Make the most of what you have.
While Bosnians are very particular about what constitutes true Bosnian coffee, the Vietnamese are a little more creative with their caffeinated concoctions.
Vietnam first became acquainted with coffee via its French rulers. The colonists found Vietnam’s tropical, mountainous climate to be ideal for growing the sought-after shrub, and it became an important export crop. Since the war ended, Vietnam has heavily cultivated its highlands and skyrocketed to second place in total coffee production, trailing only Brazil.
The only problem with Vietnamese coffee is that it’s mostly of the robusta variety, necessitated by the particular climatic conditions in Vietnam. Compared with arabica coffee, robusta is more durable, easier to grow, and has more caffeine. But the overall quality is lower, and it sells at a lower price. Indeed, most of the coffee exported from Vietnam is destined for instant packets. Nonetheless, for their own consumption, the Vietnamese have found ways to convert their robusta beans into deliciously rich beverages.
Like Bosnian coffee, Vietnamese cà phê is traditionally brewed as a strong, concentrated concoction, but with a completely different method. The Vietnamese slowly drip the water through medium-fine grounds using a contraption called a phin. The grinds are held in place by a metal filter that moderates both the inflow and outflow of water so that it takes several minutes to pass through completely. The brewed coffee drips directly into the cup below.
The potent coffee from the phin is enhanced with a variety of different ingredients. The classic is sweetened condensed milk, an improvisation that came about as a result of French attempts at café au lait in a place where fresh milk is uncommon. The sweetened condensed milk dramatically cuts the bitterness and enhances the flavor without diluting the coffee much, resulting in cà phê sữa. Another option is cà phê dừa, made with coconut milk, a delicious resource that Vietnam has in abundance. These two ingredients are some of the very few things you will occasionally find me stirring into my otherwise-black everyday coffee at home.
In a hot and muggy country like Vietnam, you may not be inclined to order hot coffee, but no matter. Just add đá to your coffee order – as in the ubiquitous cà phê sữa đá – and your coffee will be poured over ice for a refreshing midday respite.
One unusual addition to coffee in Vietnam is egg. During the war, when dairy products were scarce, it became popular to enhance the robusta brew with egg yolks whipped into a creamy froth. Even today, in a narrow alley in Hanoi, a popular little cafe claiming to be the origin of Vietnamese egg coffee proudly serves the surprisingly tasty drink at tiny tables crowded into a small room packed with customers.
After the war, many Vietnamese left their homeland and formed a sizable community in America. Searching for a local substitute for the coffee they grew up with, Vietnamese Americans found comfort at the Cafe du Monde in New Orleans, a place similarly influenced by French colonization. The Cafe du Monde serves a dark roast robusta coffee mixed with chicory root to reduce the bitterness. This blend is reminiscent of authentic Vietnamese coffee and brews well in a phin filter, which is why it’s now well stocked in Asian supermarkets across the country.
What I like about Vietnam’s approach to coffee is that they’ve made the most of what they have. While everyone else saw only instant coffee, they made something far superior!
Coming up next, we’re heading over to the Subcontinent, where sweet coffee is paired with spicy food!