Coffee Traditions: Vietnamese Coffee


Vietnamese coffee, brewed with a "phin" filter. [Photograph: charles chan * on Flickr]

Baguettes and pâté for bánh mì aren't the only thing French colonists left behind in Vietnam: The Europeans are to thank for that delicious glass of the famously sweet, dark coffee. 19th-century French colonists spread coffee plantations throughout the fertile soil of Vietnam's central swath. Today, the country is one of the the world's largest coffee-producing nations, though the bulk of the plants are lower-altitude, lower-quality Robusta.

Roasted dark and typically brewed using another French-inspired import—a particular style of perforated-metal filter called a phin,—the resulting base cup for Vietnamese-style coffee is smoky and bittersweet, with a distinct toastiness from the roast adding deep chocolate notes to the elixir. The lack of a paper layer in the European-inspired filter allows the brew water to absorb more body-enhancing coffee oils from the grounds, giving the coffee a luscious and mouthcoating texture.

Because of the limited access to fresh milk, the French—who do love their coffee au lait—used sweetened condensed stuff to lighten up their steaming mugs. Et voilà! Vietnamese coffee, or cà phê phin was born.


Adding the condensed milk. [Photograph: saturn ♄ on Flickr]

Easy enough to whip up at home, there's nothing like watching the curls of thick, syrupy condensed milk swirl through your after-dinner cup. The base coffee can be brewed with an inexpensive phin filter or even a simple press pot (any French roasted coffee will do, especially if brewed a little stronger than you might normally be inclined), with condensed milk added to your taste.

For dramatic effect, serve it in a clear glass mug: The resulting caffeinated kaleidoscope can be as hypnotic as it is delicious. Try the brew chilled over ice, too, for a sweet and smoky treat. (Double-strength cooled coffee works best; hot coffee over ice will just dilute and disappoint.)