My family tried—and hated—Brussels sprouts for the first time at a refugee resettlement facility in Southern California. Now sprouts have a place on our Thanksgiving table—here's why.

Andrea Nguyen
November 01, 2019

My family tried Brussels sprouts for the first time in May 1975 at a refugee resettlement facility in Southern California. We'd fled the communist takeover of South Vietnam and were joyful to be in America. However, the overcooked, sickly green, gassy Brussels sprouts gave us little joy.

Lisa Cassell-Arms

Pictured recipe: Vietnamese-Style Coconutty Brussels Sprouts

We didn't eat them again until the early 2000s. I had moved from Los Angeles to Santa Cruz, one of the major Brussels sprouts growing areas in the nation. Back then, Brussels sprouts were not yet a super-popular year-round thing. I waited till the fall, when there was a bit of a chill, for our locally grown sprouts to appear at farmers' markets and small grocers. Then, I rifled through the pile to pick firm, small ones, each about 1 inch in diameter. They have a sweet edge whereas larger sprouts have a stronger cabbagelike flavor.

But as I selected about 5 pounds' worth for my family's Thanksgiving meal, I'd spaced out on our Brussels sprouts introduction decades earlier. I was excited to share the bounty of Santa Cruz County with my family, but didn't expect people to recoil at the sight of the mini cabbagelike vegetable.

"Don't you remember the ones at the camp?" my sister Yenchi said, starring at the vivid green orbs.

"Think of each as a petit chou," I said, hoping a little French would pull on some Viet-Franco heartstrings. It didn't work. The adults didn't want to trim and prep the sprouts. I marshalled my unassuming nieces and nephews into helping in the kitchen.

That night, I boiled the halved Brussels sprouts and tossed them with brown butter. My parents and siblings changed their minds after their first bites. (Phew.) Since then, they've welcomed Brussels sprouts at our holiday table.

Related: 5 Mistakes That Ruin Brussels Sprouts (and How to Fix Them)

The dead-simple Vietnamese-Style Coconutty Brussels Sprouts recipe pictured above is based on what I served for Thanksgiving in 2016. It's akin to oven-roasted Brussels sprouts but takes less time and frees up the oven for other cooking duties! To enrich the sprouts, you may use a neutral oil or tasty butter, but I like virgin (unrefined) coconut oil for a fragrant tropical note.

To reinforce the coconuttiness, I use coconut water (nước dừa in Vietnamese) to steam-cook the sprouts. It's a tropical nod to the Southern Vietnamese practice of cooking with coconut water, which is used in braises and dipping sauces. For years, Viet-Americans relied up on cloyingly sweet coconut soda, which I disliked. But thanks to the coconut water healthy hydration trend, nước dừa is nowadays stocked at mainstream supermarkets.

Related: Healthy Brussels Sprouts Recipes

When shopping, look for tasty brands like Harmless Harvest, Taste Nirvana and 365 Everyday Value (from Whole Foods). Cook with coconut water that you like to drink! The liquid lends extra sweetness to counter the Brussels sprouts' slight bitterness. Fish sauce adds a lovely, low-key savory note, though you can substitute soy sauce for a vegan take.

My family has been in America for nearly 50 years, and we're happy to celebrate traditions from East and West. This easy dish combines ingredients and flavors that marry our life experiences across the Pacific.

Andrea Nguyen is a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author. Her latest book is Vietnamese Food Any Day: Simple Recipes for True, Fresh Flavors.

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