I’ve always felt a close connection to the Vietnamese people marked by a community of interests and a similarity in nature. The affinity most likely stems from the influence of the French colonialists in the late 19th century. We both share a love of vintage Citroëns and other symbols of French culture like the baguette. What we also share is a love of coffee, especially cà phê sữa đá – the Vietnamese iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk, stirred and poured over ice. A coffee I first drank out of necessity, but eventually grew to appreciate, and even master.
In a recent article on street food, I wrote about my sensitive stomach, citing Vietnam as a good place to visit for those wanting to witness the street culture and social stratification through food without the frequent toilet stops. In Vietnam, I’ve found the food to be typically fresh and lighter than many of the cuisines in the area, drawing heavily on herbs, chilies and lime. All true, but in this indulgent recollection of my past travels, I failed to recall that the actual lack of toilet stops was a problem in itself. Somewhat ironically, I was plagued by constipation for a fortnight in Hanoi, until I discovered I needed coffee to go.
It seems so obvious now, that is, the correlation between coffee and bowel movements, but across time zones and the associated changes to my diurnal rhythm – what happened to be my morning ritual turned out to be more of an enigma. The effect of coffee on distal colon function is well known, in a recent study of ninety nine healthy young volunteers, twenty nine per cent (63% women) claimed that coffee induced a desire to defecate. If only I had have adopted the beverage earlier in Vietnam instead of living on nothing but đậu xanh, a local mung bean. The first jittery cup of this coffee was so memorable in getting the business end of my large intestine going, I eventually decided to learn to make it.
Although many people say, to brew Vietnamese iced coffee as authentically as possible, you need a phin. The flavor obtained from these small brewers is incomparable to an inexpensive homemade mesh bag filter. In Vietnam, robusta coffee is the primary coffee available and although many people say it has an unpleasant burnt rubber taste, I choose not to substitute it for a quality single origin – staying true to the method I learned when I staged under Phuong, a coffee maker in Hanoi’s old quarter. To make my Vietnamese iced coffee, as taught to my by Phuong, I steep a generous amount of a course drip grind robusta (about 14gm per 100ml) through a mesh filter for four minutes at 87 degrees. After this I cool the brew with ice made from filtered water and pour it over condensed milk – I prefer Carnation. Mix well and serve chilled in a plastic bag to go. But don’t go too far, this coffee is fast acting.
Where have you had the best Vietnamese iced coffee?
Thanks to all the readers who pointed out that cà phê đá is coffee without milk.