KINGDOM OF COCONUTS

Ben Tre’s coconuts bear a different taste to those found elsewhere around Vietnam and are a local specialty.

By Le Diem on October 14,2019 09:43 AM

KINGDOM OF COCONUTS

PHOTOS ANH NHI RESTAURANT

Coconuts can be found everywhere in Vietnam but the “Green Xiem” variety found in Ben Tre is very much appreciated for its naturally sweeter taste than coconuts found elsewhere.

About 90km south of Ho Chi Minh City, Ben Tre province is a key destination for visitors to the Mekong Delta thanks to its rich network of canals and immense coconut groves. Together with leisurely boat rides under the shade of coconut fonds, visitors can also explore a host of exceptional coconut specialties, which are the source of much local pride.

Fresh coconut juice is obviously the most popular drink among Ben Tre locals as well as visitors. Coconuts can be found everywhere in Vietnam but the “Green Xiem” variety found in Ben Tre is very much appreciated for its naturally sweeter taste than coconuts found elsewhere. Green Xiem are delivered all around Vietnam and known as a “sugary coconut” of the Ben Tre brand, receiving a certificate of Geographical Indication from the National Office of Intellectual Property last year.

More than a fresh drink, Ben Tre coconut also provides good ingredients for dishes in a unique full course meal.

Let’s start with “cu hu dua” (coconut core salad) for the appetizer. The coconut core can only be found at the top of the tree, hidden inside the trunk. It is therefore quite a rare dish as it requires a whole tree be chopped down to remove it. Only Ben Tre, with its abundant coconuts, can supply the core, making it a local specialty. Fresh and sweet, the coconut core is grated or shred into half-finger-sized pieces and mixed with shrimp, pork, onions, some herbs, and peanuts, combined with sugar, lime, and fish sauce.

KINGDOM OF COCONUTS

Now comes the main dish, and a coconut is ready on the table. It is a unique style of Ben Tre to serve food inside a coconut shell. The dish is known as coconut rice and is another local specialty, with rice put into the coconut and cooked with coconut juice instead of water. Moreover, the “pot” is not put directly over a flame, but in another “real” pot to be steamed. This helps the rice absorb the juice slowly, bringing a sweet aroma. Coconut rice should be eaten with shrimp braised with coconut milk, in the traditional way of local people.

There may be another coconut on the table, but it’s not another rice dish. Like a magic box, once a Ben Tre coconut is opened it can surprise with what’s inside. This one is for when you need a drink to enjoy a meal - coconut wine. It’s usually homemade in a simple way. Old coconuts with thick flesh are selected and all the juice taken out and replaced by rice wine. After a month, it has absorbed all the flavor of the flesh and is ready to drink. Its mild sweet taste makes it easy to enjoy until perhaps you can’t remember anything!

So try to control how much you drink, because yummy desserts are still to come. Another piece of coconut magic gives you two types of coconut dishes favored by many Vietnamese: coconut jelly and coconut ice cream. Different from other jelly or ice cream, this whole coconut-sized dessert is great value at just a dollar or so. Be careful, however - your stomach may complain if you manage to finish it all.

There is still something more made from coconut. Local people have a trick. They usually order one coconut of jelly or ice cream to share between two. Then their stomach is fine and there is space for another dessert: coconut cake. This is familiar among all people in Ben Tre in particular and the Mekong Delta in general, becoming a traditional cake. It is put on the altar to offer the ancestors at special offering events, Tet (the Lunar New Year Festival) and death anniversaries of family members.

Similar to “banh chung” in the north and “banh tet” in the south (both of which are traditional Vietnamese cakes), coconut cake is also made from sticky rice and cooked in the same way. The difference is the wrapper, which is a coconut leaf, and the ingredients mixed with coconut flesh, coconut milk, black beans, and either green beans or banana. All nicely combine to provide a typical agricultural taste of the countryside.

After the meal, if you’ve become a fan of coconut and still want more, coconut sweets, which Ben Tre was the first to produce, are perfect for you to continue slowly enjoying its special flavor. Traditional coconut candy is made simply and naturally, from coconut milk, sugarcane, and malt. Today, other flavors are added, such as cacao, durian, taro, strawberries, and peanuts. A visit to a coconut candy making household is a special activity on all tours around Ben Tre. Visitors can also see a variety of sophisticated handicrafts made from coconuts, for daily use or souvenirs, like cups, bowls, spoons, ashtrays, tea sets (a pot and cups), vases, bags, clocks, and sculptures of boats, cars, cyclos, and animals, among others.

With a little bar of coconut candy, many people suddenly become quiet, deeply touched by its scented deliciousness. But they also smile a lot.

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