In the Việt kitchen, the letter X is tasty. I considered writing about xào, stir-frying, or xoài, mango, or perhaps xôi, sticky rice. Then my in-laws sent a huge package of goodies from Huế. Among the many local specialties were two kinds of mè xửng, a sesame-coated nougat-style sweet made with peanuts, sugar, malt syrup and rice flour. It reminds me of peanut brittle, but soft and malleable, and much less sweet.
Mè means sesame. Xửng is a steamer tray, and some people say this was the traditional container for holding the freshly made candy. In some dictionaries, xửng is defined as the way sugar is cooked down—not quite caramelized—when making mè xửng.
Huế people call the candy a symbol of their city, and give this local specialty as a gift for friends and family who live elsewhere. At Lunar New Year, I often spot it in the trays of sweets offered with tea for guests.
Even my husband, who does not care for it, says there’s something special about the candy that reminds him of home. I can see why—one of Huế’s oldest and most popular mè xửng companies, Thiên Hương, is just around the corner from where he grew up, and we see their sign, the big blue and red letters appearing to float on the skyline, every time we cross the Gia Hội Bridge on the way to his parents’.
Recipes vary, but not greatly; confectioners and home cooks follow a basic method. White sugar is poured into a large pot, followed by a slurry of rice flour combined with water, and the mixture is stirred over heat to melt the sugar. (Rice flour is usually used, but I’ve seen recipes with tapioca flour too.) At this point, some candy makers add lime juice for extra fragrance. The mixture must be stirred constantly with a wooden spoon or spatula to prevent sticking and burning.
After ten or fifteen minutes, a dough forms, comparable in density to a thick Béchamel. If the cook is preparing a large amount of candy, more sugar might be added now. After another ten minutes of stirring, scraping and folding with the wooden utensil, the cook reduces the heat and pours in the malt syrup, stirring all the while, and the candy turns golden brown.
To test for readyness, a chopstick is dipped into the bubbling mixture and lifted out. The candy should form a thin sheet hanging from the horizontal chopstick. (I’m guessing that this is probably somewhere around the firm to hard ball stage, 244° to 250°C°). The sheet is waved back and forth to cool it quickly, then gathered between the fingers. If it’s soft and maleable but barely sticks to the hand, it’s time to fold in the freshly roasted peanuts, usually chopped or ground roughly. A wooden spoon in each hand makes pushing the candy back and forth in the pan easier.
Now it’s time for the fragrant, toasted sesame seeds. These are spread in a thin layer on the work surface, traditionally a nia, a large, flat, round tray. The candy mass is scooped out of the pot and placed atop the seeds. Left to cool for five minutes, it flattens and spreads into a shapely circle.
The candy maker flaps over the circle’s edges on four sides to form it into a square, flips the candy to coat it entirely in seeds, and positions a square wooden mold over it. With a wooden pin, the mixture must be rolled and pressed to fit the mold and embed the sesame seeds. The mold is removed and the cook continues to roll and press until satisfied that enough sesame is embedded in the surface. After it sets and cools awhile, around 30 minutes, the candy is cut. If pressed into U-shaped curves with the fingers, the mè xửng should be soft enough to slowly relax and become flat again. After the cut edges are pressed into the sesame seeds, the candy is wrapped. In the past, candy makers cut mè xửng into small squares and wrapped the sweets in banana leaves, but now plastic wrapping is typical and candy makers offer other shapes and textures too.
Mirror mè xửng, black sesame mè xửng, and especially, crunchy mè xửng are popular variations. The crunchy kind is a little less sweet and, instead of sporting a sesame-seed coating, is sandwiched between two toasted bánh đa (rice crackers). I like these best. When I bite into one, the crisp cracker and mild candy melt in my mouth, a pleasant contrast of textures. Perfect for sharing with a group of friends over a steaming pot of tea!