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Hẻm Gems: In D5, a Family Durian Xôi Xiêm Recipe Inspired by Cambodia

At first glance, xôi xiêm sầu riêng — or sticky rice with egg custard and durian — may appear plain-looking, but apart from being a tasty sweet treat, this simple dish also holds stories of life during Vietnam’s post-war period.

The humble shopfront of Ngọc Yến with the owner.

Located in the vicinity of Chợ Lớn, Xôi Xiêm Ngọc Yến is part of the the rather narrow Dương Tử Giang Street. It’s a market area with plenty of busy motorbike components shops, fabric stores and food vendors with their tables and chairs set up on the sidewalk, making the eatery a bit inconspicuous. Fortunately, traffic is fairly slow in this part of town, so you can leisurely drive to spot the place. 

The first time I was at Ngọc Yến, like every other customer, I parked myself on a stool and table placed out on the sidewalk. The owner of the place, Yến, informed me that there were only two options on the menu, durian xôi xiêm and chè ba màu, so I ordered both.  

Visually, the sticky rice looked similar to regular xôi xiêm, with three basic components: coconut milk dousing on top, followed by a layer of ca dé — a sweet spread made from eggs, coconut milk and sugar, a local adaptation of Malaysian kaya — and finally sticky rice at the bottom. But I wonder, where is the durian in this dish?

The menu only has two dishes: xôi xiêm and chè ba màu.

My curiosity was quickly resolved, because as soon as the xôi xiêm plate is placed on my table, I immediately felt the presence of durian via its scent coming out of the dish. The coconut milk was mixed with durian pulp, resulting in a lightly sweet flavor that fuses the essence of both coconut and durian. Beneath the layer of coconut milk lies the ca dé. Ngọc Yến’s ca dé is quite distinctive, as it doesn’t have the custard-y texture like the ca dé in other sticky rice dishes or ca dé steam buns. Instead, it has a silky smooth feeling, like you’re eating flan.

As for the sticky rice, the fragrant white starch was soft and chewy. The rice didn’t have the same level of sweetness compared to the other two components; perhaps it was intentional, so that the starch could leave room for the ca dé and coconut milk to shine. Because to truly enjoy xôi xiêm, you need to scoop up and savor all three ingredients at the same time. The coconut milk and ca dé provide the creamy, melt-in-your-mouth texture and sweetness. Meanwhile, the sticky rice with its pleasant aroma and chewiness creates a contrast to make the eating experience more interesting. Every spoonful of this durian xôi xiêm offered warmth, subtle sweetness and comfort.

A refreshing bowl of chè ba màu.

The second option on the menu was chè ba màu (three-color sweet dessert). The name was a self-explanatory description of this dessert, and its three primary colors consist of: the white of coconut milk and jelly, the burgundy of red beans, the yellow-hue of ca dé and mashed green beans. With a sphere of shaved ice placed on top, chè ba màu was a suitable cooling dessert to quench your thirst after enjoying the xôi xiêm. As I was enjoying my sweet treat, seeing that the owner wasn't busy, I decided to ask her some questions about the shop and she revealed to me the story of how this place came to be. 

Back in the 1970s, a significant number of Cambodians and Vietnamese-Cambodians sought refuge in Vietnam to escape the political conflict happening in their homeland. As they settled into their new lives, some introduced their own local cuisine to the community around them as a means of livelihood. During this period, Yến’s mother-in-law worked with a Cambodian food vendor and was taught the methods to make a couple of Cambodian dishes including the durian xôi xiêm. Later on, she opened a shop serving those Cambodian dishes at her own home, where a large majority of their customers were from the Hoa community, and that was when Ngọc Yến officially opened.

The family business has been selling sticky rice and chè here for four decades.

Yến learned the recipes of durian xôi xiêm from her mother-in-law. According to her, the uniqueness behind the Cambodian durian xôi xiêm recipe that they were taught lies in the durian-fused coconut milk and the ca dé, which is made from duck eggs rather than chicken eggs, giving the custard the orange-hue color and flan-like texture. And for more than 40 years, the shop became a popular sweet snacks stop for people living in Chợ Lớn.

“Back then, we didn’t even have a shop sign, people were just curious and decided to try the food, then many of them liked it and kept coming back. Even now, we still serve a lot of regular customers,” Yến shared.

A portion of chè has mung bean paste, red beans and coconut milk.

While I was enjoying the xôi xiêm, many customers stopped by to place orders, requesting “the usual.” A lady who came to buy takeaway xôi xiêm asked Yến for a cup of tea and proceeded to casually pick a cup from the counter and pour in the shaved ice and tea all by herself. It seems many of the shop's regulars have known Yến for a long time, and always make themselves at home whenever they come here.

These may be a great treat for a decadent treat day.

I was impressed by Ngọc Yến's durian xôi xiêm, especially its simplicity. Just a combination of durian-infused coconut milk, ca dé and sticky rice can make for such a warm and lightly sweet comfort snack. After hearing the story of how the eatery came to be, I was fascinated by how this dish moved across borders, its recipe being passed down through generations, and becoming a treat for many different communities across various ethnic groups. That was quite a journey for a humble sticky rice.

Ngọc Yến opens from 2pm to 10:30pm every day.

To sum up:

Taste: 5/5
Price: 5/5
Atmosphere: 4/5
Friendliness: 5/5
Location: 4/5

Quán Chè Ngọc Yến

157 Dương Tử Giang, Ward 15, D5, HCMC


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