Earlier this year I spent a couple of days making and tasting numerous rounds of Vietnamese iced coffee. It was for a Bon Appetit assignment that was published in the May 2012 travel issue. The magazine had a feature called “The Seven Wonders of the [Food] World” and asked me to contribute my idea of the quintessential Vietnamese iced coffee (ca-phe sua da). My goal was to recreate the coffee experiences that I’d had in Vietnam.
I’ve written about making Vietnamese coffee using an Aeropress and my mom used to brew her daily 2 cups in a stovetop espresso maker. We’d buy a dark French roast and like many other Viet-Americans, occasionally reached for a yellow can of Cafe du Monde with chicory. For the Bon Appetit story, I needed to reach a little further and try coffee from Vietnam and use one of the ubiquitous metal filters. I got myself hopped up on numerous rounds of ca-phe sua da and this is what I found out:
Phin Filter: You need the single-cup metal coffee filter for the ultimate Viet coffee experience. It’s like a tiny French press and is completely low-tech.
How to use a Vietnamese coffee filter? Put the filter atop a glass or cup. Add the coffee (use about twice as much as for a regular cup), screw on the screen snug, then add about 2 tablespoons of very hot (just-boiled) water to moisten. When the water is more or less gone, unscrew the screen slightly to release pressure, top off with more just-boiled water.
Then wait for the water to pass through, unscrewing the screen if the water is not steadily dripping through. The amount of time you have to wait depends on how much coffee you put in and how tightly you screwed on the filter screen. When all the water is gone, your coffee is done. You have to have it with sweetened condensed milk or it just won’t taste right. After stirring the coffee and milk together, pour it into an ice-filled glass.
The traditional phin filter is slow – part of the charm of this treat – but it creates a rounder mouthfeel than when I tried the Aeropress or Melitta type of filter. There’s a certain lusty, rustic quality to the coffee that results. It perfectly meshes with the milk.
How to buy a phin filter? Called a ca-phe phin (“kAH-fey feen”), the inexpensive coffee maker is sold at Chinese and Vietnamese markets, as well as at Amazon.
The photo above shows two popular designs. I used the one with the black plastic handles and screw-in screen, which is more familiar to people; it costs $3-5 each. The other kind does not have a screw-in screen or lid. It’s very lightweight and works fine, despite its extra flimsy construction. However, it is not as common in the U.S. I bought the one above in Melbourne, Australia.
When shopping at the store for a phin filter, remember that people often open the packages. Pick an unopened one and make sure the parts are all there and in working order.
“Buttery” coffee: If you’ve had coffee in Vietnam, you know it has a caramely fragrance. Whatever they tell you, it’s not real butter that’s added to the coffee. (Who can afford it over there for mass production?) According to Trung Nguyen, the leading coffee grower and exporter from Vietnam, there’s a touch of butter flavoring and cocoa in their Premium Blend, which actually worked perfectly for the brew. The added flavorings in the coffee impart the signature caramel-like edge to Vietnamese iced coffee.
Trung Nguyen’s Premium Blend is sold pre-ground in a can at a Chinese or Vietnamese market for about $8 (15 ounces); it’s also available online for about $14. They have a detailed website and bilingual (English and Chinese) instructions on the can for you to follow; there’s no Vietnamese on the can!
What if you don’t have the Vietnamese coffee? The typical fall-backs include Cafe du Monde, a dark French roast, or coffee with chicory, such as what’s sold at Trader Joe’s.
Sweetened condensed milk: For many Vietnamese-Americans, the go-to brand of condensed milk is Longevity/Old Man, sold at Chinese and Vietnamese markets. There are imposters but you’ll see the Old Man brand around.
There’s a gold version that contains a touch more fat. Grocery store sweetened condensed milk is fine too. You want the fat so read the label. No low-fat sweetened condensed milk if you’re looking to get the ultimate Vietnamese iced coffee.
Vietnamese Iced Coffee recipe: Bon Appetit editors Carla Lalli Music and Hunter Lewis went through the recipe, then had their test kitchen crew put my recipe and techniques through the paces. The magazine’s art department made this great shot to make you feel extra thirsty:
To locate the story and recipe, see pages 112 and 115 of the May issue, which is now off the newsstands. The story is readable through a slideshow of the feature and Vietnamese iced coffee recipe is posted online.
As the weather heats up, Vietnamese iced coffee is a great way to start and/or continue on with your day. Take the time to use the filter, etc. to savor Vietnam. Then you’ll be ready to launch into whatever that’s ahead.
- High-tech Vietnamese coffee with the Aeropress
- How to make Vietnamese coffee (video by Eric Slatkin)
- History of Vietnamese coffee – links to photos, articles on the ca-phe history
(P.S. On the flip side, I wrote a story on Manresa Restaurant’s incredible cocktails for the Wall Street Journal. The article was published this past Saturday. The article is likely only accessible to subscribers. There may be other ways to access it. In any event, look for “Produce Driven Cocktails: Garden to Glass.” Shiso, aloe, and tamarind are among the ingredients used!)