What feels like a million years ago, the Ninja and I lived in a tiny high rise apartment in downtown Hanoi, Vietnam. We were doing the teacher thing, or at least, he was discovering his talent for it while I mostly ran around with my camera trying to eat as much as possible. I’m a predictable traveller and not a good teacher, but I did find that it was possible in a year to get familiar with a lot of what Vietnamese cuisine is.
Between intermittent tutoring gigs I would shake off my kitten heels (which always felt weird to wear, I must admit), grab a map and plan the next palm-shaded, pleasantly sweaty adventure to food nook no. 763 with the best snail noodles in the city, or the bicycle vender with the sticky rice desserts, or the lady with the fertilized fetal duck eggs at the market under the train tracks. In a place where my communication with others was makeshift, and where I didn’t even seem to have much in common with the expat population, food was my lifeline.
Due to my computer dying somewhere in the middle of that trip, I didn’t even write about a lot of it. But I’ll catch up as best I can now, 4 years later.
So I chased after a lot of specific dishes (see: the Street Food Map of Hanoi). But when we needed compromise (and a table, and chairs, and menus), we often ate at Quán Ăn Ngon, a big open-air eatery encircled by stations preparing all the greatest street food hits, and even some royal dishes and, hallelujah, desserts. None of it was the the best version of anything, but it was always packed with locals, and it was convenient as heck, and it was all still yummy.
I think I managed to try every dessert they offered, from ultra-chewy bánh da lợn (steamed tapioca layer cake) to refreshing tậu hũ nước đường (tofu in syrup and coconut milk), and all their many many kind of chè (vietnam dessert soup or pudding). They came in tall glasses with long spoons and swam with layers of brightly coloured jellies and candied seeds, smooth ice cubes and coconut cream, and tapioca (sago) pearls.
Back to the future. Now I’m sitting in my kitchen with a cleaned out jam jar full of tiny green tapioca pearls that I probably bought in Hanoi and smuggled back with me in my suitcase, only to let it sit looking verdant and pretty on a shelf for almost 4 years. Whaaaaaaaat is wrong with me? It’s not like tapioca pudding isn’t the easiest pudding in the world (it kind of is).
Tapioca Pearl Pudding with Palm Syrup & Lemon Jellies
This isn’t a traditional Vietnamese dessert, but in spirit, it brings me back to Hanoi. Clean, barely sweet coconutty pudding, sweetened with a thick palm syrup and festooned with jellies and tiny squares of mango – not only delicious but very fun to eat.
If you don’t want to make palm sugar syrup, maple syrup or golden cane syrup works perfectly, too.
- ½ cup tapioca pearls / 90 g
- 1½ cups cold water / 375 g
- 1½ cups coconut milk / 375 g
- 1½ tablespoons sugar / 28 g
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract (if you have any fresh pandan, use that instead!)
- ½ lb. palm sugar (or substitute 1 cup + 1 tablespoon light brown sugar)
- 1/3 cup cold water / 87 g
- 1 teaspoon corn syrup / 5 g
- 1/3 cup (minus 1 teaspoon) fresh-squeezed lemon juice / 75 g
- 1/3 cup sugar / 75 g
- 1/3 cup (minus 1 teaspoon) water / 75 g
- 4 g powdered gelatin
- ½ cup packed dark brown (muscovado) sugar / 100 g
- 7 tablespoons water / 100 g
- 7 g powdered gelatin
- Mango! Diced finely, or chunkily, or bits of dragonfruit, or grapes, or kiwi or pomegranate or whatever you feel like that day.
To make the pudding: In a small bowl, soak the tapioca pearls in the cold water for an hour. Drain and discard the water.
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, bring the tapioca, coconut milk, sugar and vanilla to a boil. Lower heat to a simmer and stir gently until the pearls turn translucent and the pudding thickens, about 5 minutes.
Remove from heat and pour into 4 ramekins, then cover each ramekin with plastic wrap to avoid forming a skin. (the pudding is good warm, room temperature, or cold from the fridge.)
For the syrup: Bring water and corn syrup to a boil in a medium saucepan over high heat. Lower heat to medium-low and add the palm sugar discs. Simmer until sugar is dissolved completely, then remove from heat and pour into a glass jar or bowl to cool completely before using. It will thicken to a good pouring consistency.
For the jellies: Line 2 small square containers (about 3 x 6 inches) with plastic wrap – it helps to moisten them slightly with water first to help the plastic stick to the sides.
Lemon: In a small bowl, moisten the gelatin with half the water and let it hydrate for 5 minutes.
Bring sugar and remaining water to a boil in a small saucepan. Remove from heat and stir in the lemon juice. Add the hydrated gelatin and stir to melt it completely. Pour into prepared container and chill for at least 1 hour.
Muscovado: In a small bowl, moisten the gelatin with half the water and let it hydrate for 5 minutes.
Bring muscovado sugar and remaining water to a boil in a small saucepan. Remove from heat and stir in the hydrated gel to dissolve. Pour into prepared container and chill for at least 1 hour.
Remove jellies from containers and cut into desired shapes. Decorate your puddings, add fresh fruit, and drizzle with cooled syrup.