Vietnamese Milk Coffee

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If you’ve ever tried Vietnamese coffee, called cà phê sữa, the mere mention of this delicately-crafted, decadent drink will likely induce an immediate, mouth-watering craving. The drink is unforgettable. The subtle sweetness, the indulgent creaminess, and the intense, yet smooth, flavor of the coffee blend together to create an exquisite, unparalleled drink. Once you try Vietnamese-style milk coffee, you’ll probably never want to go back. 

For Discoveries at the Jungle Vietnam, we’ve delved deep into the world of cà phê sữa and we’re excited to share our discoveries with you! Keep reading to learn about the history of this classic Vietnamese drink and for instructions on how to make your own at home.

How to make Vietnamese Milk Coffee

The History

Contemporary Vietnamese coffee was largely influenced by the French colonization of Vietnam in the 19th century. In the mid-1800s, France invaded Vietnam under the pretext of protecting French missionaries that were allegedly being harassed. In 1862, France set up a colony called Cochinchina in southern Vietnam. They invaded northern Vietnam in 1882 and officially took control of the country in 1883.

Under French colonization, Vietnam was divided into two distinct classes. The French colonizers considered themselves to be the upper echelon, and the foods that they liked and consumed were therefore considered upper-class foods. This included traditional European foods like the French baguette and French coffee. For years, most Vietnamese people couldn’t afford these European luxuries and they were mainly consumed by the French colonizers.

However, the economy changed with the advent of the first World War. Around 1914, French soldiers that were stationed in Vietnam were ordered to return to France to join the Allies. Suddenly, thousands of French soldiers disappeared and there were far fewer French people in Vietnam. There was a decreased demand for European foods, and the prices for coffee and baguettes plummetted. For the first time, the Vietnamese could afford to buy baguettes and French coffee for themselves.

However, the Vietnamese didn’t drink coffee exactly as the French Europeans did. This is due to the fact that French coffee often contains chicory, which was used as a coffee substitute during the early 1800s to combat a coffee shortage during the Napoleonic wars. Once the coffee shortage ended, many French continued to add chicory to their coffee in small quantities, probably because they liked the strong, bitter taste that chicory adds. To mitigate the bitterness, chicory coffee is almost always served with milk, which creates a creamy cup of coffee that still tastes very strong. However, this practice wasn’t feasible in Vietnam. Due to the extreme heat, dairy products didn’t last very long, making it incredibly difficult and expensive to procure fresh milk. Luckily, the Vietnamese came up with an easy, affordable, and delicious solution: sweetened condensed milk! The condensed milk serves the same purpose as regular milk and softens the bitterness of the chicory coffee, resulting in a strong, creamy, and decadent drink.

The Method

To make authentic cà phê sữa, you’ll need to find a phin filter, which is the standard Vietnamese coffee maker. If you don’t have one, you can find them at Jungle Jim’s International Market! Phin filters are usually very affordable and typically cost less than $10.00. So, if you’re a coffee connoisseur, it’s worth investing in one and keeping it on hand!

Next, you’ll need to make sure you have all of the necessary ingredients on hand. You’ll need sweetened condensed milk, Cafe du Monde (or your preferred brand of Vietnamese coffee), a small amount of table salt, and 8 ounces of hot water.

First, select your favorite mug and make sure that it isn’t too wide to accommodate the phin. If the size is right, add 1 to 3 tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk to the bottom of the mug. Place the phin on top of the mug and remove the press.

Next, add 2 to 4 tablespoons of coffee to the phin. Place the press back into the phin and apply a small amount of pressure. You want to make sure the coffee is pushed down, but you don’t want to pack it too tightly.

Now, it’s time to add the hot water. We recommend starting slowly and adding only a few ounces at first. Add just enough to wet the grounds, but not enough to begin dripping through the filter, then let the coffee steep for about 30 seconds. After 30 seconds, you can add a pinch of salt and pour in the remaining hot water. Replace the lid to retain heat and wait for the coffee to drip down into the mug.

Finally, remove the phin and use a spoon to combine the condensed milk and coffee. Enjoy hot or pour over ice!

The Enjoyment

Unlike American-style coffee, which is often made quickly and without much thought, Vietnamese coffee is made slowly and deliberately. The small phin filter only yields a few ounces of strong coffee, so each serving is made to order. In fact, when you order coffee in Vietnam, it won’t arrive ready to drink. Instead, you’ll receive a mug with a phin resting on top. The coffee may have already been added for you, but in many cases, it will be your responsibility to pour the hot water into the filter, to add your preferred amount of sweetened condensed milk, and even to pour the coffee over ice if you ordered cà phê sữa đá.

The coffee is served this way because the preparation of the cà phê sữa is an essential part of the enjoyment of the beverage. While your coffee brews, you have an opportunity to pause, relax, and to have a few minutes to yourself.

Enjoy another piece of Vietnam here!

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