by Bảo Ngọc
With traditional flavours of chè (sweet soup) dishes, Chè Bà Thơm has become a famous brand in Quán Thánh Street, Hà Nội for more than 40 years, and is still loved by diners today.
Hot sweet soup is a favourite for many people on cold days because of its delicious taste and affordable price.
This sweet dish is sold almost everywhere in Hà Nội, but it is not easy to find a shop that still retains its authentic flavour. The famous Chè Bà Thơm on Quán Thánh Street is one of the few that does.
Sweet soups on offer here have a moderate sweetness, the beans are well simmered, the consistency is smooth and the colour is eye-catching. The small restaurant is just over ten square metres wide, open from 3pm but always crowded.
The small restaurant is just over ten square meters wide but always crowded. VNS Photo Bảo Ngọc
This eatery is owned by the family of 74-year-old Nguyễn Thị Thơm. Previously, she was in charge of selling the desert while her husband was in the kitchen cooking it up. For the past two years, many diners of the restaurant have named it "the three generations restaurant" because when Thơm retired, her son and grandson inherited the family business.
Opened in 1975 and just three years later, this small eatery became famous, even though it only sells one dish: black beans sweet soup (chè đỗ đen).
The signature soup of Chè Bà Thơm may look simple, but the processing steps are very elaborate. Black beans are carefully selected, simmered for four hours and adjusted precisely so that the beans are soft, soaked in sugar but still intact and not crushed. Then cassava flour and sugar are added to have a thick texture and a slightly sweet flavour.
The pot of sweet soup is placed right in front of the customer, emanating the characteristic aroma of black beans and sugar. When serving, the shop owner must use a large spoon to stir before scooping the soup into bowls, otherwise the beans will settle at the bottom of the pot.
Hot Lục tàu xá and sweet black bean soup are two dishes that are loved by many diners in the winter. VNS Photo Bảo Ngọc
In winter, black bean soup is served in small bowls, covered with a little coconut milk to create a sweet, creamy flavour. But when the weather gets hotter, guests can order more ice cubes, pearls, black jelly or fresh shredded coconut, depending on their taste.
Compared to the summer iced black bean soup, the hot black bean sweet soup is much denser and has a richer taste.
It was not until 1980 that Thơm added chè đỗ xanh (green bean sweet soup) and chè sen (lotus seed sweet soup) to the menu.
Just like black bean soup, the ingredients for making green bean and lotus seed soup are also carefully selected by the owner. The sugar for these dishes is white granulated sugar to ensure it has a mildly sweet taste. Green beans and lotus seeds are cleaned and simmered to create tenderness when eaten.
These two new dishes also have a harmonious and delicious taste, however, for some reason, over the years, black bean sweet soup is still the most popular and was the dish that brought fame to this rustic eatery.
According to Lê Hoàng Trung, 44, Thơm's son, to this day, the menu of the restaurant changes with the seasons, each season is associated with a different type of sweet soup.
In the summer, the shop serves iced green bean, black bean, and lotus sweet soup, and in winter, it has hot black bean soup, lục tàu xá (pureed green bean sweet soup) and bánh trôi Nam Bộ (Southern floating cake).
"Lục tàu xá means crushed green beans, the name is enough to tell the main ingredients of this dish," Trung said.
"To enhance the flavour of the dish, we add water chestnuts and lotus seeds. The taste of the green beans, sweet granulated sugar and crunchy water chestnut creates a pleasant feeling when eating.”
Trung also said the bowl of Southern floating cake usually has two identical balls, with green bean and coconut filling, cooked with white sugar and ginger sauce. When serving, the restaurant will add coconut milk and peanuts on top to enhance the flavour.
The Southern floating cake usually cooked with white sugar and ginger sauce. — Photo courtesy of dantri.com
Eating a bowl of hot sweet soup and floating cake on cold days will help keep the body warmer. The food here is quite cheap, only about VNĐ20,000 per bowl.
Coming to Hà Nội this winter, don't forget to stop by Chè Bà Thơm and order yourself a bowl of sweet black bean soup. The sweet taste of this soup seems to contain the capital's street food culture and promises to satisfy any diners. VNS