A Sweet Lunar New Year: Chè Chuối - OZY | A Modern Media Company

A Sweet Lunar New Year: Chè Chuối

A Sweet Lunar New Year: Chè Chuối

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu


Because it’s time to try something new this Lunar New Year.

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu

As immigrants, my family opts out of the typical American holiday traditions. Instead of red stockings stuffed with presents, the kids get red envelopes packed with money. Rather than kissing under the mistletoe, we burn incense to pay respect to our ancestors. And instead of pecan pie, for Tết, or Lunar New Year, we make chè chuối, a creamy concoction that harks back to our roots in Vietnam, where sun-kissed vendors on busy streets make it year-round, serving it with a dollop of shaved ice.

Trust me, it’s way better than Aunt Linda’s figgy pudding. The sweet, tender bananas soak up the freshly pressed coconut milk, while chewy tapioca embeds texture and crushed peanuts infuse richness. Every bite, my mother tells me, takes her back to childhood along the Mekong Delta, where she fetched the ingredients from open-air markets as a youngster. But as cultural customs are packed up and moved from continent to continent, family recipes get tweaked and twisted to suit shifting lifestyles. So in my home, we sip it warm instead of chilled, to fight off the frosty American winter, and my mother adds sliced sweet potatoes, something that isn’t plentiful in Vietnam’s tropics but comes by the truckload in America’s heartland.

No matter the location, though, she still cooks with Lady Finger bananas, the same sugary, dwarf-size fruits my great-grandmother munched on. The sweet tooth runs in the family; come Christmas, you’ll spot my tiny cousins near the stove, dipping their sticky fingers into towering pots of warm chè chuối, ruining the entire batch. Everyone else’s fingers, however, are usually pointed at me. What can I say? My cousins learned from the best. And so can you. 

Ingredients (Makes 4 servings)

  • 1 2/3 cups coconut milk (1 can)
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons small tapioca pearls
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 3 ripe Lady Finger bananas (peeled, sliced diagonally)
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 1 large sweet potato (peeled, cubed, steamed)
  • 4 teaspoons peanuts (roasted, crushed)

In a medium-size pot, mix the coconut milk, sugar, tapioca pearls and salt. Bring to a rolling boil and reduce heat to medium-low. Wait for the tapioca to become translucent and soft (approximately 20 minutes). In the meantime, fry the sliced bananas in oil in a separate pan until golden brown. Once tapioca pearls are ready, add the sweet potato and bananas into the pot and cook over medium heat for a few minutes. Top with crushed peanuts.

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