Springtime calls for a celebration drink—something bright in color and in taste, something to make a person feel special. With the advent of Mother’s Day and all mom-related memories, I think of a dessert my mother and I love to share: chè ba màu, or “three-color pudding.” It’s also sometimes called Rainbow Dessert, because of the vibrant colors in the dish.
What is Chè Ba Màu?
Chè is a general category of Vietnamese dessert that encompasses puddings, soups, and drinks that are sweet and often composed of multiple components. The “ba màu” part of the name refers to the striking red, yellow, and green layers of the chè. Chè ba màu is assembled from disparate yet complementary layers: sweet red beans, yellow mung beans, pandan jelly, crushed or shaved ice, and a salty-sweet coconut sauce.
The heartiness of the red beans plays well with the creamy mung beans, while the grassy, floral lightness of the pandan jelly adds a springy note. And my favorite part is the coconut cream that cuts through all the sugar with a velvety richness. It’s a wonderfully balanced and complex dessert that manages to be refreshing and filling at the same time.
Homemade Means More Control
No one’s ever said that chè ba màu is quick or simple. In fact, its very decadence comes from the fact that it’s a celebratory kind of dessert parfait, something you have when you’re craving a special moment. Chè ba màu is typically served at restaurants or roadside stands, but when you make it at home, you have more control over the ratio of ingredients and the overall sweetness. I’ve had some chès that are teeth-rattlingly sweet, and others that feel more mild and balanced.
Tips for Making Chè Ba Màu
Most of the ingredients can be found in an Asian grocery store or online. You can make the minor substitutions noted below, but for the best results, you’ll want to use the actual ingredients.
- Serve this in a tall glass, so that you can dredge a spoon through all the flavors.
- Don’t skimp on the coconut cream. It can be harder to track down than coconut milk, but the texture adds an imitable touch.
- The work in this dish is the prep, but once that’s out of the way, you can enjoy the dessert with a crowd. Consider making an event of it—double or triple the recipe, invite guests, and let them top their own chè!
One day before serving:
Soak the mung beans:
Soak the dried mung beans in 3 cups of water for at least 3 hours, or preferably overnight. Keep refrigerated.
Make the green layer:
Bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a small pot over medium-high heat. Add the agar agar and 3 tablespoons sugar. Stir for 1 to 2 minutes, until dissolved.
Lower heat to a simmer and mix in the pandan flavoring. If your flavoring is clear (sometimes it is green), add the optional food coloring—about 4 drops for a bright green color.
Pour the pandan mixture into a container that’s at least 9 inches wide (like a quiche pan) and cool in the fridge for 1 to 2 hours or longer, similar to Jell-O, but firmer.
On the day you’ll serve the chè ba màu:
Cook the mung beans:
Rinse the mung beans in a colander under running water, and add to a medium pot with 1 cup of water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Once the pot is boiling, lower the heat to medium. Add 2 tablespoons sugar and allow to cook for 10 minutes, until the beans feel tender to the bite.
Let cool, then mash with a fork or potato masher.
Slice the pandan jelly:
Slice the pandan jelly into thin ribbons (my preference) or 1/2-inch cubes. You can do this right in the container—no need to transfer it onto a cutting board.
Make the coconut sauce:
Bring the coconut cream to a boil in a small pot over medium heat. Then, add 3 tablespoons sugar, the tapioca starch, and salt. Stir vigorously for 1 to 2 minutes, until the mixture thickens. It should stick to the back of your spoon, like melted ice cream.
Set aside to cool.
Assemble the chè ba màu:
You’ll build the chè ba màu in a tall clear glass. Layer in the following order: 2 tablespoons of the red bean paste, 2 tablespoons of the yellow mung bean mixture, 2 tablespoons of the green pandan jelly, and 1 cup of crushed ice. Drizzle the top of the mixture with 2 tablespoons of coconut sauce. You will have enough ingredients to assemble 4 glasses of chè ba màu.
You can be flexible with this assembling, adding more or less of the ingredients to adjust the ratio to your taste. I like a pretty balanced mixture, but some people might use less of the sweet bean paste and more of the pandan jelly. You can also adjust your ice, based on preference.
Serve with a tall spoon and a straw. Mix the servings or eat each layer separately.
Ingredients can be refrigerated for up to one week.
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