The past week was a wipe out, filled with three cooking classes and activities related to the IACP conference. Nope, Asian Tofu didn’t win a cookbook award but I got to meet and hang out with friends and culinary legends, like fiesty 93-year-old Cecilia Chiang, who participated on a panel discussion that I moderated on Chinese food in America. I digress but here's a photo of us after our conference session. It was a success with a packed room and my smile reflects joy and relief (phew!).
When I’m on the road, I do things that I normally wouldn’t do, like eat at five restaurants in a day. I also like to drink instant coffee. In Asia there’s always a hot water kettle around for tea so I keep packages of instant coffee with me. Japanese instant coffee is fabulous and comes with its own nifty origami-like filter.
Here in the States, I’ve tried Starbucks instant coffee and it was just okay. This past week while I was in San Francisco for about six days, I relied on instant Vietnamese coffee for my morning cup. It was convenient and worked for my stay in a rental studio that had a kitchenette.
Cafe Viet is made by Nestle/Nescafe and geared for people in Vietnam. Nearly all the text on the box packaging was in Vietnamese. They have a hunky guy on the box to convey the sophisticated, sexy aspect of drinking instant coffee.
I bought the products at Green Farm Market in Fountain Valley (Little Saigon), where I found the premium fish sauces. Nestle develops many culture-specific food products so I was curious and gave the instant regular coffee (ca phe den) and iced coffee (cafe sua da) a try. Below are my thoughts, which you’re free to add to:
Both come presweetened, which I initially found to be problematic because I don’t have a big sweet tooth. The sweetness bordered on being cloying and tasting artificial. From the photo on the box, Nescafe expects users to add ice and dilute the beverage, which would mellow the sweetness. I was drinking the black coffee hot, right after I mixed it with water so the sweetness was too much.
However, what was interesting was how Nestle made sure there was a certain bittersweet flavor, a signature trait of Viet coffee. I liked it in the black coffee but it was obscured in the iced coffee, which was ultra sweet, practically like a cross between instant hot cocoa and coffee. I tried blending some of the regular black coffee into the iced coffee but that didn’t do the trick.
Each box of Nescafe Cafe Viet contains 12 or 16 servings so I had plenty to experiment with. After I returned home, I tinkered with the iced coffee; the black ca phe den coffee was fine from the get go. In the leisure of my home kitchen, equipped with a measuring cup, I read the directions printed in a teeny tiny font on the package: Mix the coffee mixture with 50 ml (1/4 cup) hot water, then add 120g (4 ounces, 1/2 cup) of iced water. I don’t know why Nestle didn’t express the water amounts as milliliters for consistency reasons. I used a little less ice water (1/3 cup, 70 ml) than called for and added 5 ice cubes. The result — intense but with a little rich sweetness — was much better than my initial trials in San Francisco. The ice arrested the sweetness and as it melted the coffee tasted even better. It was serviceable.
The caffeine hit on the Nescafe Cafe Viet products was not as strong as a from-scratch cup of Vietnamese coffee. I was disappointed by that because it’s what I expected. I suppose it’s reason to whip up another serving?
The upshot: Instant Vietnamese coffee is alright. However, I’m not going to replace my regular cup of coffee made with fresh-ground beans in the Aeropress. Or, will I want to relinquish my metal coffee filter. But I will keep the leftover packages, maybe even put a few into my luggage for travel and emergencies.
Because there’s little English on these products tailored for Vietnamese speakers, I can’t imagine that you’d find them outside of a Vietnamese market. Or maybe you have? Or, perhaps you drank the stuff in Vietnam? Let us know!
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