This Vietnamese Coconut Tapioca Pudding with Grilled Bananas is one of my favorite memories from Hanoi. We sat in an atmospheric corner cafe that specialized in traditional local desserts. We enjoyed this warm pudding with iced coffees from the 4th floor balcony overlooking a colorful Buddhist temple across the leafy street. It was so delicious that we returned to that cafe a few days later to enjoy the pudding and coffees all over again.
Last summer at the OC Little Saigon Night Market, I found a food booth that made a similar pudding, but with grilled taro coated in green sticky rice instead of banana. Warm and not too sweet. I was reminded of the pudding from Hanoi and was inspired to try to make it myself. As I did research, I was delighted to learn that the dish is naturally vegan. The combo of tapioca and coconut milk thicken the pudding without milk or eggs. As I try to reduce dairy for myself, one of the things I have missed was homemade pudding, especially since my mom’s recipe for homemade warm chocolate pudding is pretty outstanding. Now I know I can make vegan pudding that’s light and pretty healthy for a dessert. It’s also incredibly delicious.
What makes this dish special is grilling the bananas. I sear them in a cast iron skillet on the stove, rotating them until they turn dark on all sides. Heating semi-caramelizes the bananas which amplifies the flavor. Try your best to find little shorty bananas which are tropical, non-industrialized, and full of flavor. Here in California, I find them in Asian (usually Vietnamese) or Mexican grocery stories.
Honestly, I didn’t really like bananas until I visited Thailand in my early 20s and tried real tropical bananas. They taste the way bananas are supposed to taste, not like pasty cardboard American-style bananas. Now I pretty much only eat shorty bananas because they actually have flavor. (I only buy standard American-style bananas in a pinch for baking). Sometimes in Vietnamese supermarkets, women come up to me to let me know they approve of my shorty banana choice. If you can’t find shorty bananas, you can make due with standard American-style bananas. The searing will help them have more flavor.
Vietnamese coconut tapioca pudding with grilled bananas
1/4 cup (50g) small tapioca pears
14-ounce can of unsweetened coconut milk
3 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla (optional)
4 shorty bananas or 3 large bananas
2 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds
2 teaspoons roasted unsalted peanuts or cashews, roughly chopped
2-3 tablespoons dried coconut
Pour 1 1/2 cups water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Sprinkle in the tapioca pearls and stir. Partially cover and reduce the heat to low. Simmer, stirring every couple of minutes so the tapioca doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan, for about 15 minutes. If the saucepan runs out of water, drizzle a little more in. The tapioca balls start out opaque, and will slowly become clear when they are cooked.
Pour the coconut milk in and stir. Add the sugar, salt, and vanilla if using. Note that the vanilla will make the pudding slightly beige instead of pure white. Increase the heat slightly to simmer, stirring occasionally until the sugar is dissolves and the pudding thickens a little.
Meanwhile, toast the coconut flakes, sesame seeds, and peanuts or cashews.
In a cast iron pan, sear the bananas, turning every few minutes so they are cooked on all sides.
Slice the bananas and add them to the pudding. Garnish with the sesame seeds, coconut flakes, and peanuts or cashews.
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