|Coffee: Have it your way|
Words by Jonathan Jones
Millions of people, from London to Manhattan to Sydney, regularly burn their fingers clinging to a chain brand throwaway cup as they endure the battle into work with ‘coffee to go.’
For those of us used to sampling coffee on the run, the Vietnamese coffee experience comes as a shock to the system. Time is on the side of coffee here, not against it.
The beverage may provide the same quick hit as elsewhere, the use of the strong, homegrown Robusta bean makes sure of that, but the hit is where the similarities begin and end. You are now in the land of coffee connoisseurs.
Whether you indulge at home or at one of the numerous cafes around town, you are expected to wait, relax and relish the moment as the coffee is prepared.
Watching the pearls of liquid caffeine effortlessly escape from the filter-less metal phin and onto the pool of sweetened condensed milk is a visual delight.
As it takes around five minutes for the cafetiere to fully reveal the contents, your taste buds have ample scope to heighten their anticipation.
For a nation that has perfected the art of coffee making, their exposure to it has been remarkably short.
Coffee production on a major scale didn’t start here until the French introduced it in 1857. Two hundred years after the first coffee shop opened in London, three hundred after the first one in Turkey and a full ten centuries, if legends are to be believed, after the first beans were roasted in Ethiopia.
Today, however, Vietnam is the second biggest producer of coffee in the world. Robusta beans have made up the bulk of the crop in the past, but the widespread planting of Arabica and cross-bred beans have added to the variety.
Bean in passing
The nitty-gritty of coffee production is not usually a riveting subject, but it is worth mentioning one particular brand. Caphe Chon, or weasel coffee as it popularly known, is prized throughout the world.
This variety is made from beans which have been eaten by the Asian Palm Civet, passed through its digestive system with stomach enzymes seeping into them and then defecated. Once gathered, washed, dried, roasted and brewed these bean droppings give a smooth, aromatic coffee that is a cut, and a price, above the rest.
Don’t let the process put you off. Although there are a couple of civet farms in Dak Lak, most of the coffee available under the weasel brand on our streets, certainly all of it that is at a reasonable cost, is a chemically simulated version.
The variety and quality of the product are not in question. What is open to debate is the choice of the best place to enjoy your particular favorite blend. Put simply, do you go traditional or modern?
If you believe you have to be sitting on the street perched upon a miniature plastic stool for it to be an authentic experience you are in luck. On the other hand, if you need comfy velour chairs with an abundance of soft cushions to lounge upon while you sup, you will not be disappointed either.
Wherever you find yourself in the city you will not have to go far to experience a wide range of drinking habitats, but recommending one place over another is fraught with problems. Like choices of partner, literature, films and numerous other things in life, it comes down to personal preference. As fickle beings, that preference is likely to change regularly depending on our moods or the group of friends we’re with at the time.
Being a coffee-tart I am not ashamed to say I don’t believe in being faithful to one coffee shop or another, but I do find myself pulled back to one place more regularly than the others.
Cong Caphe, a small, arty, intimate place on Trieu Viet Vuong Street, clearly has something that I find hard to resist. Whether that something is the curling sepia photos of Vietnam’s troubled past decorating the walls, the whir of the dusty-black lacquered Bakelite fan or the unread volumes of Lenin on a rickety bookcase, I am not quite sure.
I confess the hand-written menu scrawled across the pages of a novel appealed to me the moment it was first placed in my hands. The ultra-slim staircase leading up to a sparsely furnished mezzanine floor where patrons can enjoy their caffeine intake in the prone position cries out to my suppressed bohemian nature, but that is not the main draw either.
The clientele interest me, that’s for certain. A steady flow of locals and ex-pats create a gentle hum of conversation that enhances, without drowning out, the cool stream of eclectic tunes playing softly in the background. Mixing together, these form a relaxing soundtrack to the panoramic images of Hanoi life that roll by inches from the cafe window.
Yet, I feel the real answer as to why I am here again, in the same sparsely padded seat at Cong Caphe, is closer at hand. It comes in a glass with a silver teaspoon and three chunks of ice. The cà phê sữa đá is simply the closest I have come to experiencing liquid nectar anywhere on the planet.
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