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.

Want to see more videos? Let us know on Facebook.

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

Culture Kitchen Behind the scenes: How we develop and test recipes

Have you ever watched an incredible cook prepare a dish you’ve never seen made before?

A dash of this, a handful of that, and a sprinkle of this–the ingredients all magically come together into the best thing you have ever eaten.

Now, try to recreate that at home.

I have done it, and let me tell you, it wasn’t pretty. Tofu goes flying, something turned orange instead of green, and my poor refrigerator is left with the remnants of the meal for days. We have been there and felt your pain. We know we need to capture all of our master cooks’ recipes with precision and make their recipes approachable to any cook. Check out how we do it in our five-step process below!

Party in the kitchen!

To start, we all step into the kitchen together.  We believe that cooking with the expert is key, as that is when we first measure all the ingredients and learn more about the tools that were used to make the meal. We document all the steps and, more importantly, the stories of our cooks. This is what we translate into palatable recipes, cooking tips, and tricks with stories throughout the process.

First line of defense
A recipe can look great on paper, but step into the kitchen and things can go a little haywire. We believe in sending our team straight into the fire to get cooking. Before any recipe goes live on our site or in a Culture Kitchen Box, our core CK team cooks it, following the recipe to understand when things got confusing and what issues arise in a typical home kitchen with differing tools and different types of stoves. This is where the red pen comes out and the rewrite begins.

Test variations
We want to bring these amazing dishes to the plates of anyone anywhere. But that can be a little tricky knowing the challenges of ingredient accessibility and various dietary constraints. Unfortunately we can’t make every recipe vegetarian and give alternatives for every hard-to-find ingredient, but we do work hard to bring key substitutions to the table. Of course, we first consut with our Master Cooks about any known substitutions. Then we head back to the kitchen to perform trial after trial until we get it right. Check out one of our posts for alternative tools and methods for perfectly steamed sticky rice here.

Ambassadors across the US in full force
After our team has tested and approved a recipe or menu, we have a fleet of Culture Kitchen Ambassadors testing our recipes out in their homes and letting us know how it went, including which ingredients were hard to find, how a substitution worked, where things got confusing in the steps, and of course, how the heck it all tasted!  Anyone in the US can be an Ambassador, so keep an eye out for our ambassador recruitment posts on Facebook!

Final tweaks & revisions
After all this learning, we make additional revisions to the recipes to make sure they are clear and easily understood. We’ve been there in the kitchen when something goes askew and know what a disappointment it can be. This is why we make sure to put our recipes through the ringer to provide you with the confidence to make a successful recipe at home and have fun doing it!

A spice tour with Suchitra

The Spice Box–every Indian home has at least one. If you haven’t experienced opening one before, it is magical. The shiny stainless steel container holds cups of fanciful spices that bring the rich flavors of Indian cooking to life. In creating the Western Indian Culinary Explorer with Suchitra we got a chance to not just take a peek at the key spices in her spice box, but to also take a whole tour of her pantry. That sparked today post and the first of many Culture Kitchen Master Cook Pantry Interviews, giving you an insight into the visually stunning and aromatic experiences of real home cooks.

Masala. You hear it all the time, but what does it mean? A masala is simply a spice blend. It could be a blend of many spices or just a key few. You can buy masalas at the grocery store or create your own mix at home. Suchitra uses store-bought masalas and makes her own masalas from scratch for a richer flavor. Garam Masala is commonly used in many Indian dishes–each region of India and each Indian family has their own version. Different ratios of cumin, cloves, coriander seeds and cinnamon make up these family masalas and give varied flavors for their prized veggie, chickens, and other seafoods or meats. Suchitra uses Garam Masala in both the Chicken Tikka Kebabs and the Spiced Vegetables in the Western Indian Culinary Explorer. They offer a layered flavor from the varied combinations of spices.

But Masalas aren’t the only way to add flavors and color to dishes: Suchitra uses many individual spices in her cooking. Here are her top picks for what makes this month’s Culinary Explorer special.

Asofoetida, the devil’s dung, hing, or the stinky gum is probably the strongest-smelling spice we’ve ever encountered, and Suchitra agrees. Asafetida comes from the gum of a root and in its natural state is like a rock, but as used in Indian cooking and Suchitra’s Dal recipe, it is pounded into a fine powder. Suchitra keeps this stinky spice hidden in the pantry in three ziplock bags and a tupperware container, but somehow, its pungent smell still escapes throughout her pantry and sometimes even the entire kitchen. It is commonly found in veggies and lentil dishes throughout India, as it is believed to help with digestion.

Turmeric, bright yellow and fine as flour, is an unmistakable spice that helps bring Suchtra’s Dal and Spiced Veggies a unique flavor and adds to their color. Although used fresh in other cultures, in Indian cooking Turmeric is almost exclusively used as a powder or for its fresh leaves in fish curries, since the leaves give a much lighter flavor. This spice, although flavorful, doesn’t just come in handy in the kitchen. Turmeric is common place in Diwali, the festival of lights, where it is used for its bright color. But the most interesting tidbit we learned from Suchitra was about turmeric’s potentially antiseptic and medicinal qualities. She remembers falling as a child and having her grandmother yell for the turmeric to be rubbed all over her wounds. Suchitra says all the pain and bleeding stopped, but she had a yellow knee for days as a memory of the fall.

Amchur, a more uncommon spice in India, is Suchitra’s key to adding a sour flavor to the spiced veggie. Amchur is dried mango powder. It has a sweet fruity smell and is, in fact, quite sour. The dried mango it comes from is not ripe. The mango skin is green and the flesh is pure white. This spice is commonly used in the North where Suchitra’s family is from and is an alternative to Tamarind. Tamarind is commonly used throughout India, but in the North Amchur is used for a slightly different flavor and to prevent any color change in the food.

Saffron is by far the most expensive and coveted spices in Suchitra’s menu. Used in the saffron rice, this spice comes from a flower. It can be found growing a few places in the North of India but is mainly imported from Spain. According to Suchitra, ask any Indian what kind of Saffron is best and they will undoubtedly say, “Spanish Saffron is very good.” Don’t use too much saffron because excessive quantities will give your dish a sour or metallic taste. This spice is all about appearance, as it adds a light yellowish color to rices and desserts to make the meal appear more luxurious.

This is just the beginning of our spice tour! We will continually bring you more ingredients and ways to use them as you enjoy good food, good company and, of course, explore.

Getting That Perfectly Steamed Sticky Rice

Sticky rice, sweet rice, glutinous rice–whatever you call it, this rice it is a staple in Thai cooking, with desserts. But how on earth do you cook it?

In this month’s Thai Culinary Explorer with Suparvadee we get a taste of sweet sticky rice with mango. Here is an overview of ways to prepare this delicious dish at home:

Unlike other rices such as jasmine or brown rice, sweet rice is not supposed to be cooked directly in liquid. Instead, the rice gets steamed and the water vapors create this lovely tacky texture that is commonly found in Thai cooking.

So if we aren’t cooking the rice in boiling water, how on earth can we make this at home? Here are three techniques all approved by Suparvadee to ensure you get an authentic sticky rice:

Firstly, put those rice cookers away, unless you have a specially equipped steam basket that can hold the rice. It is better to use more traditional methods of steaming.

Suparvadee uses an old fashioned foolproof steaming system, the bamboo steamer. This steamer is unlike anything we have seen.  It is composed of two parts, a water pot and a bamboo basket. The cone-shaped bamboo basket sits above two inches of boiling water and fully cooks the rice from the bottom and top. After the water boils, you slightly lower the heat and put your basket on top of the pot with the sticky rice cradled in the bamboo weave. Place a regular kitchen bowl over top of the rice inside the basket to create a chamber that traps the water vapors in. After ten minutes of cooking you will need to flip your rice by carefully removing the bowl, shaking the basket to loosen the rice, and giving it one forceful toss. The entire block of sticky rice will turn over. Cover with the bowl again and return to the boiling pot for ten more minutes. Then you will have perfectly cooked sticky rice.

But you might be wondering what should we do if we don’t have a Thai Bamboo steamer. We have two simple solutions that will get you such great rice that you will think Suparvadee came to your home and made it for you.

Option 1. Sweet and simple bowling

Take a large pot with a lid and a small bowl with a foot (a ledge that raises the bowl off the floor and creates a bit of space between the bowl and any surface it touches) and some water. You are looking to boil roughly two inches of water. Take your bowl and fill it with your cleaned sweet rice. Once the water is boiling, using a pair of strong tongs, add the bowl to the center of the boiling water and lower the heat to a medium/low flame. Cover with a lid and let cook for 13-15 minutes. After 13-15 minutes, mix the rice–your goal is to flip the grains from the bottoms to the top. Cook for another 13-15 minutes with the lid on. Taste the rice. At this point you are searching for a sticky but not gummy texture–you want the rice to be cooked throughout. If the rice is still a bit raw, cook longer.

Option 2. A splatter guard that cooks

What makes a bamboo steamer such a great cooking method for sticky rice is its ability to allow the steam to enter the rice from all sides. A great, simple way to recreate that is by using a shallow pan and a splatter guard.  A splatter guard is a thin mesh fryer cover that is used to prevent splattering. Create a mound of sticky rice in the center of a splatter guard. Place the guard over a shallow pan of boiling water. Cover the rice with a medium-sized bowl. Your goal is to allow for a bit of clearance around the rice, which will allow the rice to properly steam from all sides. Lower the heat to medium/low and cook for ten minutes. Once you have fully mixed your rice, return the inverted bowl to the splatter guard and cook for another 10 minutes. This should give you enough cooking time for a perfect sticky rice.

So whether you want to get an original Thai steamer just for sticky rice or make do with a few key tools in your kitchen, everyone has the ability to make incredible sticky rice at home. We hope you give one of these trials a test cook and let us know what you think.

Enjoy good food, good company, and explore!

The Story Behind our Master Cooks

We work with an incredible group of ladies who we like to call ‘Master Cooks.’ None of them went to culinary school to learn how to julienne a carrot or make a radish rose, but they can roll up their sleeves with the best of chefs to turn out mouth-watering, unfussy food from their home countries. They’re the real deal, taught by older generations and equipped with the knowledge to teach the rest of us. So what exactly makes a Master Cook?

1.    A deep love of cooking and sharing food that’s unmistakeable when they start talking about the dishes they’ve made their whole lives.
2.    Sincere pride in the richness of their culinary heritage and a passion for sharing what makes it so special (no leaving out of the secret ingredients or holding back spiciness–we want the real deal, even if it makes us sweat!)
3.    Worn and well-loved cookware! These ladies’ pots and pans have earned their keep.
4.    Great storytelling. Our Master Cooks are full of candid kitchen tales–how they learned to cook, what food they eat at their favorite holidays, how it’s illegal to transport the stinky durian fruit on buses in their hometown, and how they burned a special meal for the man that later became their husband.
5.    And of course, the cooking chops to back it all up. Their signature dishes have to be the most authentic, deeply satisfying versions of the food that our testers have ever had.

When Culture Kitchen first began, we had trouble convincing our cooks that people really did want to learn how to make their food, their way. Once those ladies got in front of an enthusiastic group, though, they loved teaching and their excitement brought a wave of Culture Kitchen instructors to our door. Now we have a formal vetting process to make sure we are working with some of the best personalities and cooks in the community.

So where do the menus come from?

Our Master Cooks are busy ladies with full time jobs and/or family responsibilities who teach with us on the side because they love to share their skills and show the world what their home countries can serve up.

We work with our Master Cooks to figure out the right menu combinations that represent the meals they have at home with their families. The challenge comes when we have to convert their methods of measuring (“a bit,” “some,” “a handful”) into real measurements that can be followed by a novice! We test every recipe multiple times in-house with our Master Cooks and with actual Culture Kitchen users, our ambassadors. At every step, we are testing for taste, consistency, and finally to see which would work well for our classes, the website, or the Culinary Explorer. It is a long, exciting process that brings a recipe to life and preserves it for future generations.

These incredible ladies are inspiring a generation of enthusiastic home cooks to break out of their culinary comfort zones. We couldn’t be more excited to work with them, and with you, as we continue to explore the rich and delicious cultures in our local communities.

First Culture Kitchen Kit with Suchitra

We have been hard at work here in the kitchen producing our first series of Culinary Explorers! December brings us to Western India with our incredible Master Cook Suchitra. Her menu of Chicken Tikka Masala Kebabs, Moong Dal, Spiced Vegetables and Saffron rice floods your kitchen and taste buds with the essence of Western Indian flavor and culture.

When building the Culinary Explorer, we really wanted to show that anyone can become a cook. Our incredible Master Cooks inspire us daily with their stories of how they learned to cook, from burning every spice they used for three months willing their kitchens with smoke, to buying a cookbook in the train station in hopes of picking up a few basics. We know what makes an incredible meal isn’t magic; it is just learning from others who have been in your shoes, hearing their stories, seeing their love of the food and culture, and having access to everything you need to make these dishes.

Because we can’t give everyone a private one-on-one class with our Master Cooks, we want to bring the essence of that experience to you no matter where you are. Here is the first of a series of Culinary Explorer videos with our Master Cooks that brings you into their homes as they share personal stories of their culture and love of food. We are so excited to be creating theses videos and hope you enjoy them.

To experience this menu on your own, be sure to sign up for our first shipment of Culinary Explorers this month! Check them out here.

Film Shoot with Suchitra

Yesterday we had our first shoot day with Suchitra to capture her recipes and stories on video. It was fantastic, flavorful, and delicious and the highlight of our week here at the office.

It is incredible to be able to hear the stories behind the cooking and get firsthand tips from a true expert chef. I think there is a misconception that you are either a cook or not and somehow it is in your DNA or a product of something you have no control over. You either can handle the gas range or burn everything on it. However, the more chefs we work with and the more we learn about their cooking history, it just becomes so clear that anyone can learn to cook incredible food to share with their friends and family. We keep hearing these transformative stories that our master cooks have of their process to become incredible cooks and so much of it is like the story any of us could have. Start with minimal to no training or cooking exposure and slowly begin making a few dishes, getting help from friends and family members, following recipes and just realize that it is okay to make mistakes and learn.

Cooking is something that comes with time and over various exposures by watching incredible cooks and following their recipes until you get your personal version. I love hearing these stories of failure, learning, and success.

A few photos of the shoot here.

Back from the Test Kitchen

We have been heads down at the Culture Kitchen office working in the kitchen on some new exciting projects, the first of which is this new website redesign. We couldn’t wait to offer new recipes, new functionality, and more information on the chefs and cuisines that make Culture Kitchen so special. But that is only part of what we are working on.

Yesterday we finished cooking up a yummy new product, the Culinary Explorer. Ever wish you could have access to the ingredients that our chefs use to cook at home? What if you had those spices in the exact quantities you needed, plus the recipes, and a video to pull it all together? Can you taste the delicious dinner now? We have already tasted it, and it is incredible! We love making it possible for anyone to cook like a pro and share in good food, good company, and explore.

We are releasing a limited amount of boxes to the first 100 people.  Sign up for a one-month, three-month or six-month subscription and bring a little Culture Kitchen to your kitchen.

Sign up here!

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.