This Vietnamese mixed fruits dessert is inspired by a similar recipe from Thailand. Though each country’s recipe has its uniqueness, both recipes are just as delicious as each other. Let’s start with the name. The word “chè” is a very confusing word for Vietnam’s visitors. Even though Vietnam is a small country, due to decades of war between the North, South, and the outsiders, the country’s regions develop their own way to name things. In the North, the word “chè” means tea. In central and south Vietnam, “chè” means sweet soup-like desserts. In this case, the word “Chè Thái” translates to Thai sweet soup dessert. Since there is no specific English word for “Chè,” people often use the word “dessert” instead. However, this often creates some misunderstanding when people from other countries, especially from the West, visit Vietnam and want to try some desserts. Most of the time, food vendors or tour guides have to explain to people that they have two choices of dessert, either a dry one or a soupy one.
About Chè Thái, it is very tasty, cheap, and always available. Vietnam’s tropical climate created only two seasons, dry vs. wet, instead of four seasons like other countries in cooler climates. In the dry season, the weather is always scorching hot, that is why people love to eat something cool or cold to ease the heat. This is where Chè Thái comes in to save the day. Before, Chè Thái was not entirely cheap if you choose to expand your fruit choices. In my opinion, I prefer Chè Thái made with fresh fruits instead of canned fruits, but canned fruits are always available while fresh fruits depending on the seasons. As a result, Chè Thái made with canned fruit is available everywhere in Vietnam. The main ingredients in Chè Thái include coconut milk, assorted fruits, jelly cubes, and ice. Thailand and Vietnam both have something in common, the love for coconut milk. In fact, our foods usually require coconut milk incorporated somehow. It could be added during the preparation process, cooking process, or as a topping.
In Chè Thái, we often add fruits, jelly, and coconut milk together and top with crushed ice. The jelly we use in this recipe can be made in various ways. The most common type of jelly in Chè Thái is made out of gelatin, sugar, and food colorings. You can also add artificial flavors into the jelly to make them smell different. What I love the most among these choices of jelly is what is called rubies or “hạt lựu.” These rubies are to imitate pomegranate arils, and they are often made out of water chestnut bits coated in tapioca. To serve Chè Thái, people often use a medium bowl or plastic disposable cup, add the dry ingredients, then the coconut milk, and top with ice. To make this sweet dish fancier, some food vendors also offer durian pulp as an additional topping. Every time I eat Chè Thái, I always add in some durian pulp. It mixes really well with the coconut milk and adds extra creaminess to the dish. If you are not a fan of durian, the original recipe is good enough. Nothing tastes better than a cup of cold, sweet, creamy, and fruity goodness on a hot summer day.
If you ever visit Vietnam, do not forget to try Chè Thái. If you want to make it at home, you can skip complex ingredients and substitute for simpler ones. For instance, the jelly can be made out of Jell-O so you do not have to buy extra ingredients such as food colors and artificial flavors. Coconut milk can be found anywhere. All you need to do is to cook it a little bit to thicken it. Lastly, you can use canned fruits as recommended in the original recipe or you can substitute some of them with your choice of fruits.