Every few months or so, my parents receive a care package from my aunts and uncles, who live in Bến Tre, a province about three hours southwest of Ho Chi Minh City. The big burlap sack they send is overflowing with seasonal fruits from their garden, like coconut, lime, banana, mango, and longan, as well as mushrooms and wild greens that they forage. “You never find such good stuff in the city,” my aunt says. What do we do with this bounty of bananas and coconut? We make chè chuối, a sweet soup of bananas and tapioca pearls simmered in coconut milk.
Chuối means banana, and chè is the generic Vietnamese term for sweet soups, which encompass a vast world of saucy and soupy treats made from fruits, legumes, tubers, and other local produce. The translation “soup” is incomplete though–some chè, like chè sen (lotus seed chè), are light and refreshing; some, like chè bắp (corn chè) have a pudding-like consistency; and some, like the chè chuối featured here, fall into the rich and creamy category. Most chè are one-pot fare with fewer than five ingredients, but you can also find more complicated ones that involve a little bit more finesse and time, like chè trôi nước, rice balls in gingery syrup, often a celebratory treat.
Like many types of chè from southern Vietnam, the base for chè chuối is coconut milk, which I love to infuse with the bright grassy fragrance of pandan leaves, a popular flavoring in Southeast Asian cuisines. I tie the leaves into a compact knot, let it simmer in the soup, and then fish it out to discard at the end. If you can’t find pandan, you can substitute with vanilla extract. It’s important to use one or the other, as those aromatic ingredients not only add an essential fragrance but also help counter the tinny taste that sometimes comes with canned coconut milk.
In Vietnam, chè chuối is always made with chuối xiêm (or chuối sứ), a banana cultivar also known as pisang awak and identified by its short and stout shape. Compared to the common Cavendish bananas sold in most North American markets, pisang awak have a more delicate sweetness, punctuated by a mellow tang that adds another dimension to an otherwise sweet soup. Pisang awak bananas are also used in savory soups and curries. Most often, you’ll find them in the frozen section in Asian grocery stores (I’ve yet to see fresh ones where I live). They may feel soft upon defrosting, but rest assured, they can withstand the cooking, and even multiple rounds of reheating, without breaking down the way a Cavendish banana would.
Although not ideal, plantains can be substituted in this sweet soup with some modifications. Ripe plantains (with black spots on their skins) will give you the closest texture, but their flavor is much milder. To draw out their sweetness, I macerate them in sugar before adding them to the coconut milk. I also tested this recipe with Cavendish bananas, which I do not recommend here. While they are fragrant and sweet, they collapse and turn to mush quickly in the hot soup.
Visit a random chè vendor in Vietnam and chances are you’ll see chè chuối on the menu. Rich, creamy, and only mildly sweet, it’s appealing as both a delightful snack when you are craving something sweet and a heady dessert to cap off a meal. It’s best served hot or warm, garnished with crushed roasted peanuts for a textural contrast.
In a 2-quart saucepan, combine water, 6.75 fluid ounces (200ml) coconut milk, and pandan leaves and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Add tapioca pearls, then lower heat to maintain a simmer and cook, stirring frequently to prevent tapioca pearls from clumping and sticking to bottom of pan, until tapioca pearls turn translucent, about 10 minutes (exact cooking times can vary depending on the specific size of tapioca pearls you use, so consult package instructions and make sure to prioritize the doneness cues over the estimated time; add extra water, as needed, if cooking time runs longer and too much liquid evaporates).
Add bananas and let simmer until they soften and release their juices (their cores will turn bright yellow and the coconut milk will take on a distinct banana flavor), about 5 minutes (see note).
Add remaining 6.75 fluid ounces (200ml) coconut milk along with the sugar and salt. Continue cooking until mixture comes to a gentle boil. Turn off heat, then discard pandan leaves. Add additional sugar to taste, if needed (this will depend on personal taste and how sweet bananas were).
Serve hot or warm in individual bowls, garnishing each with crushed peanuts.
Pandan leaves (also labeled as screwpine leaves) are available fresh or frozen at Asian grocery stores. If you use vanilla extract in place of pandan leaves, add it together with the coconut milk, sugar, and salt in Step 3.
You can substitute with sweet plantains (mostly black all over) by combining them with all of the sugar in a medium bowl and setting them aside while the tapioca pearls are cooking. Add them with all of the sugar to the coconut milk in Step 2; adjust the sweetness to taste in Step 3, if needed.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Chè chuối can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 2 days. Reheat before serving.