Vietnamese sweets are a juxtaposition of Eastern and Western culinary traditions. At a Vietnamese American bakery, colorful molded desserts, sweet soups, and tropical fruit candies vie with frosted layer cakes, éclairs, and butter cookies for every customer’s attention. To the uninitiated, the diverse array may seem bewildering, but to a Vietnamese, it is simply a reflection of the multicultural nature of the cuisine.
Called món tráng miệng (palate cleansers), Vietnamese sweets are meant to refresh, rather than satiate. Some are French in origin, but most of them have Asian roots and utilize the local bounty of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and rice. They are generally light and not cloying, though as you move from north to south, the preparations become progressively sweeter due to regional preferences.
Many include an interplay between sweet and savory, and all portions tend to be small or snack sized. People enjoy nibbling on sweets throughout the day, which is easy to do in Vietnam, with its countless specialty shops and street vendors.
Both the number of categories and the variety of Vietnamese sweets are nearly staggering. Bánh covers cakes, cookies, crepes, dumplings, and pastries made from wheat flour, rice flour, tapioca starch, mung bean, and similar ingredients. (See chapter 10 for savory bánh recipes.) It includes Southeast Asian, Chinese, and French preparations; ingredients that range from cassava, coconut milk, and salted eggs to butter; and cooking techniques that vary from baking, boiling, and steaming to deepfrying.
In contrast, chè, or sweet soups, are far less complicated. They don’t require fancy equipment or expensive ingredients, generally take little time, and keep for days, making them one of the most commonly prepared categories of sweets in the Vietnamese kitchen. Viet cooks simmer beans, fruits, seeds, rice, or vegetables with sugar to create chè that are thick and creamy like a pudding, light and delicate like a consommé, or cool and layered with other ingredients like a parfait. Some sweet soups are eaten alone, while others are paired with xôi (sticky rice dishes).
In Vietnam’s generally hot and humid climate, pleasantly cooling thạch, jellied desserts based on agar-agar, are welcome treats. Agar-agar, a pure vegetable gelatin made from seaweed, sets quickly without refrigeration and doesn’t melt in tropical heat. Western-style frozen desserts, called kem (an abbreviated phonetic adaptation of the French crème glacée), are special because they are difficult for most people to prepare at home. Not everyone has a refrigerator, and dairy products like milk and cream are luxury goods. Despite such obstacles, Vietnamese cooks have concocted countless frozen treats over the years, and in Saigon, ice cream cafés are popular hangouts.
Tasty sweetmeats, or mứt, are also well liked, and both fruits and vegetables—coconut, sweet potato, winter melon rind, star fruit, kumquat, ginger—are candied. Fruits are also turned into kẹo, or confections, that are savored alongside wonderful candies made of peanuts, cashews, and sesame seeds. Tart-sweet-spicy-salty ô mai are a confection that most likely originated in China. Resembling small truffles, they are made from a mixture of dried fruits, such as tamarind, apricot, and plum, and flavored with ginger and dried licorice root. Sweetmeats and confections are ubiquitous at Tet, which is why people are busy either making or shopping for these sweets during the days leading up to the holiday.
This chapter offers a broad sampling that ranges from simple preparations, like banana cake and coconut sorbet, to more challenging sweets, like moon cakes. Many of the recipes can be made in advance, which allows you to eat sweets in the Vietnamese way, with great variety, in small doses, and whenever you crave them.
A dessert course can simply be the best fruit of the season, peeled (if needed) and cut into serving pieces. But you can also follow the fruit with one, two, or a few more treats. At my mom’s house, she pulls out a myriad of sweets that may include cake, a sweet soup, cookies, candied fruits, chocolates —whatever she has on hand that she thinks will delight her guests. Feel free to supplement your homemade sweets with store-bought ones. The point is to graze, linger, and talk. Serve tea or liqueur for a marvelous ending to a memorable meal.