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Ca Phe Sua Da

Vietnam’s own love affair with coffee.

Last Updated: October 15.2014

The Gist:
  • Iced coffee has a special resonance in Saigon, where its romantic overtones have been immortalised in song
  • The local recipe dates back to French colonial times with the successful growth of the coffee plant versus the scarcity of fresh milk
  • Despite common misconceptions, genuine Vietnamese coffee is not made with chicory
  • The drink has strong associations with tender human relationships
  • Ca phe sua da is a rich, smooth drink preserving the essential oils of the coffee beans
  • Proper use of a phin tin coffee filter requires practice and experience

It’s not an overstatement to say that Ca Phe Sua Da represents a unique aspect of Vietnamese culture, particularly in Saigon. The mere mention of the drink is enough to conjure up a certain sense of romance – there’s actually a popular song around here entitled Saigon Ca Phe Sua Da that manages to encapsulate the genuine fondness Saigonese people have towards the beverage. Ca phe sua da (or iced milk coffee in English) is so ubiquitous and so popular that it’s the one single Vietnamese term that expats here are even more likely to be familiar with than the local words for “hello” and “goodbye”. It has its own story too – a history quite befitting of its status as the unofficial representative beverage of Ho Chi Minh City.

What all the fuss is about

The story of ca phe sua da dates back to 1857, with the advent of coffee planting in Vietnam by the French. Thanks to the superior quality of the soil, the crop thrived – and the fortunate colonists found themselves with a convenient source of fine coffee beans. As legend has it, it was a perfect arrangement except for one minor oversight: there weren’t enough dairy cows around at the time to provide a decent quantity of milk. This was a particular problem for the French, whose centuries-old tradition of blending coffee and hot milk arose from having invented the café au lait in the late 1600’s.

In theory, this is why French soldiers started to use sweetened condensed milk in their coffee in the absence of the real McCoy. They would offset the sweetness with a dark, full-roasted, drip-filtered coffee. This practice was the genesis of the modern formula for ca phe sua da, which is a thick blend of rich coffee and condensed milk stirred or shaken through ice – the perfect antidote to Vietnam’s inescapable heat.

Coffee was grown and developed gradually within Vietnam from then on, until it eventually surpassed Chinese tea as the drink of choice at all levels of society. Eventually, the Buon Me Thuot region became the centre of coffee production – although this was significantly disrupted during the war, Buon Me Thuot being a crossroads between the North and South of Vietnam. After the reunification of the country, the coffee industry recovered and it has developed continuously until today.

As tradition has it

American coffee drinkers often mistakenly believe that Vietnamese coffee contains chicory. This is because chicory was used in coffee by Vietnamese immigrants to the United States in the late 20th century. It’s said that the immigrants added it to their coffee because they desperately missed the rich, chocolatey taste of their national drink in the face of the weak filter variety then preferred by Americans. Some immigrants eventually found a suitable replacement at New Orleans’ famous “Café du Monde” with its relatively coarse-grind brew. Suffice it to say that a traditional Vietnamese ca phe sua da will never be served with chicory.

Ca phe sua da is said in Vietnam to be a bridge between those who enjoy drinking it together. Popular belief holds that It makes things easier to say, helps people to relax and to express themselves, makes a rainy evening more pleasant, and can kindle a romance on a first date. It used to be the case that every morning before work, a husband or son would take a cup brewed especially for them by their wives or mothers. Coffee, therefore, is something that evokes a sense of great fondness in Vietnam, which explains the many thousands of coffee shops dotting the streets of every suburb of this city and throughout the nation.

That Unmistakable Flavour

Most Vietnamese people – Saigonese in particular – find the kind of coffee commonly enjoyed in the West to be somewhat light and unimpressive. Their coffee is heroic in strength by comparison – a confident, smooth hit of caffeine extracted unhurriedly from a dark roast, using a drip-filter brewing method that preserves the essential oils of the bean. The mood of the drink is highly conducive to a sense of relaxation and camaraderie, making it an ideal accompaniment for sitting outside, talking, and watching vehicles and passers-by – exactly the way Vietnamese people prefer to take their coffee.

Brewing ca phe sua da, however, is far less simple than it looks, and it is the bane of every foreigner who purchases one of those admittedly good-looking tin pots (known as phins) that, despite the straightforwardness of the apparatus, it’s virtually impossible to produce a cup of coffee with it that tastes half as good as the kind you buy on the street or in local cafés. The story’s always the same – new foreigners bubble over in their enthusiasm for their new-found caffeine hit, discover the racks of phins over at Ben Thanh Market, buy several more than they need and a couple of kilos of coffee grinds, haul it all home and excitedly follow the instructions on the little pamphlet, pour on the hot water – and watch as their chemistry experiment goes horribly wrong, producing a mildly brown liquid that tastes about as toxic as dishwater.

Three attempts at a perfect ca phe sua da

The problem is that using a phin to make coffee requires the kind of familiarity and practiced hand that comes from long exposure and lots of practice – and it’s on a par with learning a martial art. Having any chance of success takes Zen-like patience – and it helps if you understand the reasoning behind each step.

A successful brew of ca phe sua da is essentially about balancing the contrasts between the temperatures of the coffee and the condensed milk. It’s neither a recipe nor a science – if you attempt to follow a strict set of instructions without paying attention to the subtle combination of elements in the glass, you’re doomed to creating a watery or gloopy mess.

Fill the barrel of the phin with a quantity of coarse, closely-packed coffee grinds. Some people prefer a greater volume of grinds pressed snugly under the filter compress; others prefer a tight, thin layer of coffee forced at the bottom, leaving room for a greater quantity of off-the-boil (but not boiling) water. Whichever you choose, the point is to ensure that the water drips through the vessel gradually, and that when it collects in the cup, the liquid is dark and intensely fragrant.

To judge the amount of water you need to add, first pour just a little of it over the compressed coffee – just enough to take up a quarter of the available space – and watch gravity do its thing for about twenty seconds. Judge then how much extra water needs to be added to make the coffee drip out at a nice, gradual rate. You’ll get better at this in time. If it drips too quickly, you’ll know you need to press down on the filter harder before adding any more water. Too slow, and you’ll have run out of enthusiasm by the time the water’s dripped through – and the coffee will have already cooled significantly. To keep the brew warm, put the collecting cup into a small bowl of boiled water.

The viscosity of the milk blend is most strongly affected by whether or not the condensed milk you use is refrigerated, and the degree to which you stir it. The ratio of coffee to milk should be about 2:1, and the best way to achieve the kind of soupy, syrupy blend you want is to prepare the hot coffee in a separate vessel to the milk, and then pour it on top of the milk until the desired silkiness is achieved, placing the ice on top of this mixture to bring about a rapid cooling effect. If possible, cover the vessel and shake the coffee mixture through the ice, drenching it with freezing water, before pouring it into a separate glass to enjoy.

With a little trial and error, your homemade ca phe sua da will be of a sufficient standard to go on sale for VND 10,000 a glass on any side-street in Ho Chi Minh City. There’s no higher seal of authenticity for your iced coffee than that.

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