Vietnam Coffee (or Vietnamese Cafe Sua Da) has a long pedigree and can be found in many Vietnamese restaurants worldwide as well as Vietnam style coffee shops.
It's relatively easy to make, and I was thrilled to find all the basics in a local Vietnamese restaurant and store so I could learn how to make coffee the Vietnamese way.
The French brought many fine French foods with them to Vietnam in the 19th century, among them French bread and a love of good coffee as well as several types of coffee beans popular elsewhere.
Coffee in Vietnam (locals say: 'ca phe sua da' or 'cafe sua da') however adopted a few local characteristics, and the modern Vietnam Coffee drink is very popular there, and gaining a wider appreciation elsewhere, too.
It's a blend of strong Vietnamese coffee, made from domestically grown coffees, including Robusta Coffee Beans, filtered in a Vietnamese filter device, served with condensed, sweetened milk.
I usually drink it hot, but iced is also possible because the coffee is already strong.
If you want to know how to make Vietnam coffee, the shopping list is quite simple: but if you can't find your Vietnamese coffee products elsewhere, try Amazon.com. I was surprised to find the Vietnamese Coffee Maker was very affordable, as was the ground coffee.
1. Coffee: I used Trung Nguyen Vietnamese coffee - a strong blend of Robusta beans with a strong flavor. To my senses, it smelled and tasted like chocolate. My wife thought the smell more reminiscent of hazlenut.
Since my pack had only Vietnamese writing on it, I was unable to identify the product properly on their website, but I suspect it is Creative 1: Culi Robusta which identifies the chocolate aromas. The grind seems anything but fine... perhaps suitable for longer filtration times.
Having experienced cheaper and much nastier Robusta coffee, I was totally surprised by the depth of flavor, absence of bitterness or harshness, and how well it matched the method making the coffee.
2. Vietnam Coffee Maker: The Vietnamese coffee filter set or Phin. This device is deceptively simple. It looks like the top half of a Moka Pot. Take a look at the picture. Vietnam coffee is simply a drip coffee maker that utilizes heat, grinding and time to make a surprisingly strong and delicious coffee akin to Italian espresso in color, flavor, and serving.
The device is a simple metal water holder with a large rim, Trung Nguyen calls it a "Gravity Insert". Inside the device, you'll see that there are holes through which the water filters, and small circular cover that 'tamps' the coffee down. You will also see a separate cover to sit over the top of the device to retain the heat.
3. Condensed Milk: This product is available in many countries worldwide, though it has fallen out of favor in the West because of its high sugar and fat content. However, its sweetened and thickened texture makes it an ideal match for deserts and Vietnam Coffee.
You'll also need boiling water, a regular sized cup or glass (it's not particularly HOT but make sure your glass is tempered just in case!), a teaspoon, and about 15 minutes!
You can watch the following video to get a better idea of the process of making Vietnam coffee.
If you've just bought the coffee maker, as I had, it needs rinsed to clean off any grime or dust. You'll also need fresh tap water to boil and a clean cup, saucer and teaspoon (or two). No additional cookies are needed as the drink is quite sweet.
Step 1: Boil the water in the kettle or on the stove. Once boiled, do not reboil the water as this kind of coffee needs hot water, not boiling water. You're not cooking the coffee grinds!
Step 2: Pour the condensed milk into the bottom of the cup or glass. I usually add about 1 or 2 teaspoons of the milk into the bottom of the cup. Do this first.
Step 3: Place the coffee phin on top of the coffee cup.
Step 4: Remove the circular tamp from the unit, and spoon in about one tablespoon of coffee into the bottom of the phin. Don't worry about using too much coffee! This coffee handles well.
Step 5: Tamp the coffee lightly with the circular tamp to press it down. Then leave the tamp sitting on the coffee to prevent the coffee swelling too much once water is introduced. For the screw-type phin, you'll need to screw down the tamp itself.
Step 6: The unit is quite small, so just fill a little hot water to soak into the grounds.
Step 7: Once absorbed, fill the drip filter with more hot water. It should be quite hot (96C~100C) and cover the unit. You may want to check on it... it is a slow dripper.
Step 8: You will need to wait four or five minutes. If you have the set up right, the coffee will filter much slower than even a larger drip coffee maker.
But the wait is worth it. The resulting coffee drink is the closest consistency to espresso I've ever come across: it's dark, aromatic, flavorful, thick and delicious.
Vietnamese Coffee is perhaps one of the more localized variations of coffees in Asia. But I highly recommend trying it in a restaurant before you decide whether you like it or not. The first cup I had was great, the second not so good, but the third or fourth cup I was hooked.
Making Vietnamese Style Coffee is particularly easy, but better suited to entertaining or when you have a little extra time to kill. In summer, you can simply pour the sweetened coffee drink onto ice cubes. Since the water's already cooled, you'll have a great ice coffee, sweet and refreshing.
PurelyCoffeeBeans highly recommends making Vietnam Coffee. I've just finished one as I was writing this! One resource that describes the process well with pictures and shows several different kinds of coffee phins is the Vietnam Travel Website: How to make Vietnamese Coffee.