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A Brief Guide to Vietnam's Lesser-Known Sweet Sticky Rice Dishes

You may have tried the famed mango sticky rice from Thailand and wondered, “How on earth does this rice go so well with the sweetness of mango and coconut milk?” Usually, some would think of rice as part of a savory dish, like how mashed potatoes go with steak, instead of berries. However, in many Asian countries that use rice as a staple, sticky rice or glutinous rice, in the form of grains or flour, has long been used to make sweet treats and desserts, as well as savory main dishes.

Vietnam also has an array of glutinous rice dishes in its cuisine, and among them, sweet sticky rice variations. These are called xôi ngọt to differentiate from xôi mặn, a popular sticky rice street food item with various savory ingredients, including pâté, which was introduced to Vietnamese cuisine by the French. Xôi ngọt is possibly a longer-standing tradition, but less prominent nowadays, as it is usually only for breakfast, sold by vendors on the street side with no signage. The following sweet sticky rice dishes are the special ones that different generations in Hanoi still enjoy or hold dear in their memories.

Xôi Vừng Dừa

This is another plant-based sticky rice dish, rich with the oil and sweetness from thinly shredded coconut and ground roasted sesame. Its milky caramel color is more delicate than that of gấc sticky rice, but also auspicious. Coconut sesame sticky rice may also be served in family feasts or as breakfast, however, its popularity has decreased in recent years simply because it requires a lot of work.

First, the rice needs to be cooked with a little bit of salt. Then, the cooked rice is left to cool before being mixed with shredded coconut and coconut water for a second round of cooking. Finally, ground roasted sesame, together with a bit of sugar, is mixed well with the coconut rice after cooking. The result is a subtly sweet treat that’s both comforting and nutritious.

You can sample both xôi gấc and xôi vừng dừa from a street vendor called Chị Hoa on the corner of Ngo Van So and Quang Trung.

Xôi Gấc. Photo by Vinxent Nguyen.

Xôi Gấc

Gấc is a fruit that was originally discovered in Vietnam, so that’s why it gets to keep its Vietnamese name, gấc. It is rich in beta-carotene, which gives the spiky fruit a vibrant orange-red color that’s considered lucky in Vietnamese culture. Therefore, this sticky rice is a high-born dish, the beauty queen of sweet sticky rice dishes, oftentimes present during Tet celebrations, weddings, and other formal occasions.

It’s interesting how people use this fruit to make the sticky rice look and taste good. The aril surrounding the seeds inside the ripe, red fruit is taken out and mixed with uncooked glutinous rice. Some people even add a little bit of rice wine into the aril and stir well before mixing with rice, for additional vibrancy and aroma. Some of the seeds may also be left in the mix to make use of all the flesh still stuck on them.

The rice grains absorb all of this when cooked, which results in a smooth, shiny reddish appearance. The secret is in the thorough mixing of the rice and the fruit content before cooking; otherwise, you may end up with an unevenly colored bunch of xôi.

Xôi Chè. Photo by Bac Ha.

Xôi Chè

While the name sounds odd and the translation sounds odder, xôi vò chè đường or xôi chè is actually quite nice and still very popular as breakfast or a late afternoon snack. It consists of two things put together: sticky rice and sweet soup.

The sticky rice for this dish is not as sticky as usual, because the rice is coated with mung bean paste before cooking. During the process, a little oil is added and the whole mixture is then stirred thoroughly, hence the name xôi vò (literally ruffled sticky rice).

The sweet soup can be the simple, translucent chè hoa cau, made from tapioca or kudzu starch cooked with water, with cooked mung beans added. Occasionally, xôi vò can be served with chè bà cốt, a more complex soup made from caramelized brown sugar cooked with sticky rice to produce a soupy liquid, which is then infused with a bit of ginger juice.

A bowl of golden sticky rice submerged in a warm sweet soup is especially satisfying in chilly weather. This may also be the reason why in the southern part of Vietnam, where it is hotter, people often eat xôi vò without the sweet soup. Therefore, xôi chè is a unique treat of Hanoi and its surrounding provinces. You can try this on a windy night after the rain at Xoi Che Ba Thin, on the corner of Bat Dan and Hang Bo.

[Top image: Xôi Vừng Dừa. Photo by Bac Ha]

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