19 November 2006

Kem Chuoi

Kem Chuoi, (chewy), literally means ice cream/banana, although it really is just frozen banana, coated in coconut milk and peanuts. I first had it soon after arriving in Vietnam. It was when I was with one of the young women from my first job, and she had the driver stop at a little shop on the side of the road to buy kem choui. I instantly loved it.

It is not something that is commercially produced. People make it at home and sell it in their shops; hence, I hadn’t had another for over a year. (my neighborhood has none of these family stores.) And then two weeks ago, my Vietnamese teacher arrived with three that her daughter had made. She wasn’t sure if I liked them, so apologized for not bringing more. When she found out I truly adored kem choui, she said that our following class would be a course in making them. I tried to give her money for the ingredients, but she wrote down the necessary items, totaled them up, and showed me that it only cost about one dollar to make 24 frozen bananas. Two days later, she arrived with everything.

One starts with making coconut milk. The canned stuff I already had wouldn’t do, explained my teacher, it simply doesn’t taste right. That morning she had gone to the market, (where she goes every morning at 6:00am.) She bought a fresh coconut and had the seller shred it using some sort of machine. We put the coconut in a saucepan, then added about half a cup of boiling water, and stirred it until it had absorbed the water. Then, over a strainer, we squished handfuls of coconut meat into a bowl, removing the milk. The leftover shredded bits can be used in other things, but we tossed them.

We added a little salt and some sugar, (I opted for less sugar), and about three tablespoons of cornstarch. The milk then goes back in the pot, this time over a low flame. While this is cooking into a thick paste, you slice the bananas in half.

I must explain that not Just any old banana will do. Of all the types available, only one is suitable. It’s a short, fat nanner. All the others contain too much water and when frozen, turn to ice. As I sliced, my teacher laid out the cellophane pieces in which we would wrap our frozen desserts. These were actually small bags that are cut open.

The banana half is placed on the cellophane then flattened with the side of a large knife. Onto this, you ladle the thickened coconut concoction, sprinkle it with roasted peanut pieces, wrap it up, and put it in a plastic container. 24 pieces later, it was done, the kem chuoi’s placed in the freezer, where they would need several hours to freeze.

My teacher told me that you can basically put a coat of anything on top of the coconut milk, like chocolate or fruit. She said that on special occasions she layers all the ingredients in little molds and puts fruit on top. I am hooked on this simple, yet incredibly tasty treat. I still have over half of them left in the freezer. Usually after class, we sit down to eat them as we gaze out over the darkening skies of Ho Chi Minh City.

I feel the need for one now.