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Vietnamese coffee
Vietnam is at Asia's culinary crossroads. The food is unmistakably Asian but there are strong differences. For example, chopsticks are used, at the table, as in Japan and China, but unlike Thailand where western utensils are common; more to the point, Vietnamese cuisine has a strong French influence unlike any of its neigbours. This is part of the country's legacy as a French colony. French is still an common language in that country, which is one reason that Montreal has such a strong Vietnamese community.

If you think of Vietnamese cooking as just another Asian variety, you'll be surprised to see coffee featured on the menu. Vietnam is also a coffee growing country. Most people are surprised to learn that Vietnam is the world's fourth largest coffee exporting nation.

The Vietnamese approach to coffee making, however, remains unique. For those on the run who slurp an extra-large double cream from a litre-sized thermos, this kind of coffee may seem a throwback to a more leisurely era. Ordering a cup of Vietnamese coffee can make a Japanese tea ceremony look speedy.

The coffee is brought to the table in a glass but there is no coffee in it. Instead, a metal container is perched on top and the glass is one-third filled with what thick milk. This is condensed milk and it hearkens to a time when there was no refrigeration and stored milk was only available sold in cans. It was condensed to make shipping more efficient and, once opened, was thinned with water for drinking or cooking.

The milk served with Vietnamese coffee, however is undiluted - thick, sweet and rich. The metal container sitting on top of the glass has two parts The bottom half is filled with darkly roasted finely ground coffee. Although two to three tablespoons of ground coffee per cup is common, it does not seem that this much coffee is used because it is compressed between two filters. Hot water is poured on top and it slowly seeps through the coffee and drips onto the milk. This takes awhile. This is not a drink to gulp. You can get through a couple of sections of the Saturday Gazette while waiting for the coffee to drip through.

Loosening the lid a little will let the water run through the coffee quicker but the flavour will be weaker. As the coffee drips, it hardly disturbs the milk. There is a thick layer of white, another black and a little froth at the top. Remove the metal filter and stir the layers together. The result has the texture of a good espresso and a caramel sweetness with a flavour close to good coffee ice cream. This coffee may actually be too strong for some people and it is not unusual to ask for a carafe of hot water to dilute the drink.

The marriage of sweet thick milk and intense bitter coffee is sublime. Each, on its own, is too intense to be enjoyed. The milk is too cloying, the coffee too strong. There is a classic yin and yang vying for attention and needing just a stir of the spoon to create an extraordinary balance.

Sip it slowly. The wait is worth it, particularly if you are nibbling a Vietnamese pastry. Vietnamese coffee is also served over ice and is deliciously refreshing on a hot day.

© Barry Lazar 2002

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