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Vietnamese Iced Coffee (Cà phê sữa đá)

July 7, 2010

There were many highlights of our recent trip to Vietnam. There were breakfasts of steaming Phở, beautiful vistas, and harrowing motorbike rides. There were rowboat rides through massive limestone caves and beers sipped by the South China Sea. And although we were perpetually on the go, whether in Hue or Hanoi or somewhere along the Mekong Delta there was one undeniable constant–coffee.

Truth be told, a daily coffee ritual is certainly not something I picked up on our S.E. Asian sojourn.  Since college, going without my morning cup means a nagging headache by 10am, impervious both to ibuprofen and my too-little-too-late attempts at caffeine therapy.

Having disclosed this, I’d argue that my new-found fixation with cà phê sữa đá, or Vietnamese iced coffee with milk, transcends it’s highly caffeinated make-up.  And although I will certainly extol the virtue the unique blend of beans, the richness of the flavor, the way its all complimented by the sweetness of condensed milk, I think the reason I love it is only in part due to its taste. The other key factor? Nostalgia, pure and simple. Each cup takes me back to the sidewalk cafes of Hanoi and Hue and Ho Chi Minh City, where in the midst of awe-inspiring motorbike traffic, relentless honking and the skin-searing temperatures of late May, we sat on plastic kindergarten-sized stools drinking iced coffee. After coaxing the last, sweetest drops from the bottom of our glasses (where despite thorough stirring, a bit of condensed milk always lingered), we would sandwich the still iced-filled glasses between our wrists, savoring a fleeting sense of cool. For a sum no more than $.75, we had a tasty beverage, a antidote to the heat, and a seat from which to watch the world go by.

In explaining my fascination with this quintessentially Vietnamese beverage, it is crucial to convey that cà phê sữa đá is not a “fast-food.” You cannot get one via drive-thru, nor can you program your space-age, counter-top coffee maker to brew it automatically each morning. And like plenty of other delicious things I love making (ice cream and bread come to mind), there’s a ritual, methodical process in making it:

Making Coffee!

How to make Vietnamese iced coffee with milk (numbered to correspond with the above series of photos):

1) Put on a kettle of water to boil. Meanwhile, pour a bit of sweetened condensed milk into a glass or mug. A half tablespoon is what I add for a very strong and not-too-sweet cup, but typically in Vietnam much more is added, ranging from 1 to 2 tablespoons or more. Going with the greater quantity will yield a fairly syrup-y though undeniably delicious cup, maybe more closely related to melted ice cream than what you’d expect of your usual brew.

2) Add two tablespoons of ground coffee** to your phin.

3) Twist the metal insert to pack down the grounds. You’re going for a flat, evenly packed layer of grounds. Place the phin on top of your mug or glass.

4) Pour in a bit of boiling water to just cover the grounds and wait 20 seconds–this will help dissolve or ‘bloom’ the grounds and ensure that the coffee drips at the proper rate.

5) Add the rest of the water, filling the phin just shy of the brim. Place the lid on top of the water-filled phin to keep it nice n’ hot.

6) Wait patiently for the coffee to drip.

7) When coffee is finished brewing, it will be sitting charmingly atop the layer of milk. Stir to incorporate the milk and to help cool it down.

8) Pour over a generous glass of ice. Enjoy.

**If you’re seeking a truly authentic cup, you’ll want to make a pilgrimage to a Vietnamese grocery to pick up Trung Nguyen grounds. At their official website you’ll find a wide range of beans/grounds available for mail-order, plus the quintessential Vietnamese phin.

[above: a sampling of the delicious coffees we drank in Vietnam.]

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Sharon permalink
    July 13, 2010 2:39 am

    As I sit here drinking my first glass of cà phê sữa đá, I can say, it is quite delicious and refreshing! I was able to pick up the phin, sweetened condensed milk, and Trung Nguyen grounds between two local Asian markets located in Cranston, Rhode Island. I followed the recipe and then added a little half & half to weaken the strength as it was almost like having an espresso. My only complaint would be that the phin is too small. Thank you for sharing this wonderful experience and recipe. I’m looking forward to more of your featured delights.

    • July 13, 2010 1:41 pm

      Hi Sharon! I’m SO glad you got the ingredients to try it! It’s true that its definitely more like espresso–I think that’s why it makes such great iced coffee (at least for me, a true cafFIEND!)…as the ice melts, you’re still left with a strong and flavorful brew, but obviously, dilute ’til it suits you.

      Again, thanks so much for sampling!


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