Next year (or maybe 2022, just to be safe), we all deserve do-overs for the celebratory events we’ve had to pare down or skip altogether: anniversaries, birthdays, graduations, weddings. I’m envisioning a year-long Mardi Gras parade of revelry that takes us from January to December, from Calais to Kittery.

If I were nominating candidates to be grand marshals for Maine, I’d propose the five local chefs whose hopes for a James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Northeast were trampled when the organization canceled its 2020 awards outright.

While Krista Kern Desjarlais of North Yarmouth’s The Purple House and Chad Conley and Greg Mitchell of Palace Diner in Biddeford persevere at their nominated restaurants, making plans for the future remains perilous. That holds true even in Portland, Maine’s dining capital, where Ben Jackson of Drifters Wife has moved on to temporary pop-up gigs, and Vien Dobui of Công T Bt announced just this week that his business will finally re-open, albeit for a single takeout service each Sunday.

Now more than ever, it’s important to recall what makes these Beard finalists so special. In lieu of an actual award (or parade), I reached out to the chefs of each of the four restaurants and asked them to send along a recipe that a home cook could prepare, something inspired by their restaurant kitchen, something to tide us over until we can be together once again.

This week, I’m sharing the first in a short series of responses to my request – a recipe for Chè Đậu Trắng, a coconut-and-peanut-topped Vietnamese dessert from Vien Dobui of Công Tử Bột and his pastry chef, Katie Keating.

Dobui also surprised me with a bonus: a terrific story about cooking and identity, a teaser for the work you’ll discover in his new endeavor, a bi-monthly, subscriber-supported newsletter called Khổqua (khoqua.substack.com).

Chè đậu trắng – chè with sticky rice and black-eyed peas, developed by Katie Keating for Công Tử Bột. Photo courtesy of Vien Dobui

Công Tử Bột: Vien Dobui

Edited for clarity and length

Chè is a broad and vibrant category of desserts in Vietnam. It is as endlessly diverse as it is tricky to translate.

Wikipedia tells you that it could be a “sweet beverage, soup, or pudding” and that’s how I’ll usually begin an explanation, but I still find that definition lacking. I’ve yet to explain chè to non-Asians in a way that is satisfying to either party, but I find that gap in translation to be the territory that I’ve always wanted Công Tử Bột to be engaged in.

This particular recipe was developed by our kitchen and pastry manager Katie Keating. She’s a white Mainer and has experience in more Euro-centric pastry. When she accepted the job at CTB, one of my challenges for her was to try and learn about chè while making something that could speak to me and our mostly white audience (hello, Maine) – oh yeah, and it always had to be vegan.

There were lots of challenges for Katie, not least of which was our shared understanding of the complications of her role as a white person making food from a non-Western culture: What kind of voice could she have at a Vietnamese restaurant? Should she have one at all? Out of this dialogue, she developed our version of chè đậu trắng – chè with sticky rice and black-eyed peas.

Growing up in California, chè đậu trắng was one of the more everyday chè that my family would eat at home. Dessert was the only time we’d make beans in our house, and as a kid I didn’t think anything of it.

In my early 20s, at the peak of my shame around my Vietnamese-ness, I thought it was weird to eat beans for dessert. Letting go of that shame as an adult, I began to see sweet beans in other places – notably when I started regularly eating baked beans (so sweet!) with my New England in-laws.

Today, this every day chè has become one of the more popular desserts at CTB, where we add a brûléed banana and passionfruit jellies for embellishment. Katie’s recipe here is a pared down version of CTB’s, which itself was extrapolated from recipes by my mom Tien, Andrea Nguyen, Beth Pham and Helen Le. It’s important for me to attribute and name our influences because, even though we’re being invited to share this recipe because of a Best Chef nomination, I’ve never believed that a good restaurant, or good food, could be credited to just one person.

Creamy, starchy, comforting and texturally vibrant, this dessert staple comprises three layers: a pudding-like base of sticky rice and black-eyed peas, a coconut-milk sauce, and a crunchy, nutty topping. It can be served hot or cold, but at CTB, we serve it cold during the thawing months with a brûléed banana and passionfruit jellies.

You’ll need a few specialty ingredients for this dish: dried kombu and frozen pandan leaves. Both can be found at Sun Oriental, Veranda Market and most other Asian grocery stores in Portland.

CHÈ ĐU TRNG

Developed by Katie Keating for Công Tử Bột

Serves 6-8

Prepare the beans and rice by soaking them separately, overnight.

75 grams (about 1/3 cup) dried black-eyed peas
2375 grams (84 ounces) water
6 grams (1 teaspoon) salt

Rinse and inspect the beans for small pebbles before soaking them in the salted water for at least two hours, preferably overnight.

150 grams (3/4 cup, plus 1 tablespoon) uncooked sticky (glutinous) rice (we like Koda Farms brand)

Rinse the sticky rice three to four times under running water, or until the rinsing water runs clear. This process washes off excess starch. Cover with a few inches of water and soak overnight.

The next day, cook the beans.

Black-eyed peas (soaked and drained, as above)
375 grams (13 ounces) water
8 grams dried kombu
50 grams (1/4 cup) white sugar
5 grams (3/4 teaspoon) salt
1 cinnamon stick (char lightly with a flame to add extra depth of flavor)

Combine the above ingredients in a small saucepan. Start on medium heat, and once the mixture is simmering lightly, turn down the heat to low. Cook low and slow until the beans are tender. This may take a few hours. Refrain from stirring too much, as this is what can cause the beans to break. Taste until you reach the desired doneness. At CTB, we like our beans tender but with some bite – think tender, fresh English peas, not squishy baked beans. When they’re done, let the beans cool in their cooking liquid.

In a separate pot, cook the rice.

Sticky rice (soaked and drained, as above)
550 grams (19 ounces) water
90 grams (1/2 cup) white sugar
4 grams (1/2 teaspoon plus a pinch) salt

Like the beans, cook the rice on medium-low heat, stirring every few five minutes or so to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Cook the rice until each grain has fully changed from opaque to translucent, but not until all the rice is broken. Depending on how long you’ve soaked it, this may take 20 to 40 minutes. After you have removed the pot from the heat, continue to stir the rice occasionally as it cools so it doesn’t sink and clump at the bottom of the saucepan.

Combine the rice and beans.

When both the beans and rice are cool, strain the beans but reserve the liquid. Discard the cinnamon stick. Combine the beans and rice and stir gently, adding back some of the bean cooking liquid to get your desired consistency. We like ours to be a little looser than rice pudding. Discard the kombu if you wish, or cut it into smaller pieces and keep it in the mix for a little extra texture.

Prepare the coconut sauce.

600 grams (1.5 cans) coconut milk
100 grams (1/2 cup) white sugar
5 grams (2 teaspoons) cornstarch (or 10 grams tapioca starch)
3-4 pandan leaves, rinsed and tied in a knot
Pinch of salt

Pour coconut milk into a small saucepan. Whisk the cornstarch into the dry white sugar, then whisk into the coconut milk. Add the pandan knot and slowly bring the whole mixture to a simmer over medium heat. Once it simmers, stir the mixture for three minutes, or until the cornstarch thickens. Cool with the pandan still in the pot. Remove the pandan before serving.

Prepare the muối mè

60 grams (1/4 cup) toasted white sesame seeds
165 grams (1 1/4 cup) toasted peanuts, chopped
50 grams (1/4 cup) toasted shredded coconut, unsweetened
90 grams (1/2 cup) white sugar
4 grams (1/2 teaspoon plus a pinch) salt

In a small bowl, mix all ingredients thoroughly by hand.

Assemble the chè (hot or cold)

Spoon the rice and beans mixture into individual dishes. Bowls or glasses both work well. Top the mixture with a dollop of coconut sauce and generous spoonful of muối mè.

Note: The coconut sauce and muối mè topping are versatile pantry items and are good on almost any dessert – ice cream being an obvious one. Both the rice and beans mixture and the coconut sauce will keep in the fridge for a week.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of three recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association. Contact him at: [email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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