Culture Kitchen Vietnamese Box with Linh

We love hearing directly from our Master Cooks! This month get to know Linh and the incredible recipes she is sharing in the next Culture Kitchen kit.  In a few minutes you will get to know all you need to cook and eat like a true Vietnamese expert.

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We <3 Substitutions: Coco Rico, the Fizzy Coconut Drink

When developing our third Culture Kitchen Kit we discovered that some of the ingredients our Master Cook Linh uses can be impossible to find if you aren’t in a medium to large city.  But fear not, we got to testing in our labs and found great substitutions even Linh would be happy to use.

Coco-Rico, according to it’s labeling, is a “natural coconut-flavored soda” that is sold in six packs of 12 ounce cans in the beverage aisle of Asian and Latin grocery stores.

Coco Rico has a light coconut flavoring and subtle carbonation which brings a delicate coconut flavor and fluffy consistency to whatever batter it is used in. If you’re like us, you’ve probably had never heard of Coco Rico. But, if you want to make Master Chef Linh’s delicious Coconut-Turmeric pancakes, Banh Xeo (featured in our most recent Culture Kitchen Box), or the mini cake version, Banh Knot (on our website), you will be surely be scrambling to find this fizzy coconut drink.

Put the car keys down and take a deep breath: we have you covered. Our team of fearless cooks has tried a number of substitutions to make your pancakes and other wonderous Vietnamese dishes light and full of flavor while saving you the aggravation and gas costs of traveling to multiple markets.

Trial by fire!  First trial = failure.
We never said we’d get it right the first time! Here is the proof: we tried a few substitutes that didn’t quite make the cut.

(1) Coconut milk and baking soda,

(2) Seltzer and coconut extract,

(3) Coconut water and baking soda

Do not put baking soda and turmeric together: they are not friends and make for a pretty scary red sight with a very bold baking soda flavor!  While substituting coconut extract was closer to the real thing, the texture was lacking the fluffy and light consistency of batter made with Coco Rico and left the cooked pancakes a bit oily and rubbery.

So we went back to the drawing board.

Bring me some tonic–I need to celebrate success!
We knew that coconut flavor needed to be involved, but incorporating carbonation was the tricky part. Tonic, the sweet and fizzy drink, was our missing link. For whatever amount of Coco Rico your recipe calls for, swap with either of the following:

(1) 1/2 tonic + 1/2 coconut milk
(2) 1/2 tonic + 1/2 coconut water

Using coconut milk leaves a slightly richer batter compared to using Coco Rico and using coconut water produces a batter slightly flatter than using Coco Rico, but both variations produce good substitutions to using the real thing and taste delicious.

Happy Vietnamese Cooking!
The Culture Kitchen Team

Straight From the Source: A Mixing of Regions and Vietnamese Flavors

“Straight from the source” a series of stories about food and life from around the world narrated by our chefs. 
Guest blog post from Vietnamese Culture Kitchen chef Linh Nguyen 
I was born in Sai Gon to parents from the north and south of Viet Nam.  My entire life has been a fantastic mix of all three regional cultures and cuisines.  Our day to day family dinners would be an eclectic mix of northern and southern cuisine, while larger family gatherings would include cooking from my aunts and uncles-in-law from the central region.  My mom would marvel at how my dad would add boiled green onions instead of fresh bean sprouts and basil to his pho, and my dad would be almost offended at my mom’s use of sugar in her stews.  Whenever Auntie #5  from Hue (southerners and centralers don’t use names, just their rank) would walk by a dipping sauce or a pot, she would surely add a couple more spoonfuls of chili paste or one or two extra peppers.   Although culinarily, the line was clearly drawn between the north, center and south we always managed to have a great time cooking and eating together.  Most of the time, my southern aunts and mom would run the kitchen, whipping up delicious southern food full of bright colors and fresh vegetables.  Whenever in-laws were allowed in the kitchen, they would add a central and northern flavor to the mix, incorporating the heat and delicacy of central food and the wintry warmth and pickled goodness of the north.
Each distinct region in Viet Nam has its own historical and food culture, each claiming to be the best.  In the north, the birthplace of pho, dishes tend to be saltier and more vinegary than the rest of the country.  With less access to fresh fruits and vegetables than central and southern Vietnamese, northerners tend to rely more on pickled condiments, hearty stews and soups flavored with dried spices, and salty braised meats and vegetables.  In the south, the opposite is true.  The warmer weather provides yearlong bounty and southerners take full advantage of their environment.  Many dishes are accompanied by a large plate of fresh vegetables to be added raw at the table.  In the central region, home of the capital of the last Vietnamese dynasty, court cuisine still has lingering influences on every day food.  Central food tends to be spicy, bite-sized and more elaborate in preparation and presentation.
Although there are many regional distinctions, Vietnamese cuisine and life in general is dictated by a search for balance-a balance between hot and cold, sweet and salty, spicy and salty, soft and crunchy…the list goes on!   With many special occasion dishes, such as pho, this attention to balance is maintained.  Southern-style pho consists of a rich beef broth, a variety of meat, and rice noodles balanced out by fresh bean sprouts, peppers, herbs, and lemon juice.  Northern-style pho achieves balance in a different way: pickled garlic and vinegar are used to balance the richness of the broth instead of fresh vegetables.
Balance is also sought out in everyday meals.  In any Vietnamese house, a normal weeknight dinner consists of five parts: soup, meat, vegetables, rice and fresh fruit.  At my house, you can almost always depend on eating a light and gingery broth with greens, a braised or caramelized catfish or pork in claypot, a mountain of stir-fried, garlicky greens, aromatic jasmine rice, and a huge portion of fresh fruit on any given night of the week.  The light and fresh vegetable dish balances out the heavier protein-rich meat dish, the wet broth balances out the dry rice, and the sweet fruits balances out the savory part of the meal.