Do you like soy milk?
No? Well, someone once told me that if you don’t expect milk when you drink soy milk, then you’d enjoy it.
Yes? Then you might just prefer this luscious, green, liquefied nourishment to soy milk.
Not only is it nuttier, mung bean milk also feels more natural and more local than the modern soy milk. From the cheap plastic bottle with a green plastic cap and no label (that means no half-stamped “Sell by…” either), you can probably tell that it didn’t go through any metallic machine with pulleys and tubes. Whoever makes this mung bean milk probably soaks the beans overnight in a dented aluminum basin, boils the extract at 2 am in a sooty pot, and bottles the final liquid via a red plastic funnel that looks just like the one they always use for oil change. It doesn’t really matter as long as the delivery of a fresh batch comes at 6. The sandwich shop unstretches its iron folding doors. The customers start buzzing in. At 11 I came. I grabbed a bottle at the cashier. It was warm.
Two and a half hours later I got home and the milk got cold. I packed the 16 oz bottle into my minifridge next to the banh mi and banh bao (from the same store), sighing in relief that it’s just short enough to stand fit on the upper shelf. Was the bottle I had back then also about this size? How many years ago since I had last tasted that nuttiness in a glass? I dialed, “Mom, guess what I bought today! Sữa đậu xanh!”
On the other end of the phone I could hear her eyes widened and her lips part into a half moon shape. She’s happy. Every day for some time between my fourth and sixth years, Little Mom used to buy me a pint of mung bean milk from a grandmother of one of Dad’s students, and it had to be that grandmother because of her indisputable cleanliness. When I was 6, we switched to the packages of Vinamilk’s pasteurized fresh (cow) milk, a more convenient alternative to get in loads per week. Actually, I remember the cow milk packages with light blue words printed on white and the typical picture of a black-and-white Holstein cow, but not the mung bean milk bottles, barely the fact of drinking it every day. The point is, even in the Saigon of the ‘80s, mung bean milk was rarer and pricier than cow milk. Today, Bánh Mì Ba Lẹ in Oakland sells $2.50 for every 16 oz bottle, roughly six times more expensive than a gallon of cow milk, which you can get on average for $2.99 at your local grocery. Not that the price always represent the taste, but if I were a cow I would sulk a little, knowing that those helpless bird-eye seeds could produce something more valuable than my giant rectangular body could.
Now, about the taste… I’ve tried mung bean milk both ways: chilled in the fridge and warmed up in the microwave. Warm is better. Warm embraces the sweetness instead of masking it. Warm sooths your sensors from the tongue all the way down the esophagus. Warm also elevates the fragrance of pandan leaves and mung bean.
I wanted to stock up on the stuff so much I came back the next Sunday afternoon to buy off their last 4 bottles: 2 on the counter and 2 from the fridge. I refrigerated them all and refrained from drinking them that night; like a poor drug addict I tried portioning whatever little amount I had for the whole week: 1 bottle per two days seemed satisfactory. But ah the best-laid schemes gang aft agley, Wednesday morning one bottle turned sour on me.
“There goes three precious pints down the drain,” thought I. But it turned out the remaining two were fine. ‘t was one from the counter that got ruined. The cold ones stayed for 6 days. So unless you drink it within two days, buy the refrigerated bottles, keep fridging, then shake it well and warm it up with a microwave when you drink.
One last bit to tell you how stingy I get when it comes to mung bean milk: I drank and drank and at the bottom there was the thick beany leftover, I poured in some water, shook it up, more mung bean milk for me.
Address: Bánh Mì Ba Lẹ (East Oakland)
1909 International Blvd
Oakland, CA 94606