In Vietnam, che lam is delicacy that consistently remains under the radar of gourmet raves. Its main ingredients are similar everywhere it is made: sugar, malt, fresh ginger, roasted glutinous rice flour and peanuts.
But the residents of one of the oldest villages in the country, Duong Lam, have come up with several new variances of che lam by adding ingredients like gac fruit and pandan leaves, making it more fragrant, colorful and flavorful.
Duong Lam, in Hanoi’s rural town of Son Tay, is about 44 kilometers to the northwest of the capital city’s center.
Previously, people only made che lam for Tet (Lunar New Year holiday) or at the end of autumn, when harvest season was over and they had some spare time. But now, Duong Lam welcomes about 17,000 visitors every year, so they make che lam throughout the year as well. Visitors can actually learn how to make the dessert to take home or enjoy it on the spot.
The rice used to make che lam is the golden flower glutinous rice, one of best varieties in Vietnam, grown only in the north of the country. First, the rice is roasted and ground into a smooth flour. Then it is cooked with water, sugar and ginger, stirred continuously to get the mixture thick.
When the mixture is still hot, peanuts are added to give it a buttery, crunchy taste. The amount of rice flour in the mixture is important. If there is not enough rice flour, the che lam will be very sticky and soft. On the other hand, too much rice flour can make it hard as a rock.
When finished, the mixture is poured onto a tray of flour to avoid it from sticking to the tray and to add more fragrance. With the pandan che lam, the leaves are boiled and the water is added when making the mixture. With gac che lam, the fruit’s flesh needs to be cooked before it is added to the mixture. All of these steps take around 10 minutes.
The last thing to do is to sprinkle some roasted sesame on top.
After the mixture is left to cool for an hour, it is ready to be served.
People in Duong Lam Village wake up at 5 a.m. every day to make new batches of che lam to serve visitors. Normally, one batch can be kept for three to five days.
A good che lam must be a little bit soft and chewy, lightly sweet and gingery, carrying the fragrant flavors of pandan or gac and the richness of peanuts.
It’s best to enjoy che lam on a windy day, when the weather starts getting colder, with some hot green tea to go with it.
“A lot of visitors get car sick, so we give them some green tea and che lam to make it go away, and it really works. These people often buy more to take home because they are impressed with how effective it is,” said Hung, a Duong Lam resident.