Having spent part of her childhood in Vietnam, Linh Le Kim recalls the regular pleas she’d make to her parents to take her to get some che after dinner. When one of them would give in, they’d ride together on a scooter to one of the casual spots where locals would convene to chat, while sampling their choice from the “bajillion different types” of the dessert soup, often served in a glass and eaten with a spoon. Served hot or cold, che, sometimes also considered a pudding or beverage, is dotted with various combinations of jellies, fruits, and beans, bobbing in a sweetened, milky liquid.
These days, Le Kim is a full-time software developer in Montreal who began cooking Vietnamese desserts at the beginning of the pandemic in an attempt to revisit these memories. She’ll now bring them to the public with a pop-up, called Ăn Chè Desserts, on July 21-23, at Bellechasse Street cafe Dans L’Espace.
Le Kim’s menu is short, featuring three options for che and some xoi (glutinous rice balls — hers in pandan, black rice, and gac fruit flavours, and topped with mung bean paste and a dusting of sesame and peanuts). There’s the simple che — “it’s really the basic [style],” Le Kim says — including mung bean paste and lychee agar jelly, undulating in chilled coconut milk infused with orange blossom extract. For an additional 50 cents, Le Kim adds soft, chewy squiggles of pandan jelly, and for another 75 cents, one can get tapioca-coated water chestnuts that resemble pomegranate seeds.
Much of Montreal’s current che offering is confined to the aisles of its Asian grocery stores, where the soupy dessert, packaged in plastic cups, can sometimes sit for days, Le Kim says. The few Vietnamese restaurants that do sell it almost always stick to the popular “chè ba màu,” which translates to “three colour dessert.” (In Vietnam, the hued tiers can be made up of many different ingredients, but here, Le Kim says, it’s typically mung bean paste, a green jelly made using agar and food colouring, and red beans.)
“People here only really know that version, so they think that’s what che is. So, it’s a bit like pho, where people think that’s the only Vietnamese soup, but really there are so many others. So, I guess part of my mission is to clarify that,” Le Kim says.
Le Kim attributes the flattening of che’s multiplicity partly to the material limitations faced by the immigrants and refugees who arrived in Canada after the Vietnam War. Many of those who decided to open restaurants were forced to piece together dishes as best they could from memory, with the ingredients they had on hand, Le Kim says. “In the 70s and 80s, you didn’t have access to fresh pandan leaves, for example. It was very expensive to access such ingredients or they weren’t yet so easily imported, and a lot of that is shown in the cooking,” she says, later adding, “They needed something easy to sell for a white audience.”
Though access to ingredients from Southeast Asia has improved considerably since, Le Kim believes that the food served at many Montreal Vietnamese restaurants is still, in part, a “snapshot of the 70s and 80s.” To move away from that, she anchors her project in established artisanal techniques and ingredients, eschewing the food colouring and refined sugars that once served as suitable substitutes for recent immigrants, and calling on her mom, once a restaurant owner, to judge her execution. The result is meant to be resolutely traditional, but also feel new and exciting to Montreal diners.
This week’s pop-up serves as a bit of a trial-run for Le Kim, who says that depending on how it goes, she may hold another in the colder months to try her hand at serving up some warmer che. If there’s interest, Ăn Chè may even eventually morph into a permanent gathering spot, where friends and family can linger after dinner over a bowl of sweet soup to wrap up their day, just as Le Kim’s family did years ago.
Ăn Chè Desserts is holding a pop-up at Dans L’Espace at 53 Rue de Bellechasse, from July 21 to 23. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. on Wednesday and noon to 7 p.m. on Thursday and Friday.