photos by HNin Nie
Aaron Tran is a flavor genius. Yeah, you heard me. Flavor genius.
I’ll never forget the day that he waltzed into my heart, carrying a Tupperware container full of scratch-made avocado ice cream flavored with raspberry jam and pistachios. I tasted that green goodness and became a changed woman. Avocados? Pistachios? Raspberries?? I’ll be honest with you guys, I would have never imagined those three ingredients as an ice cream- but Aaron did. Like I said: flavor genius.
Aaron has a long-standing presence in Charlotte’s food and coffee scene. When we first met, he was running the Food Hub grocery booth at Atherton Market, peddling local farms’ produce and sharing recipes with anyone who would listen. When business school picked up, he reduced his hours behind the produce bar and became a regular at the coffee shop I worked at. He often brought in vegan treats to share with everyone, ranging from banana-based chocolate muffins to complex, spiced horchatas to made-from-scratch vegan cheese.
Aaron thinks outside the box, using unique ingredients and sourcing local whenever possible. He is incredibly passionate about food and flavor, and has the ability to make even the simplest dish something fabulous. When I heard about his most recent collaboration with The Daily Press, I knew that he was up to something brilliant and I had to learn more. Read on for a peek into his story, passions and inspirations- and even a recipe to try out at home!
What inspired you to begin concocting your own alternative milks?
At home as a child, my mom often forced me to drink a glass of cow’s milk- I guess to aid my growth?- and I would always end up on the floor writhing from stomach pain. I never knew what was happening to me until years later when I learned about the meaning of “lactose intolerance” from my peers. After I put the pieces together and told my mom about it, she just rolled her eyes and still forced me to gulp down the Maola. A few years later I noticed that my mom had stopped drinking cow’s milk as often as she used to, so I asked her why. Her answer: “I think I’m lactose intolerant…”
I began avoiding dairy when I started college, which was when I had to begin working and feeding myself, so I could make my own choices about what I did and did not want in the fridge. While I’m not on an entirely vegan diet, I choose to identify with that label because that’s how I can avoid dairy when eating out or making selections at stores. Why would I put something in my body that it can’t process? That’s just like throwing a wrench in the gears of my insides. Besides, who thought it would be a good idea to start drinking another animal’s milk anyway…?
Good point. Why not just use store-bought milks, though? Wouldn’t it just be easier to purchase it somewhere else rather than painstakingly doing it yourself?
I started making my own milk alternatives after my 21st birthday in 2014, which was when I received a high-powered Vitamix blender as a gift from my parents. Even then, I continued to buy almond milk because I thought it was too much of a process to make from scratch at home.
One day I came across a few horchata recipes on some chefs’ blogs. I decided that I would attempt to make them and in the process of it all, I just fell in love. I enjoy making milks, cooking, creating, because I can control every step of the process, no matter how many or how few steps there are.
“Painstaking” is a crazy assumption. To make cashew milk you literally blend raw cashews for a minute in water and add a tablespoon of sweetener. Often times it’s even cheaper than buying it pre-made from the store. I can make 64 ounces of cashew milk for less than $4.
Yet another good point. You mentioned that you found some recipes through social media- are there any websites, books, chefs that inspire you?
I love referring to my copy of The Vegetarian Flavor Bible by Karen Page when I don’t necessarily want to follow a recipe, or when I have too much of something in the cabinet, fridge, or pantry. A few of my favorite cooks and food bloggers include Dana of Minimalist Baker, Isa of The Post Punk Kitchen/mastermind behind Isa Does It, and Alanna of The Bojon Gourmet.
I know you’re incredibly passionate about the local food scene. How do you incorporate this passion into your beverage-making?
While I wish we could grow cashews and almonds here in North Carolina, I still find my love for food heavily inspired by local farmers and artisans. I love growing new herbs and veggies and I love finding creative ways to somehow incorporate them into my cooking, much of which is inspired by what I’m seeing these other chefs create. Watching food artisans like pastry chef Ashley Boyd of 300 East has really made me think outside of the proverbial box and turn my kitchen into a canvas, and to use the ingredients as my medium. Milk alternatives are just a way to make my art more accessible to my body, if that makes any sense.
What are a few of your favorite local spots to source ingredients from?
Like many other chefs, cooks, and artisans, I love to spend my gold doubloons at Savory Spice Shop in South End. You can find spices there that you can’t find anywhere else. I love using whole cinnamon sticks in my horchata. I even found a chili pepper variety that has a sweet and fruity body that was perfect for the rim of my homemade margarita (be sure to check out the ground Aleppo Chili next time you’re in the store). I have also developed a deep appreciation for Atherton Market, most certainly through my involvement there over the past 2+ years. I can get locally-grown baby ginger to incorporate in my beverages, and fresh herbs like lemon verbena to experiment with in syrups. I can’t thank the farmers enough.
How has the coffee scene here in Charlotte inspired your culinary creativity?
Charlotte’s local coffee scene has really inspired my creativity because it is constantly offering me so many coffees and beverages to tame and inspire my palate. I’m still doing everything I can to hone my palate so I can detect all the flavor notes and experience the mouthfeel of different coffees. After discovering the coffee scene here, I could never lose the respect I have for coffee and the artisans that make it.
Word on the street is you’ve recently collaborated with a local coffee shop! I’d love to hear more.
Lindsey from The Daily Press asked for my assistance with making a cashew pudding for a drink on their winter menu. It’s called “Partridge in a Pear Tea”. The drink itself is served in a gold-stenciled glass goblet and looks like something out of a Christmas fairytale/Narnia. I’ve also made a meringue that is currently paired with the Engine 7 cortado. It’s not your typical meringue cookie because it’s been sprinkled with a special ground chili pepper.
Are there any places besides the Daily Press that folks can purchase your alternative milk creations from?
Right now I don’t have the equipment to produce on a large scale. I’ve just graduated from business school, so I hope that will steer me in the right direction if I do choose to start a business around my milk substitutes. If anyone is interested in working with me, I won’t hesitate to explore the opportunity. My friends have asked me to make things for them and I certainly am not against special orders. Maybe someday you’ll find my products in shops around Charlotte or elsewhere! [Editor’s Note: in the meantime, you can always check out his food adventures on his Instagram page, Food with Aaron!]
What role have you seen milk alternatives playing in coffee shops? Would you say that they being given as much attention as, say, sourcing the cow’s milk or coffee sourcing?
Milk alternatives at most shops, in my opinion, exist only as options for those who are health-conscious or cannot digest milk. I do think that the possibilities that carrying unique alternative milks present are being overlooked, and I think that they shouldn’t be. A significant percentage of the population is lactose intolerant and ingesting dairy, no matter how severe, can cause inflammation. It’s unfortunate that so many coffee shops offer low-quality coconut “beverages” that don’t even steam well, or they offer soy milk that they steam to oblivion. These same shops also charge extra for milk alternatives, which I think is unfair. Milk alternatives can and should be just as good as dairy milk! People are getting too comfortable with these quick fixes and I think offering higher quality options can be a competitive advantage for a shop.
How about your long-term goals? What would you like to do in the future?
For now I’m focusing on my professional career, but I hope to open a vegan restaurant in the not-so-distant future! I feel obligated to have a real food education before that happens, but maybe I’ll change my mind. I’m going to work my way up the corporate ladder for now. Kind of like my queen Ina Garten, who ended up in the White House (writing nuclear defense budgets!!!) before becoming a bad ass TV chef in the Hamptons. Whether I am married and/or have kids someday or not, I will always have a passion for food. I will happily spend hours upon hours in a kitchen and it would be a pleasure to share my passion with the rest of the world.
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Have you ever been about to pour yourself a bowl of cereal and realized that you’ve run out of almond milk but were too lazy to put on pants to go on a grocery run? Yep. Been there.
Well there’s good news, my lazy readers! You don’t need to have a bunch of raw almonds in your pantry AND you don’t have to wear pants to make almond milk at home. All you need is a little bit of almond butter!
Simple Almond Milk
by Aaron Tran
· 4 Tbsp. almond butter (raw and unsalted, preferably)
· 4 cups of cold filtered water
· 1 Tbsp. agave/maple syrup/honey (optional)
· 1 tsp. vanilla extract, cocoa powder, cinnamon, etc. (optional)
Get all ingredients into a blender and blend on high for 1 to 2 minutes and enjoy within 4-5 days. Yum!