At the grocery store the other day, my husband and I encountered cleared shelf after cleared shelf. No more flour. Pasta. The kind of flour used to make pasta. Oat milk. But, to our absolute delight and confusion, the canned milk section appeared untouched.
Don’t get me wrong—I have nothing against oat milk (or almond, hemp, cashew, or coconut for the matter). It’s just not what I’d consider a staple. Whether preparing our home for Florida’s yearly hurricane season or a pandemic, the first thing we worry about is our canned milk inventory.
If you’ve licked the spoon while soaking a tres leches cake, or slurped a Vietnamese iced coffee down too quickly, you’re familiar with the moreish-ness of evaporated and condensed milk. They’re extra milky, toasty, almost savory in flavor. I use both with abandon—for creamy stews and sticky glazes; I even just drink it straight. So, you might understand why the fully stocked canned milk section (versus the decimated shelf-stable oat milk section) at the store bewildered me. Why aren’t more Americans buying, cooking with, even drinking tinned milk regularly—and especially now?
Peruvians are no strangers to shelf-stable milk. It’s common for children to nurse equal parts evaporated milk and warm water from a baby bottle or sippy cup (I did). But, when we moved to America, my (American) mom switched us over to the fresh milk she had grown up drinking. I remember how enthusiastically she served it to me; I gagged. She tried adding sugar to it to make it more palatable, but I wouldn’t budge. Where was my lechecita? The one that was the color of peaches and cream, and tasted like a warm hug?
My mom thought that fresh milk was a luxury unique to this country. Drinking it marked us as Americans, and she wanted us to assimilate as quickly as possible. We were taught to believe that Peruvians’ taste for shelf-stable milk was one of necessity, not gustatory; Peru is, after all, a developing country.
My dad followed suit, and swapped canned milk for fresh in his home cooking. Because fresh milk is naturally sweeter and contains more water, his huancaína sauce, a creamy cheese and ají amarillo chile sauce, lacked depth and body—something only evaporated milk could provide. My Peruvian-American friends would gush about the mugs of traditional hot chocolate their mothers or abuelas made on noche buena. However, my dad’s Christmas Eve chocolate never elicited the same emotional response from me.
My own attempts at recreating creamy Peruvian dishes also fell flat. My ají de gallina, a creamy chicken stew, was watery. My leche asada, a baked custard with a burnished top, tasted like a ghost of itself—never rich enough, too thin. Both my dad and I thought our failures resulted from lacking a “buena mano”—a good hand, the Peruvian expression for having an innate talent for cooking. We thought there must have been a secret to successfully making Peruvian dishes, something as mysterious as the origins of the Nazca Lines or the engineering of Machu Picchu. In reality, it was just the milk we were using.
Only recently did I find out that people in Peru can get fresh milk; they just prefer canned. I remember the day I reintroduced it to my huancaína sauce recipe—memories of my beloved lechecita came flooding back. The depth, body, and tang that I was so longing for was back. Evaporated milk thickens on its own when simmered—much like heavy cream but with a lot less fat—making it ideal for satisfying, but not overly rich creamy sauces. My ají de gallina is now so delicious that it even won a cook-off. Every December 24th, I now mix equal parts of evaporated milk and water to make hot chocolate, and I finally understand why so many Peruvians look forward to noche buena.
Evaporated milk is to fresh milk as demi glace is to broth. Or, caramelized is to sweated onions. Through the canning process, the qualities of fresh milk intensify, transforming the already delicious liquid into something magical. There is a place for the former, sure, but the latter brings so much more character to a dish.
I now consider both fresh and canned milk to be authentic and traditional, true to the Peruvian-American experience. Both figure equally into my cooking (canned a bit more, as of late, because of the circumstances). In my pantry now, I’ve got Parmalat (a UHT milk I dunk fresh baked cookies into), cans of creme de leite (perfect for Brazilian stroganoff, tuna noodle casserole, and passion fruit mousse), and evaporated milk for my ají de gallina, creamiest pasta sauces, and the most soul-warming rice pudding.
Oat milk, though? None for me.