Vietnamese Iced Coffee Recipe
Vietnam is a coffee-fueled nation with locals and visitors alike starting each day with a satisfying cup of ca phe. Though the tradition was imported by French colonists as early as the 18th century, the Vietnamese have refined it into a uniquely Southeast Asian experience.
So, what is Vietnamese coffee and how do you make it?
A Quick History of Vietnamese Iced Coffee
Coffee in Vietnam began in the 18th century when both French and Dutch colonial settlers brought the coffee phenomenon (and coffee plants themselves) along with them, starting large plantations in the process. Not only did they bring coffee, but the French also brought another element that was critical to the development of Vietnamese coffee: Sweetened condensed milk.
The colonists brought this ingredient along with them because they had trouble getting a steady supply of fresh milk in Vietnam, which was not a milk-dependent culture. It wasn’t long before it was discovered that the uniquely mountainous areas of the country, along with the multiple micro-climates that they created, were ideal for growing coffee plants. From there, the entire industry was off to the races.
However, while the French, in particular, were key players in establishing the coffee culture, the coffee industry didn’t leave when the colonial power did. Instead, the Vietnamese took things into their own hands. Over time, the Vietnamese have taken these “coffee roots” and have expanded so successfully that, at this point, they have become one of the top coffee-producing nations in the world.
The 3 Unique Elements Of 'Ca Phe Sua Da'
The make true authentic Vietnamese iced coffee, you'll need to ensure you get the following.
'The Phin' (Vietnamese Coffee Maker)
The first distinguishing feature of a cup of Vietnamese brew is the brewing apparatus known as the Phin. The phin is a decidedly low-tech and inexpensive device - essentially, a simple stainless steel coffee press that is placed atop your mug and acts like a combination of a drip filter and a French press.
Medium-coarse ground beans are added to the phin and weighed down with a thin top screen. Hot water is then added, a cover is placed over it to retain the steam, and a thick drop of filter coffee trickles through the grinds and into the waiting mug. An easy-to-follow video tutorial can be found below.
The process is not fast, and yields only a single cup at a time, but in many ways, this is part of the appeal. The brewing of Vietnamese coffee is a cathartic exercise with the slow pace stemming from the laid-back nature of its hot weather origins.
Need a phin? You can pick one up easily on Amazon here: The Vietnamese Coffee Filter Phin.
A second unique aspect of authentic Vietnamese joe is the use of Robusta beans for the dark-roast coffee that fuels the beverage. There are two species of coffee beans that make their way to grocery store shelves: Robusta and Arabica.
Though Robusta beans are easier to grow, possess a higher caffeine content, and generate better crema, they are widely ignored by higher-end brands. This is the result of an unfortunate bitter taste many a palate has described as “burnt rubber”. Couple this with the fact that most restaurants use a dark roast (such as a French roast) for their Vietnamese coffee drinks, and you can see why tradition relies on the concentrated milk flavors and sugars of sweetened thickened milk.
Vietnam, however, is a hotbed of Robusta growth. Indeed, Robusta plants make up 95% of their coffee plantations and they provide half of all Robusta grown in the world. It only makes sense that they would find a secret way to yield a delicious brew from this burnt rubber starting point.
'Robusta' is the answer when people ask "why is Vietnamese coffee so strong?"
Sweetened Condensed Milk
The secret, it turns out, is thick, sweet, delicious milk. This thick, syrupy beverage was developed to allow milk to endure long storage periods in the hot climate without refrigeration and has found widespread popularity and use throughout the region.
While an Arabica brew might taste cloyingly sweet in combination with the sugary condensed milk, it offers the perfect counterbalance to the bitter flavor of the Robusta beans. This is the distinctive combination that has brought coffee from Vietnam into the spot light.
In Northern Vietnam, this mixture is known as ca phe nau (brown coffee), while in Southern Vietnam it’s called ca phe sua (milk coffee). (A further subtlety: hot - just warm, after the lengthy brewing process - sweetened coffee is called cà phê sữa nóng. Served over ice, it's cà phê sữa đá.)
If black coffee is your preference, you may want to consider expanding your horizons with a trip to Vietnam, or settling for a very bitter morning cup of joe. Though if you like strong coffee, Vietnamese coffee beans create a wonderful brew made in a pour over, a French press, or used in other coffee drinks.
Vietnamese Iced Coffee Recipe
We’ve all been there, desperately awaiting a cool and creamy Vietnamese iced coffee after slurping down a fiery bowl of exotic, oriental spices. And let's face it, there is nothing like having an authentic Vietnamese style iced coffee! Here's the way to make one just like those you've enjoyed in your favorite Vietnamese restaurant.
- 2 tbsp sweetened condensed milk
- 2 tbsp ground coffee (such as Trung Nguyen Premium Blend coffee grounds or Café du Monde coffee with chicory)
- 1 cup boiling water
- 1 cup ice
- 1 Vietnamese phin coffee dripper
- 2 heatproof glasses
Bring your water to a boil, and then remove it from heat and let it sit for 60-90 seconds. This will let it cool to somewhere within the range of 195–205°F (boiling water will burn your grounds).
Put two tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk into an empty heatproof glass. The amount is really up to you and your own personal tastes, so if you like your coffee a little sweeter, feel free to add a touch more.
Add 2 tablespoons of ground coffee into your Phin. You want medium-coarse ground coffee similar to what you'd use in a french press brew.
Insert the top screen/metal filter on your Phin, push it down and give it a twist. The amount of pressure you use will affect the final brew, so make a note of how much you pushed.
Place the Phin on top of the glass with sweetened condensed milk.
Fill the Phin nearly up to the brim with hot water, and cover with the little top. Wait for three to five minutes for all the water to drip down through the filter and into the glass.
Use a spoon to stir and dissolve the sweetened condensed milk at the bottom of the cup.
Fill the second glass with ice and delicately drizzle your coffee concoction over it.
How To Make Vietnamese Coffee - Some Extra Brewing Tips
This Vietnamese coffee recipe seems simple enough; but there a few small tweaks that can make or break your brew. Keep the following tips in mind.
Preparing Your Water - You don't want boiling water, you want just off boiling water. Bring your water to a boil, and then remove it from heat and let it sit for about a minute to a minute and a half. This will let it cool to somewhere within the range of 195–205°F; boiling water will burn your grounds.
How much sweet milk to add? - The amount of sweetened condensed milk that you add is really up to you and your own personal tastes. If you like your coffee a little sweeter, feel free to add a touch more. However, be careful not to add too much, because this stuff is sweet!
Preparing Your Phin - Once you’ve added your coffee grounds you need to insert your metal filter - and this requires a little judgement. You don't want to apply too much pressure, but you want to apply enough. If you apply too much your coffee will under-extract; not enough and it will under-extract.
With a traditional Phin filter you tighten the press by screwing the top, but some phins don’t have a screw-on press. If you are using one of these, just press the filter down tightly and give it a little twist.
Brewing the coffee - There is nothing fancy to do here but wait and let the coffee drip. If you used the correct grind size, and you applied the right amount of pressure, it should take 3-5 minutes for the coffee drip.
Your first time: note down your grind, the pressure you used (e.g."pushed hard for 2 seconds and twisted") and then the time. If you get it wrong, you know how to adjust next time!
Stirring your coffee - Side note: If you're in the mood for hot coffee (cà phê sữa nóng in Vietnamese), this is where you stop. Because of the lengthy brewing process and the temperature difference between the coffee and condensed milk, cà phê sữa nóng isn't really hot, merely warm.