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Saigon looks beyond condensed milk

Time:2016-11-23 18:42wine - Red wine life health Click:

Coffee saigon

Saigon looks beyond condensed milk

By    November 23, 2016 | 03:18 pm GMT+7

A cafe boom has inspired a small group of coffee enthusiasts to play around with Saigon's sweet, slow-drip iced coffee.



GIF by Tuan Anh Sym


Tran Khanh Nghi, 24, stood on a balcony overlooking a wide alley in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 3.

The afternoon rain had begun to fall as she finished the last of her ca phe sua da, a drink she missed dearly during ten frigid months spent studying actuarial science in Michigan.

Asian markets there sold the tin filter, ground Vietnamese Robusta and the sweetened condensed milk required to make the drink that’s been synonymous with Saigon for over a century.

“But in America, you don’t have time for Vietnamese coffee,” she said, adding that her fellow overseas students asked Starbucks baristas to dose their espresso with chocolate syrup and fresh milk as a kind of instant substitute.

Nghi says she’s happy to be back in Saigon’s humid embrace, spending long afternoons sipping the sweet heavy brew that's remained a constant through a century of military and economic upheaval.

In her book Appetites and Aspirations in Vietnam, food historian Erica Peters described how colonialism basically created ca phe sua -- a drink initially spurned by revolutionary poets who preferred tea.

“Before colonialism, few Vietnamese had tried coffee. During the period of French rule, coffee plantations stretched from Can Tho through the Da Lat region and north to Ninh Binh and beyond. Near those plantations, Vietnamese villagers drank an infusion of coffee leaves like the local tea. In the colonial cities, however, a new style of coffee drinking found favor: brewed strong, with sweetened condensed milk, and iced in the tropical south -- ca phe sua da.”

Peters further described how French importers of condensed milk began an aggressive and (racist) marketing campaign designed to throw shade on Saigon’s many Tamil milkmen. The ads mostly played up the (non-existent) health benefits of the imported condensed milk and cast aspersions on the quality of domestic dairy operations.

It worked.

Peters cited a letter from 1888 that claimed Vietnamese women sold coffee from every street corner in Saigon.

“Cans of milk also became prestige items and made appearances alongside incense and betel nuts on domestic altars honoring a family’s ancestors,” she wrote.

The Robusta boom

Roughly a century later, Vietnam engaged in an ambitious plan to go from one of the poorest agrarian economies to the largest exporter of Robusta -- the cheap caffeine-rich family of coffee that few can drink straight up.

For decades, newspapers have carried vague exposes describing men cutting naturally diesel-flavored beans with everything from butter to burnt corn or simply “chemicals”. 

Sweetened condensed milk provided the perfect mask for those flavors.

A growing pool of coffee roasters and baristas have shown outsized dedication to the pursuit of quality. This woman decided to have coffee flowers and cherries tattooed on her wrists.


A growing pool of coffee roasters and baristas have shown outsized dedication to the pursuit of quality. This woman decided to have coffee flowers and cherries tattooed on her wrists. Photo by VnExpress/Calvin Godfrey


When Starbucks came to town in 2013, Dang Le Nguyen Vu the millionaire chairman of the Trung Nguyen coffee company declared war. No one had made more money selling bags of pre-ground coffee to Vietnamese consumer than Chairman Vu.

“No worries,” he told Bloomberg, before vowing to out-sell Starbucks on the streets of Seattle. Vu even went so far as to disparage Starbucks as a pusher of “coffee-flavored water with sugar in it” -- an odd barb coming from the pusher of the developing world’s favorite instant coffee brand.

Instead of ushering forth a final conflagration between the frappuccino and the ca phe sua da, Starbucks’ arrival coincided with an explosion of independent coffee shops, creating a starkly different landscape from the days when Vietnam consumed far less coffee than any other major growing country.

In 2007, Vietnam brewed under a million bags of coffee annually -- about half as much as Mexico and a third as much as Ethiopia.

In June, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (the most reliable source for current industry figures) scaled up its estimate to 2.5 million bags in the coming market year “due to the continued expansion of coffee shops and cafes”.

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