Coffee wasn’t a part of their culture until the arrival of the French, but Vietnam is making up for lost time. Today, the country is the world’s third top coffee exporter, behind Brazil and Colombia, and the drink has become a integral part of the country’s lifestyle. We went to our favorite neighborhood joint, Co Cafe, to learn how to make the perfect cup.
The Vietnamese like their “cà phê” sweet. Real sweet. As if spoonfuls of sugar weren’t enough, they also add sweetened condensed milk. This habit developed because canned condensed milk was easier for the French to import into the country than fresh milk, and the Vietnamese have just rolled with it.
I never sweeten my coffee, so I’ve had a hard time adjusting… Oh, what a liar, I don’t know why I even typed that! It took me like thirty seconds to adjust. The truth is, even for those of us who normally avoid it, Vietnamese coffee tastes better with a touch of sugar. And that’s because they serve it strong. I couldn’t believe the amount of grounds they use for a single cup. Without sugar, it’s tough to get down.
The ladies of Co Cafe were happy to teach Jürgen and I how to brew a good cup. We’re no baristas, but luckily this is a simple process. All you need is the coffee, hot water, sugar, and a phin: a little one-cup filter.
First, you scoop a troubling amount of coffee in the filter. My instructor kept saying “more, more” and I was like… “More than five spoonfuls?!!” This is for one person! But apparently, over-indulgence is the primary ingredient in Vietnamese coffee.
Then, you push a perforated press on top of the grinds, and pour out a tiny amount of water, allowing the coffee to soak up some moisture. You wait a little bit, then fill the filter with water and cover it with the cap.
And now comes the hardest part: waiting while it brews drip by agonizing drip. It takes a couple minutes before the coffee even begins to appear, and up to ten minutes to be totally done. I suppose it depends on the coarseness of the grounds used, and how tightly you’ve pressed them down.
Vietnamese coffee at its simplest is now complete: add a little sugar, and you have cà phê đen, or “Black Coffee”. But not too many drink it like this. Cà phê đen đá is much more popular: it’s the black coffee poured over a glass of ice. Even more popular is cà phê sữa đá, which is the aforementioned coffee with condensed milk. And if you’re feeling naughty, you can order cà phê bạc xỉu, with is coffee with extra condensed milk.
The coffee is so easy to make, we bought ourselves a couple filters for home. In the market, you can find them for less than a buck apiece. It’s a good investment; now that we’re addicted, we’re going to still need our Vietnamese coffee, even after leaving the country.