved sweater even in the stifling midday heat.

One day she forgot the items. She looked down to see her arms covered in grime. When she ran a hand through her hair, it came away caked in dust and dirt.

"I was so ashamed," she said as she deftly moved between her pots. "I worried my customers would think I wasn't clean. But it wasn't me. It's the dirty street."

Over the years, Thanh has cultivated a certain amnesia about this corner that, she says, keeps her sane. She has seen many strange things in her days there. "But I don't want to keep them all," she says. "So the following day, I just let them pass."

In the past three decades, Thanh has remained one of the few constants on this stretch of Cong Quynh.

She estimates that 70 percent of the families sold their homes and moved away since her mother started selling chè here before her.

"It used to be small homes," she says. "Now I'm surrounded by palaces."

Those that bought into the neighborhood knocked down the old homes to build bigger ones. While the value of the buildings around her has shot up several million dollars, Thanh's treats remain an immutable bargain.

Three years ago, she had to move her operation across the street because a new restaurant opened up behind her. Last year, she raised her prices from VND3,000 to VND4,000 (15 to 20 US cents) per bowl.

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