Chef Jason Roberts

Vietnamese Coffee and Buried Cans of Condensed Milk? Huh?

Chef Jason


Wanted to relate a story I thought you might all enjoy. I had dinner with a friend in NYC. We stopped in at this little hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese place with a great reputation and had a truly excellent meal. Two of the things I love about Vietnamese cuisine is the freshness of the ingredients, the clean, crisp tastes and because I’m gluten-free, the rice noodles and wraps.

Asian flavors have always had a special attraction for me and I love cooking with Vietnamese basil or cilantro, or the infusion of coconut, lime and chilies into dishes I am preparing. I love the texture and mouth feel of crisp butter lettuce and other greens, the crunch of dichon radish and green papaya/mango. Sweet, salty, sour! I’ve always said, "A dish that starts with fish sauce, palm sugar and lime juice has got to be delicious."

This particular place had a wonderful server who was helpful with the menu, knowledgeable about all the nuances and differences of the dishes. My friend remarked that the waitress’ descriptions of the menu offerings were so good, you could actually see the dishes as she explained them. When we got to the end of the meal, we enjoyed Vietnamese coffee. Very strong and very sweet. I like sweet! If you have never had it, Vietnamese coffee comes served in a glass with a bit of condensed sweetened milk at the bottom. There is a filter with grounds in it placed on top of the glass and the coffee then drips into the glass, but does not mix with the milk. You can either just spoon out the milk and eat it, or you can mix it into the coffee. As soon as the server mentioned condensed milk, it brought me back to my childhood with a laugh.

When I was a kid my mum used to buy cans of condensed milk. When I thought she was not aware, I would sneak a can out to the yard open it, eat some of it with a spoon, then bury the can so mum would not find out. I hadn’t thought about that in years and it brought back a great memory. Looking back now I laugh because while she never said anything, I’m sure she must have noticed the cans missing. If she didn’t know, well, mum, now you do!

I love the fact that a simple meal can lead to so many other things like a great time with a friend, or a great memory. Asian cuisine can be a great and economical method of preparation that can inspire your family with new and exciting textures and flavors. Many of the dishes in the Recipes Section of my site are Asian-inspired, one-pot dishes. They are simple and fun to make like Thai Style Pork and Eggplant Curry. Give them a try and it will take you on a bit of a journey to Southeast Asia. And be sure to let me know how they turned out!