What is cà phê sữa đá?
Vietnam is the world’s second-largest coffee exporter and is recognized by CNN Travel as one of the best places to enjoy a cup of coffee. For Vietnamese people, though, coffee is much more than just a daily shot of caffeine – it’s our pride, our way of life. The evolution of this bittersweet drink – cà phê sữa đá (Vietnamese iced coffee) – is associated with the world’s turbulence and history. Sit back, sip your coffee, and let us tell you the story about Vietnamese coffee.
The history of Vietnamese coffee
The colonial period left us with a lot of destruction and, at the same time, heritage. It is generally accepted that coffee was brought to Vietnam by French preachers in the mid-19th century. They first planted Arabica coffee trees in the Northern region of Vietnam. At that time, the highest yield was around 400 – 500 kg/ha and steadily decreased to only 100 – 150 kg/ha due to inappropriate soil and climate conditions.
In 1908, the French replaced Arabica with Robusta and Liberica, aiming at more successful production. However, they realized that geographical features in the Central and the Southern part would be more suitable for coffee growing; hence, the cultivation gradually moved southward to the fertile Bazan soil of the highlands.
In 1925, coffee was grown in Tây Nguyên (Central Highlands), which marked a milestone in Vietnam’s coffee industry. Bumper crops here paved the way for the expansion of coffee production in other parts of Southeast Vietnam, such as Bình Phước and Đồng Nai.
From 1937 onwards, coffee has been recognized as a critical industrial crop and grown on a large scale.
Since the 1990s, Vietnam has been among the leading coffee exporters in the world, creating more than three million jobs for the Vietnamese people.
The history of cà phê sữa đá
“Cà phê” is a borrowed word from French for “café” with quite similar pronunciation. Coffee was a popular drink for the French soldiers and priests; however, importing fresh milk to Vietnam was impossible due to the long distance and hot weather. The lack of milk in their favorite drinks provoked the soldiers’ homesickness; therefore, the use of condensed milk came in as an ideal replacement.
The world situation continued to impact coffee production and culture profoundly. Before World War I, the price of coffee was so high that only the French and upper classes had the privilege to enjoy a cup of coffee. However, when the war broke out, coffee prices dropped dramatically, and Vietnamese people could finally afford this drink. The local pace of life and simple needs for a drink had slowly transformed coffee into a daily and less decorative drink compared to Western-style coffee. A low price, good taste, and simple making process have made coffee one of the most favored universal drinks.
Types of cà phê sữa đá
In Vietnam, the most popular coffee beans are Robusta. Robusta coffee is often said to have an earthy and bitter taste; hence, it would go better with creamy and sweet condensed milk.
Coffee shops scatter everywhere, from a small hidden alley to the most luxurious buildings, ranging from portable coffee counters with plastic stools on the sidewalk to decorative, contemporary outlets. Despite the use of the same coffee beans, different climates and regional palates have resulted in many exciting varieties of cà phê sữa đá.
Cà phê sữa đá in Saigon
Cà phê đen đá and cà phê sữa đá are the names used in the South. For example, one would say, “Cho một cà phê sữa đá” (One iced milk coffee, please). Saigon and cà phê have become inseparable. Cà phê is Saigoneers’ lifestyle and culture. “Sài Gòn cà phê sữa đá” is such a thing that it is widely used in Vietnamese songs and literature. Coffee is the go-to drink loved by all ages and all walks of life. Walking out on the streets, you will find more than one coffee store, no matter where you are. Saigon people drink coffee anywhere, anytime. Because all the coffee shops provide wifi connections and most of them are air-conditioned, they are an ideal stop for officers and students to go during their break. And don’t be surprised when you find lots of people gathering in the cafés late at night – it is a part of Saigon’s nightlife.
Saigon loves cold drinks. Or, to be more precise, we need cold drinks for this hot and humid weather. That’s why people here prefer cà phê đá (black iced coffee) and cà phê sữa đá (iced milk coffee). Understanding the unpleasant heat in Saigon, wherever you go for coffee, the coffee shops will serve you a complementary trà đá (iced tea) as a welcome drink, with unlimited refills. This is something special about Saigon’s coffee, which profoundly reflects the people’s generosity and casualness. “Văn hóa trà đá” (iced-tea culture) is another interesting story, but let’s save it for another time.
There are quite many variants of cà phê sữa đá in Saigon which go with the name bạc xỉu or cà phê sữa tươi (fresh milk coffee). Bạc xỉu (white coffee) is basically cà phê sữa đá with extra milk for those who are caffeine sensitive but unfortunately fall for the tasty drink. Meanwhile, cà phê sữa tươi is the switch from condensed milk to fresh milk – this sounds like a copy of the Western latte or cappuccino, but they are totally different, both in the look and the taste.
Cà phê sữa in Hanoi
The first noticeable difference would draw to the name of the drink. In the capital city, Hanoi people refer to cà phê đen and cà phê sữa as đen (black) and nâu (brown). For example, they would often say, “Cho một nâu nóng” (Can I have a hot brown, please?).
In Hanoi, cà phê sữa (or cà phê nâu) is not the first choice of social drink. Hanoi people mainly drink coffee in the early morning before heading to work. The old generations of the old quarter, though, are keen on traditional hot tea rather than coffee drinks. Coffee is often sold in well-set-up coffee shops and is favored by young people or businesspeople looking for a more elegant and pleasant place to meet.
Due to the cold weather, Hanoi people tend to prefer hot coffee (đen nóng) and hot milk coffee (nâu nóng). A glass of nâu nóng is often placed inside another cup of hot water or on top of a small tealight candle cooker to prevent the drink from getting cold quickly.
How to make cà phê sữa đá
Although some rare old coffee shops make coffee using cloth nets, making coffee with iconic Vietnamese filters (called phin) is more practical and hence more popular. To make an authentic cup of cà phê sữa đá, you will need:
- An aluminum or inox filter (phin)
- High-quality coffee powder (Robusta beans preferred)
- Condensed milk
- Boiled water
- A glass and a teaspoon
After gathering the tools and ingredients, just follow the steps below:
Step 1: Wash the phin and glass with hot water. This is to help capture the coffee aroma better.
Step 2: Add 3-4 teaspoons of condensed milk to a glass (you can add more later until it is right for you).
Step 3: Add 2-3 teaspoons of coffee powder to a phin, gently shake the phin so that the coffee spreads evenly and then place the press disk over the coffee.
Step 4: Pour 1-2 teaspoons of boiling water into the phin – just enough to cover the surface of the coffee and wait for one minute. This process is known as blooming, which will moisturize coffee grounds and result in more flavorful coffee drips.
Step 5: Slowly fill the phin to the top with hot water and wait (or watch) it drips. This dripping could take up to 5 – 10 minutes. Remember to close the phin lid so that the fragrance won’t escape.
Step 6: When coffee stops dripping, give it a good stir. If the coffee is too bitter at this step, you can add some more condensed milk.
Step 7: Add ice and enjoy.
Some facts about Vietnamese coffee culture
- Vietnamese coffee shops are not just about coffee. They have become a social hub – a gathering place outside the home and workplace. Due to the boom of working from home and freelance jobs, many new cafés are designed to provide a comfortable working space. You have everything you need: a stable wi-fi connection, air-conditioners running all day, and good food and drinks.
- How much is it? The prices of cà phê sữa đá vary significantly, ranging from 12.000 VND ($0.5) to over 50.000 VND ($2.1) depending on the location and decoration of the coffee shops.
- Cà phê sữa đá is a pleasure drink. Unlike Americans who drink coffee as an energy shot to kick start a new day, Vietnamese people do not rush to get their coffee. You will see people sitting back reading a newspaper, waiting for the coffee to slowly drip.
- Nugget ice or crushed ice? A traditional cà phê sữa đá is one with a dark brown color. Ice used for cà phê sữa đá is big ice blocks crushed with a wooden or steel pestle. However, big coffee shops nowadays only use nugget ice for its convenience.
- Cà phê sữa đá with a twist. On a base of cà phê sữa đá, there are more drinks added to the menu, such as salt coffee (cà phê sữa đá but with a layer of salt whipped with non-dairy creamer); coconut coffee (coffee blended with ice and coconut milk); and yogurt coffee (like an affogato but with yogurt instead of ice-cream).
We hope you have learned something new about our signature drink – cà phê sữa đá. Don’t forget to grab one when you travel in Vietnam and tell us about your experience.