Nuts for bananas: a snack of youth

An old friend from the Mekong Delta posted pictures of deliciously charred bananas with a coconut milk dip, reminding me of my own sweet childhood. Since I was small, mom would always make the snack. Once I moved to Ho Chi Minh City and settled there, the staple snack became an occasional treat I rarely got to enjoy.

Grilled banana with coconut dip – a childhood snack of many Mekong Delta natives.

Grilled banana with coconut dip.

Across Vietnam's Mekong Delta provinces, specifically Ben Tre, every house boasts a garden with banana and coconut trees, whether big or small. When children crave a snack, mothers often make delectable sweets from homegrown ingredients.

These staple dishes are fairly simple, using a very versatile fruit from the backyard. With just a bunch of bananas, mom could make either fried banana, banana sweet soup, or banana cake.

But to the little ones, grilled bananas remain a favorite. Simple yet flavorful, a down-to-earth plate of grilled bananas with a coconut dip leaves one drooling.

Perhaps it is this very simplicity in preparing the dish that retains its essence and keeps us, those far away from home, relentlessly longing.

The most important step is choosing the right banana. To ensure the most flavor, bananas must be picked when nearly ripe with green skin and slightly hard to the touch.

The bananas are then peeled, cut in half, then placed on an earthenware stove with preheated coal. After the bananas have warmed up and softened, mom places them in a bag and gently flattens them out.

She then sets the lightly pounded bananas onto the grill for a second time. The process may seem straightforward and easy but is deceivingly laborious as the harsh heat emitted from the coal stove requires quick, methodical flips of the bananas. Once both sides turn golden and slightly charred, the bananas are ready. An inviting smell quickly fills every nook and cranny of the room.

Grilling the bananas over coal intensifies its fruity, mellow, and sweet scent; a smell that could seduce anyone nearby. However, the grilled banana dish isn’t complete without its coconut milk dip – a specialty of the Mekong Delta region.  

For optimal results, bananas must be grilled over coal. When grilling, they are constantly turned for a nice golden color.

When grilling over coal, bananas are constantly turned for a nice golden color.

With the coconut trees conveniently thriving in the backyard, all local dishes are accompanied by a coconut dip, whether it be milk or water. Most sweet produce from Mekong Delta provinces also come with this signature coconut dip. The scrumptious grilled banana treat is no exception.

To make the sauce, mom picks a dry coconut from the garden, scrapes out its meat, and extracts the water twice. Using only water from the first extraction, she seasons it with sugar and salt and boils it over the stove. The mixture is carefully stirred every now and then and tasted to ensure a sweet and salty flavor.

At boiling point, mom adds and mixes in some tapioca starch to thicken the texture. The dip is then cooked until the texture is slightly viscous and not too runny nor thick. Before turning off the stove, a handful of thinly sliced scallions is dropped into the mixture for visual appeal.

The taste of these smoky bananas drenched in rich coconut sauce can satisfy any sweet tooth. The cravings are replaced by the dish’s arresting aroma and an explosion of flavor: sweet, creamy, and rich. The coconut sauce is so milky and well-balanced even when the bananas have run out, children slurp up the rest of the scrumptious side dip.

The sweetness of bananas is balanced out by the toasty flavor from grilling. Its aroma, sticky sweet and salty dip, and rich aftertaste compose an unforgettable dish.

The sweetness of bananas is balanced out by the toasty flavor from grilling. 

Grilled bananas have a few variations and twists to it. In some localities, the dish is topped off with a scallion and green onion oil garnish as well as toasted peanuts. Regardless of how it is served, grilled bananas reserve a special place in the hearts of Mekong Delta locals.

For Mekong Delta locals, we may find our childhood dish at small eateries or sidewalk stalls throughout Ho Chi Minh City, but it doesn’t taste the same. The grilled bananas might be nicely seared and generously drizzled in velvety coconut sauce yet it still tastes incomplete. It lacks mom’s humble kitchen, dad’s burgeoning green garden, our plain hometown, and most of all the warmth of the household that makes mom’s grilled bananas and coconut dip incomparable.