You might have seen them as you gulp down your pho, glowing in the drinks refrigerator at the back of the restaurant. Although it might look like something radioactive, believe us, it’s edible, it’s cheap, and once you go in you’re not going back.
Although its Vietnamese name, chè ba màu [jiye ba maw] literally translates to “three-colour dessert”, don’t hesitate to have it during your main meal. “It’s in a glass, so in Australia it is a drink,” says Peter Le of Lygon Street’s Saigon Pho.
With the crushed ice and coconut sweetness, it’s also the perfect partner for salty pho or crispy spring rolls.
The ingredients for each layer varies, yet the colours are always consistent: white, yellow, green and red. “That’s four!”, you point out smugly. Answer: white isn’t considered a colour. The white is a mound of shimmering crushed ice, covered in coconut-milk syrup. This final layer is tipped over the bright-green “noodles”, made from water-chestnut starch and a colourful pandan extract. Beneath these is a semi-savoury layer of pale, mustard yellow: crushed mung beans. And at the bottom, lightly sweetened kidney beans.
No one really knows where or when the three colour originated, but it’s a household staple in Vietnam. Surprisingly, there are many Vietnamese eateries in Melbourne that still don’t offer it. This is because it needs to be fresh, Le says, as he pushes the hot green pandan paste through a sieve into a bucket of iced water. Preparing the ingredients is a constant responsibility, but a necessary process if you want to serve a good three-colour drink.
Below is a list of the best places in Melbourne to start your three-colour romance. They’re all fresh, have a balance of sweet and savoury flavours, have a crisp differentiation of textures and are not overly sweetened. Of course, the individual flair of the creator makes all the difference, too.
While researching this article, we called the owner of one of Melbourne’s newer Vietnamese restaurants and asked if he could show us how it was made. “Make it?” he replied. “Nobody makes the drinks – everyone just buys them.” Saigon Pho is living proof to the contrary. We watched owner, Peter Le, and his mother, Ms Hien Tran, painstakingly make the drink and its ingredients by hand – from soaking the mung and kidney beans for tomorrow’s batch, to putting the ice on the drink seconds before it’s served. Ms Tran brought the original recipe with her from Vietnam in 1984. Footscray’s chè menu is slightly more experimental than Carlton’s, and includes a goji and longan berry, seaweed iced-tea, among others.
I Love Pho
This family team has made quite a name for itself in the competitive strip of Vietnamese restaurants along Victoria Street. You’ll find Hien and her daughter Kim supervising the bustling space of I ♡ Pho. The three-colour drink here takes the prize for the prettiest in Melbourne: the red, green and white are thrown on top of one another in thick and vibrant layers, like Christmas packed into a tall glass.
Pho Dzung Preston
We found this restaurant’s three-colour drink to be just as irresistible as its pho. It’s light and refreshing, in contrast to some of the heavier versions you’ll find elsewhere. Every element of the drink is a little more delicate: the crushed mung beans are softer, and the pandan noodles are longer and thinner.
DIY Three-Colour Drink
We’ve found two supermarkets in Melbourne that offer convenient DIY three-colour-drink kits for a mere $2.50. The little tubs hold separate packages of all the ingredients you’ll need to add your own personal touch to the drink.
This article was updated on October 7, 2016.