Cà phê sữa đá Vietnamese Coffee – 18 of 365

Coffee, Condensed Milk, and Ice

Just because an order of Vietnamese coffee doesn’t have a creepy looking green goddess on the cup and cost over five bucks doesn’t mean it’s any less a beverage.  In fact, it’s so much more.   A 45 cent local variety called cà phê sữa đá seems to fuel an entire nation along with my friends whom I’ve watched enthusiastically drink it for over a year and a half now.  The translation says it all…cà phê coffee, sữa milk, đá ice.  But this isn’t any ordinary ice coffee pissed out of a drip maker in some chain shop that offers no distinctness whether in Des Moines or Dubai…Banish visions of Starbucks from your head for this syrupy cold drink is the real deal, especially on a hot winter day.

Now I don’t drink caffeine nor do I plan on starting, but decaf coffee just isn’t a normal concept over here in Vietnam.  So basically I am you know what out of luck here.  My dilemma of wanting to try some coffee milk ice finally hit my will power head on at 5:30am.   While sitting in our airport van waiting for the cabin crew to finally emerge from their house, my friend and coworker, Eloy, and I hopped out and went to the little soup stand across the street.  Of course in the 5:30am darkness the roosters were not quite yet crowing at this street joint, but the owner was out and about setting up.  Only in Vietnam can anyone transact some business with a closed shop no questions asked.   A young girl in the back room poured a thick layer of condensed milk into each plastic cup and a cà phê sữa đá was born .  Next into the cups was coffee fresh from a press topped by small ice cubes, hopefully of a purified water source.   As I watched the melting ice slowly blend into the different layers, I knew my commonplace Vietnamese street treat had all the makings of a pretentious menu item back home.

With my clear plastic cup safely tucked away inside its tiny pink plastic carrier bag complete with handles, I carefully maneuvered it into the airport, through security and out to the plane.   By now it had swirled into a caramel colored blend, and I pictured caffeine addicts back home spending six bucks on some half-caff skinny soymilk sugar substitute latte half ass caramel macchiato and barely enjoying it as sitting in traffic consumes their patience.  Suckers.  Over here things are simple.  Hand 8,000 Dong to the coffee lady and this barista hands you back the one and only choice on her menu…Cà phê sữa đá.  Best of all over here we have no fuss and no risk of a scalding hot liquid spill in the car destined for some sort of lawsuit.

Vietnam’s 90 million people share a diverse mix of cultures, cuisines and dialects that seem to only cross paths in the larger cities based on my non scientific surveillance.  I don’t pretend to be the end all be all of things Vietnamese so take my observations with a grain of salt.   My point with all this is that cà phê sữa đá seems to be that one experience crossing all boundaries within this nation whether in Hanoi, Saigon the islands or highlands.   Coffee was introduced to Vietnam by the French in the 19th century and condensed milk was used due to the scarcity of fresh milk.  The rest is history and I should note that ice, dairy and coffee are not the typical three items found throughout Asia so modern day cà phê sữa đá is definitely born of French colonial roots.

I’ve watched people enjoy their brew at both established coffee shops as well as on tiny squat stools at impromptu sidewalk stands here today and gone tomorrow.   Even though I have only enjoyed that one swig quickly expelled into the airplane sink, it was enough to send me on a culinary epiphany…To drink cà phê sữa đá is to take in a bit of this rich culture sip by sip.

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Categories: Vietnamese Food

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