Every now and then I feel blessed to grow up in the tropics. It doesn’t let you wear scarves and gloves, but it has bananas. Many types of bananas. There are at least 10 common cultivars in Vietnam, most are for eating fresh as a fruit, some for eating raw as a veggie with wraps, and one is particularly favorable to be cooked in desserts. And desserts with bananas are just about the most addictive thing out there.
Take this banana bread pudding for instance. I intended to cut one little slice each day to savor it for over a week, but next thing I knew I was gorging half the slab after dinner. The bread is part chewy, part spongy, mostly firm, juiced up by a semisweet layer of sliced banana on top. It needs no sauce, no ice cream, no chocolate. It is good both at room temperature and right out of the fridge.
The description simply can’t capture how delicious this thing is. And it’s not even a well made banana bread pudding, you know, the type of treat that grandmother would make at home or the recipe that a vendor has perfected over ten years of peddling dessert banh’s.
It’s just a cling-wrapped 3.75-dollar piece of cake that I bought from a banh mi store. It has only one layer of bread and one layer of banana. And it is Cavendish banana, the most popular type, if not the only type at many grocery stores, of banana that Americans have known and loved.
Not that I have anything against Cavendish bananas. They’re big. They’re alright for eating fresh. But a Cavendish’s flesh is no match for chuối sứ when it comes to cooking dessert.
Chuối sứ, literally ambassador (“sứ”) banana (“chuối”), was brought to the Vietnamese royal courts by Thai ambassadors (hence it’s also called “chuối xiêm”, as “Xiêm” is another word for Thai). Like most bananas, chuoi su is considered native throughout Southeast Asia, where it’s known as siusok (Philippines), kluai namwa daeng (Thailand), and pisang siem (Indonesia). Scientifically, it is categorized under Triploid ABB, Musa x paradisiaca, although the latter is disputable as a general name for all bananas.
What I don’t get is the ABB classification. It signifies a below-average score, while Cavendish, a Musa acuminata, is in the AA group. Sure, chuoi su is shorter than Cavendish (less than the length of my hand from wrist to finger tip), but it is stout like a good bratwurst. In practice, chuoi su is more favorable for both eating and cooking because of its firm flesh, slightly gummy texture, and raisin-like sweetness, all of which can endure simmering, grilling, baking, steaming, and boiling. The banana just wouldn’t fall apart or lose its “honey”.
The best part is, it’s easy to grow, so it’s among the cheapest types of bananas in Vietnam’s markets. Not in America though. Which is why the banana bread pudding I have here tastes slightly sticky in the back of the throat and not as sweet as it could be. Nonetheless, it’s the champ of all sweet goodies we’ve gotten from banh mi stores so far.