A national food magazine recently contacted me asking about Vietnamese yogurt. Was it something from the French? How do Vietnamese people eat it? How is Vietnamese yogurt made? My mom used to make yogurt when we lived in Vietnam decades ago. It was the best, delicately tangy-sweet and creamy. When we arrived in America in the mid 1970s, I was astounded by the cloying fruit-at-the-bottom type of yogurt that was popular then. Plain yogurt at that time was the polar opposite – so sour it made me pucker and I didn’t touch it after the first try. Years later, French-style Yoplait got me eating yogurt again, but it gradually became sweeter over time and I gave it up.
It wasn’t until I went to China in 1992 that I tasted the yogurt of my childhood again. It was on a cold winter morning in the city of Kunming and purchased from a vendor who bicycled through town with a rack of warm yogurt to sell to passersby. The yogurt was made in tiny glass jars and my traveling companions and I sipped it from equally tiny straws, emptying out each jar before handing it back to the vendor, who then moved down the street to his next sale. The magazine's inquiry spurred me to research and figure out how to make Vietnamese-style yogurt to capture the taste from my youth.
Ways Viet cooks make yogurt
In Vietnamese, yogurt is called sữa chua (“su-aw chu-ah” means sour milk) or da ua (“yah u-ah” is a transliteration of the French yaourt). It is indeed a vestige of the French presence in Vietnam, and there are two basic ways that cooks in Vietnam make yogurt:
(1) Fresh milk method: Mix fresh milk with sugar and a bit of yogurt, then incubate the mixture until it thickened into yogurt.
(2) Condensed milk method: Dilute sweetened condensed milk with water, mix it with yogurt, then incubate the mixture.
The fresh milk method is pretty much in line with traditional western approaches to homemade yogurt. Note that the already made yogurt acts as a starter by introducing a bunch of live, active cultures to the mix.
I’m partial to the condensed milk approach as it highlights the resourcefulness of Vietnamese cooks. For one, you don’t have to worry about getting super fresh milk, which is hard to obtain in tropical Vietnam. Secondly, many cooks use the condensed milk can as their measuring cup to develop a consistent ratio of milk to water to yogurt; measuring cups and spoons are virtually nonexistent in Vietnam. Thirdly, the result is a lilting sweet, delicate yogurt that’s texturally light. You can eat Vietnamese yogurt morning, noon, and night as a snack or dessert. It’s healthy too.
When traveling in Vietnam, you’ll notice that there’s often yogurt offered at the hotel breakfast buffet. Enjoy some, along with a bowl of pho noodle soup! Vietnamese delis and bakeries abroad often sell yogurt in plastic lidded cups in their refrigerator cases. Compared to commercial yogurt in the West, the Vietnamese variety is thinner but certainly not lacking in nuanced flavor.
Do you need yogurt making equipment?
Nope. I’ve been toying with this homemade Vietnamese yogurt recipe for a week, and it’s so easy and foolproof that I can hardly stand it.
With regard to incubating the yogurt, that’s nothing more than putting it in a hot water bath. When I asked my mom if ever used one of those electric yogurt makers, she laughed and said, “What is that?” She used to set the yogurt and its hot water bath outside in the hot Saigon sun to facilitate incubation! In my kitchen, I found that using a lidded pot works just fine, and that 6 hours is what I needed for the yogurt to develop a slight tang. As the hot water cools, the yogurt thickens. It’s as simple as that. No special equipment needed and I have the yogurt of my dreams.
Sữa Chua/Da Ua
For the yogurt, choose between full-fat, low-fat, or non-fat. The more fat there is, the creamier the result. While you can use as much or as little yogurt starter as you’d like, I found that when using non-fat yogurt, a full can’s worth seems to work better.
When developing this recipe, I used the Longevity ("Old Man") brand of sweetened condensed milk often used for Vietnamese coffee, Trader Joe’s organic lowfat yogurt, and Whole Foods organic non-fat yogurt. The Old Man brand (like Borden’s) is full-fat and rich tasting and the organic yogurt is full of active, live cultures. The recipe below is akin to what people in Vietnam would do. For a creamier denser result, use 1/2 can less hot water, or substitute milk for the room-temperature water as some Vietnamese-American cooks do.
If you’d like to measure the ingredients the western way, a 14-ounce can of condensed milk holds 1 1/3 cups.That means you use between 2/3 and 1 1/3 cups of yogurt for the starter.
Makes about 6 cups
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
2 cans hot water (boil in a saucepan, let cool for 15 minutes to about 140F, then measure)
1 cans room temperature water
1/2 to 1 can plain yogurt, organic kind preferred
1. Bring a kettle of water to a boil, then lower the heat to keep it warm until you need it for the water bath.
2. Whisk the condensed milk, hot water, and room temperature water together in a bowl. It should be lukewarm. Then whisk in the yogurt. Strain it through a mesh strainer to ensure that it is uniformly smooth.
3. Using a ladle or measuring cup, pour the yogurt into clean glass jars, glasses, or plastic containers. Cover with lids, aluminum foil, or a double layer of plastic wrap.
4. Put the yogurt containers in a pot tall enough to for there to be about 1 inch clearance from the top of the yogurt containers and the rim of the pot. Return the kettle of water to a boil, turn off the heat and wait for the bubbling action to subside before pouring it into the pot for the water bath.
Add enough of the just-boiled water to come slightly above the yogurt line of your containers. Cover the pot and set aside at room temperature for about 5 hours. The yogurt should thicken and sour during this time. Open up a container to see. If you want it more tart, leave the yogurt in the hot water bath for a few more hours. I typically incubate for 6 hours. Note the condensation that gathers:
5. When satisfied, remove the yoghurt from the pot, wipe each one dry, and chill if not eating right away. If you like, pour out the whey liquid that separates from the yogurt before eating. Enjoy as is or with fresh fruit, such as berries or sliced banana or peaches. Keeps well for 1 week.
- Also take a look at whiteonricecouple.com's Vietnamese yogurt recipe posted on Chow.com. It employs condensed milk, whole milk, water, and yogurt.
- For terrific details on the technical aspects of making yogurt, see the homemade yogurt recipe on 101cookbooks.com
- Theoretically, you can save some yogurt for another batch but mine have not lasted long enough for me to test that out! If you try this, please report back the results.