Food for Thought: The bittersweet past of Vietnamese coffee

Dive into the cultural, political, and personal significance of food

French colonizers gave rise to this iconic drink. Illustration: Alyssa Marie Umbal / The Peak

By: Nancy La, Staff Writer

Every morning, I would wake up to my mom making Vietnamese coffee. Thick, fudgy condensed milk softening the descent of black coffee as it dripped down from the metal phin filter definitely made for a spectacular sight. A quick stir of a spoon and a rich caramel-coloured concoction appeared. 

Just a small sip brings an explosion of sweetness, followed by a punch of bitterness. It is strong enough that, for a second or two, everything is right in the world. 

Despite all the warm and fuzzy feelings this drink brings, cà phê sữa, or Vietnamese coffee, is a product of 19th century French colonization.  The introduction of Robusta coffee trees led to an explosion in coffee exports in Vietnam. Robusta, with its higher caffeine content, has a stronger, more bitter flavour than the Arabica counterpart. 

Because of how strong Robusta coffee was, it had to be consumed with milk. But fresh milk is perishable and was practically nonexistent in Vietnam in the 1800s. Condensed milk became a popular replacement for the French colonizers in Vietnam. Its high sugar content acted as a preservative and its low water content extended shelf life. Coincidentally, sweetened condensed milk paired really well with bitter and acidic Robusta coffee.

Flash forward to the aftermath of the Vietnam War, which left the country on its knees. Aggressive agricultural reforms, such as the privatization of farm lands, pulled the country out of hot water and turned Vietnam into one of the largest coffee exporters in the world. Along with the export of beans came the export of culture — and Vietnamese coffee, with its addictive sweetness and high caffeine content, made its name as the iconic drink of Vietnam. 

Vietnamese coffee is quite popular in the Vancouver coffee scene. Several restaurants and coffee shops sell it in takeout bottles, such as Cà Phê and Obanhmi. But coffee culture is drastically different in Vietnam than it is here in Vancouver. There is no taking your coffee “togo.” Instead, customers park themselves in coffeehouses for at least two hours. Coffee drinking in Vietnam is a way for the locals to relax and enjoy others’ company, unlike here in the West where people mostly consume caffeine for work purposes. 

Growing up in Vietnam definitely shaped my enthusiasm for coffee as an adult, but for the longest time, I avoided drinking Vietnamese coffee. I’d been misled into thinking that adding any kind of milk or additives into coffee would make me an inferior coffee consumer, and only Westernized approaches to coffee brewing (such as pour-over and French press) were legitimate ways to brew coffee. It took years of re-education for me to get rid of that mindset, and it wasn’t until recently that I started to enjoy cà phê sữa again.

Seeing my mom making cà phê sữa every morning reminds me of my cultural roots. It also forces me to acknowledge the complicated history that comes along with it. As we enjoy Vietnamese coffee for all of its delicious glory, the history of the drink itself reminds us of the complexity of colonization, and a country’s resilience in embracing its scars and creating something beautiful out of it.

Recipe for cà phê sữa/Vietnamese coffee

2–3 tbsp condensed milk (depends on how sweet you take your coffee)

2 tbsp medium ground dark roasted coffee (Cafe du Monde or Trung Nguyen for authenticity, but any dark, strong coffee will do)

Hot water

Ice (optional)

Vietnamese phin filter* 

  1. Pour your condensed milk into a heatproof glass or mug. You’ll be brewing directly into this cup, so make sure it can handle hot water.
  2. Take the inner press of the phin filter out of the cup, then place your ground coffee inside. Place the press back on top. Some presses are designed to screw back into the cup, while others are just meant to be placed on top of the grounds. Don’t press too hard on the coffee bed, otherwise the water can’t make it through the coffee. Place the whole phin (minus the lid) on top of the cup you’re using with the condensed milk.
  3. Now’s the fun part! Take your boiling water and pour (carefully!) into the phin until the water reaches halfway up the sides of the phin. Place the lid on and wait for 40 seconds to a minute. This is called “blooming,” where you are removing the excess carbon dioxide in the coffee grounds to help with extraction later on.
  4. After the blooming water is completely absorbed into the grounds, pour hot water all the way up to the top of the phin, and place the lid back on. This is the brewing process and will take around 1–2 minutes.
  5. If you prefer your coffee stronger, you can add more water to the phin as it brews to increase the coffee and condensed milk ratio. 
  6. After you’re happy with how much coffee is in the cup, you can remove the phin and rest the filter on its own lid. 
  7. Take a spoon and stir the coffee and condensed milk together. Your kitchen should smell like caffeinated heaven at this point.
  8. If you want to take it hot, drink the coffee as is. If you want to make an iced version, pour the coffee you have into a glass with ice. 
  9. Enjoy!

*The phin filter comes in four parts: the round plate at the bottom, a cup, a press inside of the cup, and a lid. Made out of metal, it is reusable and gets very hot during the brewing process, so be careful. Phin filters can be found online, or in a Vietnamese supermarket.