Ingredient of the Week: Coconut Soda

The green soda can ubiquitous in Vietnamese households
The green soda can ubiquitous in Vietnamese households
Photo by John Suh

What is it?

Often made from carbonated water, corn sugar, and coconut extract, coconut soda tastes like a sweetened club soda with a hint of coconut milk. They are packaged in typical aluminum soda cans and come in packs of six.

How do I use it?

Coconut soda is a staple in the Vietnamese home pantry. After the Vietnamese post-war diaspora, many did not have the means to purchase quality ingredients, having left their homes with little money in their pockets. But they still had their methods of food preparation as an extension of having lived in an impoverished country where high-quality ingredients were scarce.

This means vegetables were pickled for preservation, and meats had to be prepared in such a way that made them not just edible but delicious. Vietnamese kitchens often took in the less desirable, even downright discarded meats: whole catfish, heads and all; beef oxtail; and pork belly way before it was cool to eat. What came about were methods developed to braise and caramelize meats so they would be both tasty and tender. Enter the coconut soda.

The soda's acids and carbonation help break down the fibrous meat, tenderizing it as it braises, and the remaining sugars thicken, leaving a caramelized coating.

Where can I find it?

In the soda aisle of ethnic grocery stores such as 99 Ranch or one of the many Fiestas or Hong Kong Food Markets. Coco-Rico from Puerto Rico is the superior brand Vietnamese mamas use because it's not too sweet.

Recipe: Caramelized Braised Pork and Egg Called thit kho trung in Vietnamese--thit meaning "meat," kho meaning "braised," and trung to mean "egg" -- this dish is a comfort food every Vietnamese person grew up eating. My mother used to store cases of Coco-Rico in the pantry just for this dish. Pork belly is typically used, but if you're trying to keep your arteries clear for another few years, use pork rump or shoulder instead of belly. Be sure to make some extra -- thit kho trung tastes even better the second day around. Serve over steamed jasmine rice.

What do you do with your coconut soda?

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