Before bubble milk tea stores and Korean barbecue restaurants were popular, my mother frequently brought my family – my dad, brothers and me – to the city in Sydney. My father would steer his hefty metallic-blue Tarago and we'd make our way to the large strip of Asian restaurants, markets, grocers and pawn shops near Haymarket, the area that's home to Chinatown.
Paddy’s Markets might have needed an update, but I’ll always remember the culinary goldmine that connected my tastebuds to my cultural lineage. Through pork and chive soup dumplings, banana leaf-wrapped sticky rice and fresh rice paper rolls, my siblings and I absorbed diverse cultures and traditions through Chinese and Vietnamese food beyond the bounds of our home.
These once-in-a-while, all-day family excursions to the city are among the fondest family memories I have. Our trips would start with paying a visit to my grandfather before touring around Chinatown, George Street and the Chinese Garden of Friendship. Towards the evening, we’d step into the doors of my Aunty Vanessa’s restaurant, Gia Hội. We were always welcomed by aromatic notes of citrus, lemongrass, sharp sate chilli and soupy Bún bò Huế broth.
Waiters hurried around the restaurant, juggling plates of salad greens, zingy garnishes and essential condiments like fish and hoisin sauces. My older brother Kelvin and I would scout the menu for desserts before even considering what to order for our main meals.
My greatest joy on these days? Getting to savour mouthfuls of chè, a syrupy style of a Vietnamese dessert drink. My favourite kind was chè bánh lọt – or as Kelvin would call it, "boogers". The name translates to “fallen cake” and refers to how the silky, worm-like jellies are prepared. Made of tapioca starch and rice flour, they “fall through” a colander with large holes or a big slotted spoon to create curved jellies with tapered ends.
Like other dessert-drink hybrids, chè bánh lọt is a blend of soft creamy pandan jelly with hints of floral-like fragrances and sweet coconut milk. Surely the best part of this sweet course is watching the golden palm-sugar syrup being slowly poured into the cup, cascading over the mountain of bouncy pandan jelly.
My favourite kind was chè bánh lọt – or as Kelvin would call it, "boogers". The name translates to “fallen cake” and refers to how the silky, worm-like jellies are prepared.
Chè bánh lọt is only complete once the cup is filled to the brim with shaved cooling ice, which is swirled together with other ingredients to keep the drink from veering into overly sweet territory. The dessert twirls the line between sweet and savoury with remarkable ease and this can be said for most Vietnamese desserts.
I love my Aunty Vanessa’s pandan jelly recipe, it is the star dessert of my childhood. I often ask for takeaway or seconds of chè bánh lọt and, to this day, I will always have the last cold spoonful. It is pure bliss in the summertime’s sweltering heat. It makes me feel both light and balanced.
With every slurp and bite, I think about how my family was brought together in Australia – all the obstacles they faced and how unrelenting their drive was to ensure we were connected to our lineage through food. Often, I smile with a sense of gratitude. I think of my family’s unwavering pride in their identity and their love for the culture of Vietnam. It was where my parents and relatives were brought up.
Chè bánh lọt makes me silently revere the family members who came before me. I descend from dedicated, passionate and hardworking people, who've always been guided by stoicism.
Chè bánh lọt was the perfect comfort during those long family weekend trips. Now, I embrace the new feelings that come with it: connection, family and memories. As I picture this extra-luscious confection once again, I can smell the vanilla and almond-like fragrance of pandan: it is everywhere and it is starting to feel like home.
This dish is a Vietnamese take on the classic French creme caramel. The coffee gives it a wonderful aroma. Try and use Vietnamese coffee if you can.
These Vietnamese fritters are really simple to make using just sweet potato, prawn and flour. Served with lettuce and a homemade dipping sauce.