What if I told you that the best coffee I have ever had was instant? Well, not entirely instant. It was a mixture. A bit of this, a bit of that, roasted with a touch of fish sauce and served cold over condensed milk and ice. Now, before you mocha-blooded purists waste any stanky breath tossing me in with the un-educated rif raf – let me tell you a couple of things about cà phê sữa dá.
Cà phê sữa dá was invented in the Great Arabica Drought of 1954… Or maybe I have absolutely no idea how cà phê sữa dá was invented – but whoever is responsible must have been one batty customer. Every cà phê sữa dá sipping patron has a different tale of the origins of this liquid gold. Some say it emerged during the American War when supplies were low and the people had to make do with what scraps they could find. Others say it was the first invention of the makers of Choco Pie, but the rights were sold to the Vietnamese when the mediocre snacks market really started to take off. Whatever the origins, those who drink it have done so since before they can remember and live for its intoxicatingly, buttery taste.
A dear friend in Hoian, Vietnam, first introduced me to true cà phê sữa dá on the morning before I started work at an NGO in the area. “It’s very strong”, she warned me. “You should only have one a day”. Please, I thought, if I wanted a parental warning I would have rented Teletubbies: Spring Break, now stop being a tree stump and hit me with a triple shot of your strongest. Stat! Four hours later I had finished all my work for the week and although I think I went into cardiac arrest 3 times and was hypersensitive to light, I was hooked.
For the month that followed my mornings played out in the same beautiful routine: rising at 6am and flooring my bicycle to the cafe where I would sit with my friend Van and sip on cà phê sữa dá. The owner of the cafe would smile when I ordered in pig-vietnamese, “mowt-ca-fay-soo-da-choo-min”, then a few moments later he would shuffle back to the table with two glass cups wearing tin, filter hats. The best part of the whole process was waiting for the coffee to drip down. “If you are impatient” said Van “the coffee won’t taste as good”. Her advice was sound. On the days when I couldn’t handle the wait I would tap the lid of the filter like myself at 4 years old tapping on the zoo enclosure of the marsupial mouse. And on these mornings the coffee, like the uninterested mouse, just wouldn’t appear and I would sit there with a surly frown, wishing we had gone to Lego Land instead.
I know it sounds foolish, but cà phê sữa dá can sense anxiety. It’s as if it knows your already agitated system can’t take the extra caffeine hit and only gives you a few tiny mouthfuls to keep you sane. But if you are calm and patient the coffee flows like a gentle sprinkler. The best days were when I brought along a book and after loosing myself in a few chapters I would look up to find a full, rich cup of coffee waiting to be enjoyed.
In traditional cafes the coffee will be served separate to the ice. When the time comes to mix, every customer has a different technique. I liked to place the cubes in one-by-one and then stir until the coffee went glossy. Others exercised a more robust ‘pour and shake’ action. No matter what time of day, the cafe was full of the ‘tinkle’ of spoons against glass. The gentle chime was like a lullaby for patrons carefully tending to their precious cups.
My fondest memories of Vietnam are in that cafe, reading a magazine in a language I can’t understand and gently stirring my cà phê sữa dá between sips. Sometimes it is the simplest things that have the greatest impact.