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When Life Gives You Flavorful Vietnamese Cashews, Make Vegan Cheese

“Firstly, I had to find my calling, but in the end, it all came down to creating something and then seeing others enjoy it."

What does a young Vietnamese woman with a degree in business and international finance do with her life? Well, for Lê Na, it was her decision to start her life again with a clean slate that led her to her interest in nutrition, and eventually down the path to becoming the creative inventor of a vegan cashew-based cheese shop

Lê Na initially graduated from the Foreign Trade University (FTU) in Hanoi with a degree in business and international finance. However, after graduating, she decided to continue her studies online. Little did she know that this choice would change her life completely.

While studying online, she was inspired by one of her professors to find her “calling.” She explained that it wasn’t just his passion for the course, but it was also his mindset about life which inspired her to find her true path: “I felt empty inside, and I had a desire to find something that would make me feel whole. It was a natural urge, which makes it quite hard to describe.”

She explained that by the time she left university, she felt like her physical and emotional well-being were being ignored: “Physically, I didn’t know what I liked! As a young woman, I didn’t feel like I was my own person. Emotionally, I felt like I was a jigsaw puzzle created out of pieces of my family’s, my friends’, and my idols’ lives, aspirations and dreams.”

Ideally, Lê Na wanted to discover who she was, however, in a digitally connected world, it is hard to find the fine line between the self and others. So she decided to wipe her devices clean, put her business and international finance degree aside, and step out into the world with a clean slate.

“I guess I don’t have to explain the lifestyle of a student. Like many, I spent my university years eating junk and street food,” she tells Saigoneer.

Turmeric and cumin cashew cheese. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

After her decision to start from scratch, she decided that one of the first things she needed to do was to invest more time into her nutritional well-being, as this had been something she had previously neglected: “I started having so many questions about food. I started looking at supermarket labels, checking the origin of different types of food and eventually ending up trying an array of diets.”

Nonetheless, it was her love of cooking shows like MasterChef that lured her into shops like Phuong Nam and Annam Gourmet to find new flavors from around the world. By trying out different flavors and dishes, she found she was most intrigued with how vegan products can be used to make typically non-vegan dishes. In the beginning, Lê Na took inspiration from the availability of fresh produce in Vietnam. She used chestnuts grown in the northern regions of the country to make chestnut butter, and the ever abundant milk from Vietnamese coconuts to make yogurt.

“I managed to master all these recipes with ease, though it wasn’t until I started to create vegan cheese that my journey truly started,” she explains.

During her discovery process, Lê Na learned that international vegan cheese producers were buying cashews from Vietnam, however, no one in the country was doing so. Presented with this gap in the market, her inner businesswoman jumped at the opportunity, and she decided to make vegan cashew-based cheese herself.

After mastering the basics of cheese-making, Lê Na started experimenting with adding herbs and spices as flavor boosters. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

It took her more than half a year to make her first edible rind of cheese, and nearly a year of making cheese in her aunt’s kitchen to master the technique, however, this was definitely not the end of her story. Fascinated by the technique, she decided that she would continue to create aged cheese with different flavors, as well as learn the techniques to make fresh and cream cheese.

“I tried ageing the cheese for over a year, but it only caused the cheese to turn as hard as a rock,” Lê Na says.

After a year of making aged cheese, she discovered that the perfect ageing time for a rind is around three weeks, which is comparably short compared to the aging time for normal milk-based aged cheese. In terms of difficulty, it was much easier to learn the technique to create cream cheese and fresh cheese once she had mastered the technique to make aged cheese. Texture-wise, her cashew cream and fresh cheese are more unctuous than the normal milk-based cheese and only take days to make.

Kashew cream cheese and two varieties of fresh cheeses (mozzarella and ricotta). Photo by Michael Tatarski.

“Since cashew nuts are grown here, Vietnamese cashew nuts should have the best quality,” she shares.

Like many vegan alternative products, there are many ingredients which can be used to make vegan cheese. Lê Na revealed that she had previously tried using other ingredients to make her cheese, none of which managed to outshine the taste of her cashew cheese.

“Macadamia nuts don’t have the smooth texture that cashews give to the cheese. Soybeans on the other hand contain more protein than cashew nuts, but they aren’t as sweet and thus are not as tasty. Meanwhile, fermented bean curd gives the cheese a distinctive flavor, though culinarily, these aren’t as diverse as cashew nuts.”

Through experimenting, Lê Na has found that the taste of Vietnamese cashew nuts is far more flavorsome than that of foreign cashew nuts. Surprisingly, she explained that because Vietnam exports most of its cashews, most of the nuts sold at local markets are of foreign origin. Hence, she works with local farmers to ensure the quality of her products. By utilizing the culinary versatility of Vietnamese cashews, Lê Na has managed to promote the firm and bold flavors of one of the country’s native crops to create fresh products which are sold back into the community.

Thanks to the versatility of cashew cheese, even after mastering the technique, Lê Na still has the opportunity to experiment with flavors. In the past few years, she has been on many flavor expeditions, most memorably her expedition to pepper farms around the country.

Lê Na during a trip to a cashew farm. Photo by Kashew Cheese.

Recently, the cheese artisan has created five different pepper-flavored aged cheeses. The flavors include black forest pepper from Phu Quoc, Sichuan pepper from Ha Giang, black pepper from Lao Cai and Kon Tum, red pepper from Phu Quoc, and prickly ash (commonly used as pepper in Vietnam) from Son La, Lao Cai and Kon Tum.

Kashew Cheese's black pepper series in collaboration with the Hồ Tiêu. Photo by Kashew Cheese.

As a chili lover, she is also very proud of her chili-flavored aged cheese. She boasts proudly that the chilies she uses for her cheese come from the central region, where the chilies have more flavor and a hotter taste.

Today, Lê Na is the proud owner of Kashew Cheese, a compact artisan cashew-based cheese shop in Saigon Concept, a tranquil garden and meeting area surrounded by small fashion and artisan shops in District 2.

Although the main ingredients for her cheese include only cashew nuts, water and salt, she says that because of the changing seasonal taste of the cashews nuts, the only way to keep the flavor of the cheese consistent is to regulate the quantity of the ingredients based on experience. This is why she still oversees the quality of the store’s cheese with her husband, Tobias.

Lê Na and Tobias. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

However, by a cruel twist of fate, on the night of the September 15, a terrible fire, said to have been caused an electrical shortcut, spread through the Kashew Cheese deli. Luckily, the fire was prevented from spreading across Saigon Concept and no one was hurt. However, the all of the equipment and cheese inside the deli was destroyed. All the effort that Lê Na put into the shop was ruined, along with most of her cheese stock. Still, she wasn't fazed by the accident and decided to continue cheese sales through delivery from her kitchen, which is located nearby. 

"I am super proud of her," said Tobias. "Although it's sad that we lost all her hard work, at least we got to have a fresh start and can come back even stronger."

Lê Na working hands-on to rebuild the Kashew Cheese deli. Photo by Kashew Cheese.

Thanks to the support of her friends, family and loyal customers, the Kashew Cheese deli managed to re-open again on October 29. As most humbly written on a board outside the deli, Lê Na has truly managed to "rise from the ashes." 

The Kashew Cheese deli after the fire. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

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