The coats are out of mothballs and at the dry-cleaners. Short sleeves on the motorbike are reserved for sunny lunch times only. The drier air is starting to tighten the skin and crack the lips. The autumn buzz on the streets of Hanoi is a sign that the summer hibernation is officially over and Tết (the lunar new year) is closing in. Ten years of existence here and not only are my southern hemisphere bio-rhthyms all arse-up but I'm also book-ending my years with talk of lunar new years rather than Christmases.
But...whatever my expat derangement, it's feeling decidedly wintery in this part of the world and time to jack on a few kilograms to ensure I survive. It's hearty food season and I intend to participate.
Starting with a kind of rice cake that sits somewhat discus-heavy on its way through the digestive tracts once swallowed. Known as chè con ong, this snack is a substantial one - not the kind of sweet treat you might "leave room for" at the end of a meal but rather one you would need to by-pass the entire meal for.
While the weight of this dessert may not be so subtle, the flavours are simple and clean and the texture is moist and spongy. The colour is more than reminiscent of chocolate. But chocolate it aint.
Sticky rice is cooked in its normal manner, the vendor told me. Ginger is pressed for juice and set aside. In a separate saucepan, water and sugar go around together until they start to thicken and colour. Interestingly, the vendor at whose kiosk I was sampling from would not allow me to interject the word caramel into her explanation. I didn't push the point as she was making me feel rather as if I was privileged to be hearing the recipe in the first place. I thought I was showing appropriate deference but there is a school ma'am-ish demeanour about some Hanoi women that I still find slightly off-putting, even after 10 years.
So the sugar and water colouring to honey brown is not caramel, to which the cooked sticky rice and ginger juice is added. On a very low heat, the mixture resembling porridge gently bubbles away.
Pressed into a mould in some instances, the cooled mixture here is shaped by hand into a disc, scattered with sesame seeds and wrapped in plastic. Other variations on the theme include cốm xào (young sticky rice cooked with sugar and shredded coconut) and chè đậu xanh (mung beans done similarly).
All are fine and filling for winter but be warned; just a taste test of all three rendered me passive and defenceless for much of the remainder of last Saturday.
Thanh Ha Street Market
left hand side, heading toward Nguyen Thien Thuat St