Photo: Harnoor Channi-Tiwary
Photo: Harnoor Channi-Tiwary

The fine art of making Vietnamese coffee

Vietnamese coffee is not just a beverage. It is a way of being, a certain sensibility that denies you the pleasure of instant gratification.

How appropriate that I am writing this article while sipping on my glass of chilled Vietnamese coffee. Or rather as I glug it down, as sipping on this sensational new discovery requires a degree of self-control that I am afraid I do not possess. But let me pause for a minute here. I am getting ahead of myself. This story doesn’t begin at my writing desk in Singapore. It begins on a tiny island called Phu Quoc, off the southern coast of Vietnam. 

Two weeks ago, I packed my bags and set sail (metaphorically) to cross Vietnam off my bucket list. The trip was a success in many ways, and Vietnam has firmly entrenched itself in my being. But perhaps the most visible impact of the trip was that it converted me, an ardent chai-lover, into a coffee addict. I do not use that word lightly (*pauses typing to sip on her iced coffee*).

Over the years, I have given many people company, gladly sipping my cup of earl grey, as they ordered a cappuccino or an espresso. Never once was I tempted to steal a sip. All this changed two weeks back when a colleague innocently urged me to try Vietnamese coffee, claiming that it had magical powers. 

And cast a spell it did.

The history of Vietnamese coffee (cà phê sữa đá)

The well-defined layers of a perfect glass of Vietnamese coffee—ice, coffee and condensed milk—are a great way to understand this popular brew’s history. Coffee was introduced to Vietnam in the 19th century by the French, who missed their favourite drink from back home. The microclimates of the hilly regions of Vietnam were found to be perfect for the crop, which thrived here. Throw in some ice cubes to counter the sweltering heat that the French were ravaged by and they had a winner.

Well, almost. The plan fell flat when the French colonists realized that the Vietnamese dairy industry was far too nascent: there just wasn’t enough good milk to go around. Some genius thought of pouring in canned condensed milk instead, and the idea stuck. Thus was born the unique iced Vietnamese coffee that is a rage today. 

Photo: Harnoor Channi-Tiwary
Photo: Harnoor Channi-Tiwary

Cà phê sữa đá is a sensibility, not a beverage

Many tourists visit Vietnam, fall in love with this drink like they would with an exotic young new friend and then attempt to bring it back home and force-fit it into their lives. This is where they go wrong. Vietnamese coffee is not just a beverage. It is a way of being, a certain sensibility that denies you the pleasure of instant gratification.

It has no place in a life where coffee is a “quick fix"; a strong brew you chug down as you rush to work at 8am. Its preparation is a slow affair, almost poetic in motion. You need time, patience and complete and utter devotion to be able to appreciate the brew as you watch it painstakingly trickle down, drop by drop, into the glass.

In fact, it is not uncommon in Hanoi to get a complimentary cup of Chinese tea to sip on as you watch your coffee drip through the filter in slow-motion; a process that can take five or even 10 minutes. 

How to make the perfect glass of Vietnamese coffee

After my nth tall glass of Vietnamese coffee, I gave in to the reality that I was changed forever, and thus needed to learn how to make this elixir back home. I learnt the tricks of the trade from an expert during a private masterclass at Phu Quoc’s JW Marriott Emerald Bay Resort. And here I am sharing it with you. Try it once, and you will never look back again. 

You will need: 

Coffee powder (robusta, medium coarse ground)

A filter cup (Vietnamese coffee press)

Condensed milk

Water

Lots of time and patience 

Method: 

• Boil half a cup of water.

• Now for the trick no one tells you about: take an empty saucer and add two tablespoons of water into it. Place the filter cup in the saucer, remove the coffee press and spoon in 3 teaspoons of coffee powder.

• Replace the filter and gently press to settle the coffee powder. Do not lift the cup. 

• Now add 20ml of boiling water (around 4 teaspoons) into the filter cup, cover and step aside. 

• Take a book, read a chapter. The coffee needs to absorb the water (approximately three minutes).

• Place the cup on top of a tall slim glass. Remove the lid and add in boiling water to fill the cup. Cover and go back to your book. 

• The coffee will slowly drip into the glass. This step cannot be hurried and takes around six to eight minutes. 

• Once all the water in the filter cup has dripped down into the glass, spoon in one to two tablespoons of condensed milk. It will go settle at the bottom, making those gorgeous layers that define a perfect brew. You can modify the quantity of condensed milk, depending on whether you like your coffee more milky and sweet or heady and strong. 

• Top the glass with ice cubes, do not be stingy here. Serve with a long-stemmed stirrer.

• To drink, push the stirrer down the side of the glass. Slowly turn the glass around, as you gently agitate the condensed milk in a vertical motion to mix with the coffee. 

• Enjoy. And prepare to be addicted. 

Note: If you’re not a fan of iced coffee, you can skip the ice cubes. What you get is a thick and creamy cup of coffee that’s perfect to end a meal with. 

Harnoor Channi-Tiwary is a marketing specialist who wandered into the world of writing and never left. She has been writing about food and travel for more than a decade. Harnoor steered the editorial direction for NDTV Food as Content Head until recently, prior to which she worked with Marryam H Reshii on the Times Food Guide and authored an e-book amongst other notable works. She blogs at TheThoughtExpress, tweets as @HCdines and now lives in Singapore with her husband and six year old daughter (whose first word reportedly was ‘yummy’ and not mummy). 

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